By Dom Nozzi
July 18, 2004
Introducing nature into cities nearly always degrades the human habitat.
I say this about nature in cities even though I am an advocate for urban open space.
After all, I have a degree in environmental science, so I understand the importance academically.
When I was a child, the most profound, critically important, priceless experience I had was to be able to play in the neighborhood woodlands. I did that ALL the time. The main inspiration for my becoming a city planner was that I wanted to be in a job in which I could work to see that future generations of kids had that same opportunity, as NOT having that experience would lead to an awful, sterile, barren childhood. Indeed, a study once looked at a HUGE number of variables to determine if there was a correlation between childhood experiences and wanting to conserve the environment as an adult. The study found that there was one variable that stood out head and shoulders above the others. Adult conservationists typically were able to engage in unstructured, unsupervised play in natural areas near their home when they were kids.
Because of the above, I remain a leading advocate for establishing an urban greenway trail systems in cities. Such a system is the only effective way I know of to allow kids (and
adults) to have easy walking/bicycling access to the natural world, on a regular basis, right outside their back door. Nothing is better able to create the army of conservationists our environment needs.
I would therefore hold my strong desire for urban open space up against anyone else with the expectation that my desire would be stronger. I am intensely supportive of URBAN open space.
Note that I say urban open space. This is a crucial qualifier. The urban habitat (in contrast to the suburban and rural) MUST be compact and walkable if it is to be a high quality urban habitat. That means that if we are to introduce nature into the urban world, we must be as careful as if we were planning to introduce human activity into a wildlife habitat.
In the former case, the introduced nature MUST be compact and walkable. In other words, small, vacant woodlots, plazas, squares, piazzas, utility corridors, creek corridors, etc. are perfectly compatible with walkability. One can easily walk from origin A to destination B without an enormous amount of physical exertion. By contrast, putting a golf course or even a 50-acre park in the middle of a city creates an UNwalkable condition, as the distance between A and B becomes too excessive to easily walk (Central Park in NYC can work because NYC has extremely high densities and a quality transit system that means you can easily walk or ride to all of your daily needs along the PERIMETER of the park without having to cross it on foot).
In other words, big open spaces in a lower density community would create unwalkable spaces that would degrade the urban habitat in such cities.
The key for most cities is to preserve and create URBAN open spaces while retaining walkability. Greenway trails that wind their way through neighborhoods and small parks are compatible.
Big, unwalkable parks are not.