May 14, 2014
The urge to get out of the city and into nature is common among city dwellers. I know I’m not the only one who spends my weekdays staring at a screen, trying to focus on, say, writing an article, while at random intervals my brain begins to loop images of tempting countryside locales to retreat to on the weekend. But why do we think we have to travel so far from home to find nature? Is the binary between cities and nature a real thing?
The perceived divide between nature and humans has a long history, going back to the building of city walls to separate the wildness and the villains (or in middle English, villeins, meaning peasants) away from the civilised (from civis – town dweller). As Freud put it, “the principal task of civilisation, its actual raison d’être, is to defend us against nature”. But as the environmental impacts of our lifestyles become more apparent, that sentiment could be flipped to suggest that the containment of the majority of humanity in cities may be valuable in defending nature against humans.
Either way, this tendency to create an opposition between nature and humanity could be considered part of the separatist mentality that has divorced us from the rest of the natural world and led us to participate in environmentally destructive practices in the first place. Yes, cities are human-made, but surely that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily unnatural. The materials that we build our cities with, and the air and water that flows through them, are all of nature. And we, the city’s builders – aren’t we natural in our flesh and blood?
Though we seem to forget it, we humans are part of nature and dependent on it for all our endeavours – for our food, water and air; for the mining of minerals for our iPhones; for the harvesting of wind, sun and coal for our energy; for the oil we use in, well, everything. But beyond the material, our relationship with the rest of the natural world has strong emotional, psychological and physiological qualities. Numerous studies have found that people who live in urban areas with greater amounts of green spaces show higher levels of happiness and wellbeing and lower mental distress. Dr. Richard Fuller, who led the University of Queensland’s research on this question in 2013 found that “[p]atients in rooms with a view of trees spend less time in hospitals, require fewer strong painkillers and have fewer postsurgical complications than those whose rooms overlook a brick wall.”
Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital has been rebuilt with these theories in mind. Opening in 2011, the new hospital was redesigned to ensure 80 percent of all patient rooms have views of the surrounding parklands. And in case that wasn’t enough, a large aquarium and a meerkat enclosure have also been developed to further integrate nature into the hospital.
Pause for a moment and take a walk, taking in the non-human life around us in our cities. Despite the ‘unnatural’ feel of many of today’s cities, they are home to a surprising biodiversity of life, all of which is integral to sustaining wider ecosystems. As Richard Louv describes in his book about the increase in ‘nature-deficit disorder’ Last Child in the Woods, “on its face, New York City may not appear natural, but it does contain all manner of hidden, self-organising wild places, from the organisms secreted within the humus of Central Park to the hawks that circle above the Bronx. In this sense, a city complies with the broadest laws of nature; it is natural (as a machine is part of nature), but wild in its parts.”
Surrounding the Royal Children’s Hospital, for example, is Melbourne’s oldest and largest park. At 188 hectares, Royal Park is a major green lung for the city. Mature eucalypts, native grasslands and wildflowers, wetland, and rocky crops provide habitat for birds, small mammals, reptiles and insects. Having all this situated right on the edge of the CBD helps counteract the urban heat island, which means Melbourne’s city centre can be up to four degrees warmer than its surrounds. Unfortunately as the impacts of climate change intensify, this phenomenon will only become more exacerbated. It would be fair to assume that dedicated green spaces in and around our cities will become increasingly more valued for the myriad of benefits they provide. On the contrary, however, inner city parklands like Royal Park are often considered ‘development opportunities’, and are regularly under threat (e.g. by projects such as the East-West Toll Road).
Raising consciousness about our complete dependence – physical, emotional, psychological and physiological – on the health of ecosystems around us can indeed be difficult in the heart of a thriving metropolis that gives the impression of supplying all of our needs. In Melbourne, many residents may be proud of the city, its festivals and multicultural origins, but as Adam Grubb of Very Edible Gardens observed to me, “very few will be connected to it in such a way as to appreciate the ecological and social histories out of which the landscape was formed and peopled; or appreciate the local conditions and ecological and horticultural potentials of place; or even recognise the edible plants we walk past, the latter being a very fundamental way to feel connected to place – to have it feed you.”
Developing stronger and healthier relationships with the natural world around us is a mutually beneficial endeavour; enhancing our own health and happiness, while learning to value and sustain the wider ecosystems around us. Breaking down the mental barriers between humans and the rest of nature isn’t necessarily about getting out to the countryside. There are plenty of opportunities to reconnect with the ‘other natures’ around us, here at the heart of our cities. In the long term this involves designing buildings and urban landscapes that foster stronger connections between human and non-human life. But there are many things you can do on an individual day-to-day basis. For example, growing your own organic vegetable garden creates an opportunity to dig your hands into the soil and learn how to work together with the insects, fungi and other critters to make food happen. Spend some time with your head in the clouds by becoming a member of The Cloud Appreciation Society, or watch 30,000 bats take flight as part of the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology (ARCUE)’s monthly bat count at Yarra Bend Park. Wake at dawn to follow foxes around the Merri Creek, and while you’re up, why not get to know your local creek or river by walking from its source to mouth.
It really doesn’t take much to become what Robert MacFarlane refers to in his book, Wild Places, as explorers of “the undiscovered country of the nearby”.
 Freud, S. (1927) “The Future of an Illusion”, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol 21, p. 15
 Louv, R. (2005) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder, Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, p. 8.
 Macfarlane, R. (2007) The Wild Places, London: Granta, p. 225
Illustration for Assemble Papers by Marc Martin.