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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.

“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.

But knowing this, and acting upon it – both as individuals and in urban policy – have not proved to be the same thing. “Historically, the attitude toward the importance of green space has been basically to consider the presence of greenery as an aesthetic nicety, rather than as something of fundamental importance to people’s psychological state,” says Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo who studies the psychology of place.

Close proximity to nature has been linked to healthier babies, less lonely and depressed seniors, and more productive workers. In part, that’s because people naturally hang outside more and get exercise – behaviour that makes communities more cohesive.

Urban neighbourhoods with more green space have lower crime levels and interpersonal violence, according to research from the University of Washington. The study shows that public housing residents with trees and natural landscapes nearby reported 25 per cent fewer acts of domestic violence and aggression, as well as roughly 50 per cent fewer total crimes than other buildings with sparse green space.

Green space doesn’t just help people shake the blues: According to a major British study, people who live near forests or the ocean live longer than those in urban centres, even adjusting for other factors.

Prof. Ellard, who is working on a book on place and psychology, recently conducted a set of experiments in New York, Berlin and Mumbai. People were asked to walk a specific route while giving self-assessments of their moods and feelings, while their heart rate and sweat levels were measured for signs of stress.

In all three cities, the findings were the same: In natural environments or parks, people’s stress levels dropped, even more than their self-assessments predicted. It didn’t take a Central Park-sized green space, either. New Yorkers received a positive effect just by peering over a fence into a community garden that had unexpectedly closed for the day. In Mumbai, the green space was a garden behind a psychiatric hospital where study subjects could see patients being wheeled by in gurneys, but the positive benefits of nature persisted. (By comparison, when confronted by a street with a blank, windowless building, people instinctively walked more quickly.)

Building ‘custodianship’

The trick is to include nature as a fundamental part of cities – not a tacked on afterthought. What most urban ecologists call for is a larger rethink of cities as natural ecosystems with their own metabolism – a blend of natural space, wildlife and built structures, not unlike a river with a beaver dam.

Instead of adding green to urban blueprints, they argue for the “biophilic city,” an urban space that is natural in its own right, with green included from the ground up.

Features such as living walls, in which greenery is planted vertically, or cookie-cutter parks may amount to little more than green-washing, argues Joseph Juhasz, a professor emeritus in the architecture faculty at the University of Colorado at Denver.

“They dress up the city, grow cucumbers on the wall, but they don’t deal with the fundamental problem – we have to build in a manner in which the site does not dictate the building.”

Like many environmentalists, Dr. Juhasz says urban planners too often settle for short-term design that leaves a long-term footprint. “We have lost a sense of custodianship. Will their great-grandchildren be happy with what they have built?”

If anything, skyscrapers grow like weeds, with one condo development sprouting beside another. Still, many urban centres are taking a new look at the nature that already exists inside their borders, focusing on how to both protect and develop it. In many cases, it is about being newly innovative with space that already exists. In Birmingham, England, for instance, city planners have mapped 200 kilometres of creeks flowing though the city, often concealed by development, with the hopes of redesigning culverts and other structures to make them more accessible to residents.

In Detroit, where a steep economic downturn has created wide, empty urban spaces, planners are exploring how to redevelop those abandoned sites to maximize nature, including creating a large urban farm. Wellington, New Zealand, has an enviable 500-acre nature sanctuary in the middle of the city, but its native bird population has been decimated. To bring them back, the city installed pest-proof fences around the sanctuary; the birds, including parrots, are returning to adjacent neighbourhoods, expanding beyond the park. (As part of its blue belt, Wellington also created a protected “snorkel trail” on its waterfront.)

Other urban centres are already well ahead, especially in Europe, where cities compete to be named Europe’s Green Capital. Oslo has earned the title: Two-thirds of the Norwegian capital exists in a protected forest, and 94 per cent of its residents live within 300 metres of a park or green space. Singapore is renowned for the vertical gardens in its skyscrapers, and the city transformed a former channel into a meandering river.

As cities continue to sprawl, ecologists, such as Lenore Fahrig at Carleton University, suggest that the principle of proximity to green space should be essential to neighbourhood planning. Cities have tended to put roads where they are cheapest to build, which is usually around a greenbelt or along a river, the places where “they have the most damaging impact.” Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway is a classic example.

Roads and the pollution they create may decimate urban wildlife populations and disturb the migratory patterns that allow those populations to exist in different parts of the city. She suggests creating compact clusters of homes separated by small amounts of green space, but linked by a larger park, with an even larger natural space, such as a lake or forest, a short bus ride away. Cities would maximize public transit to reach those spaces, especially on weekends, so residents would have trees outside their door, a park a walk away, and green space for the Saturday afternoons.

“If we get that connection on a day-to-day basis in small ways,” she says, “we don’t have to jump in our cars to find it.” That’s also better for the environment, she points out. “The less we are driving back and forth from where we live and the country, the less we are contributing to climate change.”

Prof. Beatley suggests that this kind of shift in thinking requires a more abstract conversation, including an attempt to quantify the economic benefits of nature in actual dollars. How will a city measure the level of “biophilia?” (Perhaps, Prof. Beatley suggests, by the volume of bird song in its neighbourhoods.)

He has proposed thinking of nature consumption the way one thinks of food. The annual trip to Costa Rica, for example, would be a decadent cheesecake. The cottage might be fish and chips. But the everyday nature in what is increasingly humanity’s natural environment should be the largest helping – the fruits and vegetables. “That has to make up the bulk of the urban nature environment,” he says, “and that’s what’s going to make us happy and healthier.”

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