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Professor Root Gorelick makes nature part of his everyday life, paddling his canoe to work along Ottawa’s Rideau River. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Professor Root Gorelick makes nature part of his everyday life, paddling his canoe to work along Ottawa’s Rideau River. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

How green cities are better for us physically and psychologically Add to ...

Root Gorelick is cagey about sharing details of his work commute; he doesn’t want a sudden uptick in early-morning traffic scaring off the otters. Or the minks and duck families.

To get to his office in the biology building at Carleton University, Prof. Gorelick rides his bike from his Ottawa home down to the Rideau River, pulling his canoe on a trailer behind him. He then paddles 25 minutes to the university, a route he typically takes each spring when the ice is just breaking up on the river and as late as Christmas Eve, with the snow falling.

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“You lose complete track of time on the river,” Prof. Gorelick says. “All the stress gets erased.”

To his left, up the bank from the river and through the trees, harried drivers trapped in stop-and-go traffic on Riverside Drive might tell him to go dunk himself. No one’s playing peek-a-boo with tail-slapping beavers on that commute to work.

If Canadian city-dwellers don’t notice nature in their midst, maybe it’s because they have been conditioned not to. Cities are about concrete, pollution and traffic jams, not kayaking and ducks. You go to the cottage for a bit of fresh air on the weekend, then brace for another week on the urban island, spending too many hours in a fluorescent-lit cubicle in a forest of other cubicles.

But a growing body of research suggests the cost: Cities are the main human ecosystem – 60 per cent of us now live in metropolitan areas with more than 100,000 people – but they also make us sick, depressed and anxious. By contrast, being around blue water, green trees and space makes us healthier, more productive, even more generous – a positive effect known as “biophilia.”

Asks Lisa Nisbet, an assistant professor at Trent University who studies nature and psychology, “Why would we think it’s okay to breathe in a lot of pollution five days a week, and just get our healthy air on the weekends or vacation?”

So how do we build an everyday environment with the healing power of a cottage escape? “How do you create cities that profoundly foster that connection with the outdoors?” asks Tim Beatley , a professor of urban and environmental planning in the school of architecture at the University of Virginia, who has written several books on the subject. “How do you create the sense of living in a garden and a forest?”

The need for ‘Vitamin G’

For her graduate work at the University of Washington, Judith Heerwagen, an evolutionary psychologist, studied the living conditions of the macaque monkeys at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. At the time, the zoo was bringing in biologists and botanists to design better landscapes for the animals, including an African savannah where several species might live together as they did in the wild. The effect on the monkeys, she says, was noticeable: They became less aggressive, healthier.

“It was just an ‘aha!’ moment,” says Dr. Heerwagen, now an environmental consultant in Seattle. “We do a better job building zoos for animals than buildings for people.”

If the hubbub of cities heightens anxiety – as recent German research suggests – then nature is Valium. There’s a near-universal calm in the rustle of wind in the trees and the steady slosh of an ocean tide. In the Netherlands, researchers call it Vitamin G, as in “green.”

Human beings, Dr. Heerwagen says, prefer a sense of both prospect and refuge; we like to see a wide view while being protected, like standing under a tree staring out at a lake – possibly, he suggests, a leftover from our earliest ancestors, whose living conditions were far more unpredictable.

Why else would we spend our vacation dollars to lie on a beach by the sea? Or invest in cottage by a lake? Or go to sleep with a soundtrack of waves? According to Statistics Canada, in 2012, Canadians spent $3.5-million travelling to a cottage, trailer park or camping ground.

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