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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 ...

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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