Why does nature matter in our newly shaped urban world?
Despite this apparent progress, all is not well in our cities. Growing urban decay and increased levels of poverty plague many cities across the world. Inadequate and even non-existent access to basic services, together with the resultant social degradation, violence and crime are just some of the daily challenges people face. Coupled with this is the serious threat posed by climate change—to urban infrastructure, quality of life and entire urban systems—in rich and poor countries alike.
All our advances and changes are not always translating into more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities. On the surface we are more connected and living in closer proximity than ever before, but in many ways, we have erected barriers between ourselves and nature.
It is my opinion that we can only reach our noble global goals for sustainable urban development if we plan, work and grow with nature. By valuing, nurturing and restoring this essential connection between nature and ourselves within our cities, we can harness the solutions provided by nature along with the incredible innovations made by humanity to shape a strong and resilient urban future.
It’s important not to forget that we are inherently part of nature, and that nature’s resources are often the very building blocks used to construct our highways, skyscrapers and ports. We can never completely exclude nature from cities.
One way of looking at our engagement with nature is to consider the numerous and diverse benefits it provides to urban communities. In such analyses, we soon realize that these benefits are seldom, if ever, only one-dimensional.
Rivers of opportunity
Consider the multiple cross-cutting benefits that a healthy, well-managed river ecosystem running through an expanding city in a developing country can offer. The river would not only provide clean drinking water and fishing grounds for the adjacent communities, but also the water needed for cooking and cleaning. Safe access to the river banks can also offer the community myriad social benefits linked to cultural, spiritual and recreational pursuits. Economic benefits would relate to job creation, transport, flood retention—the list goes on. Add to these the obvious benefits for the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems dependent on such a river system, and one soon realizes the irreplaceable value and richness nature adds to city life.
There is also an emerging body of knowledge that demonstrates the benefits nature provides to human health and well-being. In this context, it is often less important whether a green urban space or ecosystem is totally indigenous or instead introduced. Far more important is the fact that people have easy, safe and equitable access to these green spaces. Benefits of being surrounded by nature range from individual physical, mental and spiritual health to community health and well-being, even contributing on a broader scale to the social reconstruction of poor and crime-stricken communities.
Advantages related to early childhood development, including cognitive and social development, are also starting to crystallize, and many scientists from various disciplines agree that we are only starting to understand the value of living, working and growing with nature.