Contributor: Christine Daigle
According to the United Nations, more than 50% of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, with a projected increase to almost 70% by 2050. While urban living may differ significantly between a megalopolis like Tokyo or Mumbai and a small size city like St. Catharines, it remains that for urban dwellers, keeping in touch with nature can be challenging.
In the Niagara region, we are fortunate to always be somewhat close to the countryside with easy access to trails in Short Hills Provincial Park, as well as other fields, orchards and vineyards, and lakes Ontario and Erie. It is, perhaps, debatable how “natural” these sites are given that there is a lot of human management of land that goes into their upkeep, however. Even Short Hills, which appears to be the most natural of all the sites listed, has seen some human intervention in creating and maintaining the trails, through use or management.
In smaller cities, those who own or rent a house sometimes have access to a yard that they can use to engage in vegetable gardening. Other small city dwellers, however, may not have this kind of access and their contact with nature may be limited to the plants and flowers they keep in balcony planters, or to the city parks they visit in order to enjoy some grass, trees, and birds. Inhabitants of large cities and megalopolises may not have access to any natural spaces at all other than city parks. Some individuals never go out of their cities—whether for lack of interest, lack of financial means, or both—and their only experience with nature is through manicured city-managed areas such as parks. To remedy this, “regreening” has become an urban strategy of restoring degraded or barren landscapes to a more naturalized state using trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. However, and despite many cities’ efforts to “regreen” themselves, not everyone considers green spaces to be important for their citizens, thereby limiting access to nature for a great number of city dwellers. For those, the only access might be through the scruffy trees growing through sidewalk cement. They may also have a mediated access to nature in the form of nature shows they watch on television (in which nature is presented as pristine and distant) or newscasts that speak of nature mainly when some catastrophic event is unfolding—such as a hurricane, a volcanic eruption, or floods—thereby portraying nature as dangerous and threatening.
If the connection to nature is very tenuous or inexistent for many urban dwellers, how are the calls for the need to care for nature and adopt more sustainable ways expected to be heard? An expression coined by Latin poet Sextus Propertius captures this well: “Loin des yeux, loin du coeur” (literally: far from sight, far from heart). It is difficult to care for beings one has no contact with. Calls for saving the oceans and their inhabitants will not be heard by the person whose only contact with them are via the can of tuna they consume or the goldfish they once had as a child. Likewise, environmentalists’ pleas to save remote or even unknown species from extinction due to hunting, overharvesting, urban expansion, pollution, or the introduction of invasive species in some areas are unlikely to be heard by those with little or no contact with nature.
If our goal is to co-exist on the planet with other species while not driving them to extinction, leaving behind a world that future generations can enjoy—the standard definition of sustainability—then we need to better understand why this is such a pressing issue. Reconnecting with nature, experiencing it directly and exposing ourselves to its beauty, its generosity, as well as its annoyances—such as the bugs that may want to feed from us as we enjoy a stroll in a provincial park—is key to understanding the need to change our exploitative approach to nature. To do so, we need to individually and collectively make efforts to reconnect to nature so that we may develop a better understanding of it, its innerworkings, our place in it, and how to care for it.