I'm listening to journalist and author Richard Louv open the Congress for New Urbanism conference in Salt Lake City, and I've had a mini-aha moment. To understand this, you need to know that I'm in the communications business: a marketer, working with the owners and general managers of medium sized businesses to tell their true brand stories. (Yes, we practice true story marketing because marketing that's bullshit is broken.)
The other piece of context is that I am happily and determinedly childless; except for our two dogs Alfy and Mondoe, seen on the front of this very site. (And the ones that follow in the pawsteps of Flick and Finkel; but that's another story.)
And that's key, because what I've just seen in Richard Louv's presentation is a way to garner a larger slice of mindshare about what it takes to create great places. Call me superficial (and slow) but because of my distaste-for-children-lens on the world, it's taken me a while to see that kids are the key - for others. And in the work we do for pioneering urban design and town planning firm RobertsDay, creating and presenting their thought leadership pieces not only to their industry but also the community at large, focusing on the kids as well as the need for a great Australian housing diet, could mean the difference between a narrow audience and a wide one; a force for change and a ripple.
But back to Louv.
Our divorce from nature
Louv talks passionately about our divorce from nature - and the problem with that. (Having just picked up a copy of his book The Nature Principle, I'm sure I will find out just how bad that divorce is, and what it's costing us.)
For children, the stats are clear. Within three decades we've seen the virtual disappearance of children's play in the natural world, he says. And why? Fear of strangers is one thing and it permeates everything. However the fact is that the number of children being abducted has been going down for thirty years as has violence towards children. You wouldn't think so though, if you're watching the news. And Louv cites the 24 hour news cycle as a key factor in our being conditioned to be afraid.
The cost to all of us of our divorce from nature is staggering. But for children in particular, there's been a rise in ADD, depression, inability to experience pleasure in play, and inability to visualise. Preschoolers are apparently the fastest growing market for anti depressants, and in a recent study (details of which haven't noted down) 7 year old children demonstrated an executive function (the ability to be your own boss and do the right thing) of a 5 year old of the 50s.
Louv also bemoans the fact that our work in the office staring at a computer screen blocking off senses is the very definition of less alive. You think we have only five sense? Today scientists conservatively say we have ten; some others claim we have 30. That's a lot of life we're blocking out.
With this in mind, Louv asserts that everything in the next 40 years will change - and that the inclusion of nature in our urban environment will accelerate and in fact, is already happening. For instance, workplaces are designed with nature embedded in them; we have urban agriculture popping up all over the place. People are recognising that it's not only wilderness that's important but also urban nature.
Add to this the rise of the family nature club - multiple families going on a hike together - and the fact that some pediatricians are now prescribing "green exercise" and you have the beginnings of a whole new constituency for new urban developments.
And here we come to Louv's message (or one of them), and my a-ah moment. "Build a constituency out there that cares about something even bigger," he says. "Use what's happening to our children as a doorway."
Antidote to depression
This morning Andres Duany talked about the negative pall cast by reaching successive envronmental tipping points; the feeling of 'it's too late', so it was interesting to hear Louv pick up on the same theme. He told a story of listening to a 20 year old who said: "If you're young, all my life I've been told its too late." That is the dominant message. And where is the hope in that?.
Louv notes that as of 2008, more people around the world live in the cities than the country. (Just another aspect of Duany's contention that the new century began in 2008 by the way - read more in my lean urbanism post here.) He argues that one of two things will happen: that the fragile connection people have with nature will sever forever OR we will see the beginning of a new kind of city; cities that are engines of biodiversity.
He calls for a 'home grown national park' created by planting indigenous plants in our own backyards ad attracting the insects and birds and animals back to our cities; bringing nature home. He cites the example of cradle-to-cradle exponent William McDonagh and the Spanish hospital that not only has a green wall, solar panels and a vertical food wall, but also incubates and regularly releases an endangered butterfly.
"One building can't save the world," he says, "but here's one that's not only saving energy but also producing human energy and also giving birth."
"We must create nature in our cities," he exhorts.