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‘Greenscaping’ for Health

Neal Peirce / Oct 14 2011

For Release Sunday, October 16, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWhat if we got really serious about “greenscaping” our neighborhoods, towns and cities — bringing them closer, by plantings, building design, nurturing parks both great and small, to the natural world that preceded them?

It may be much more important than we think. Journalist-visionary Richard Louv argues that in an age of overwhelming technology, as we dive ever deeper “into a sea of circuitry,” we need more than ever to relate to the natural world. And that we embrace “The Nature Principle,” title of his latest book (subtitled “Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder,” published by Algonquin Books).

Louv’s earlier book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” sparked creation of an international movement to reconnect children with the natural world.

Now he’s taking the case a step further — to suggest that all of us need deeper, daily contact with the nature to “feel fully alive” — to shake free of our own “nature deficit disorder,” to expand our senses, to reignite our sense of awe. In the process, he argues, we’ll not just be freer of the modern tangle of technology’s constant drumbeat. We also tap nature’s power to calm and focus our minds, improve our physical and spiritual health, boost our mental acuity, and do better both in interpersonal relationships and careers.

Cities themselves, Louv argues, need to pay more attention to the Nature Principle — “Vitamin N” — if they’re to be livable, sustaining, successful homes for growing majorities of mankind.

Even in the densest cities, he notes, there can opportunities for islands of green and opportunities for us to relate to animals, both domestic and wild.

Some of the possibilities are big and dramatic — not just cities’ famed great urban parks but their initiatives of recent years to plant trees by numbers reaching, nationwide, several millions. And the expansive open lands initiatives of such groups such as the Trust for Public Land, the Seattle Region’s Cascade Agenda, and the Catawba Land Conservancy’s “Carolina Thread Trail” (being developed across the Charlotte, N.C., metro region).

But now it’s time, Louv says, to think of entire cities as gardens. He suggests replacing our cities’ thousands of redundant shopping centers with “eco-villages” that include parks with native vegetation and connections to wildlife corridors. And that we celebrate and expand the nation’s growing wave of urban agriculture, now sprouting in greenhouses and backyards, on rooftops and balconies. Plus the start of farm operations in abandonment-hit cities such as Detroit.

Aggressive greenscaping, he argues, helps clean the air, reduce surface heat, retain and filter water — all important for our physical health.

The good news here is that the path to more “natural” communities is opening up in cities nationwide. More and more are becoming receptive to citizen beekeeping — even urban chicken raising.

And there’s also growing acceptance for the entire idea of regaining the city ground lost to invasive species or low-grade development. It’s a concept that the great Portland, Ore., naturalist Mike Houck has championed for years with his impassioned calls for “wilding” cities — restoring habitat for native species and enabling paths for wildlife and plants through the the entire urban region.

(Twenty-one years ago Houck was already treating me, with lent binoculars, to the site of Portland’s two Great Blue Heron “rookeries” and the splendor of the adult birds’ six-foot wing spreads, resplendent with their long plumes and blue-grey plumage, as they soared over the Willamette River and past downtown skyscrapers).

But while Houck, in 1990, was an outlier, today it’s far easier to argue, as Louv does so well, that nature-endowed, restored and thoughtfully renewed cities are elixir for our spirits — and our health.

Right in time, another new book provides ample evidence on the “how to’s.” Published by the Island Press, it’s titled “Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability.”

The book’s editors are physicians — one in family medicine, another in internal medicine, and one in pediatrics. But all three (Andrew Dannenberg, Howard Frumkin and Richard Jackson) focus on preventive medicine and public health.

They argue that “the modern America of obesity, depression and loss of community has not ‘happened’ to us; rather we legislated, subsidized and planned it.” And how? With such steps, they argue, as super-highways that separated communities and “turned downtowns into no-man’s lands.” Their book embraces new directions with chapters ranging from “Community Design for Physical Activity” to “Mental Health and the Built Environment,” even “Resiliency to Disasters.”

My guess is that seriously combining those “how to’s” with the inspiration of Richard Louv’s “Nature Principle” will be a winner for any American city — and most especially the health and well-being of its people.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

2 Comments

  1. rex burkholder
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Louv’s book IS inspirational. In addition to saving land as greenspace (over $400 Million has been raised from voters in the Portland Metro region so far), we are getting people OUT into these green areas through a combination of strong regional conservation education effort (collaboration of over 100 government/school/community groups, including regional funding of outdoor school-week long experiential science learning for 6th graders) and a commitment to make it possible for everyone in the region to bike or walk to quality habitat. Plus lots of restoration and volunteer opportunities. check out theintertwine.org to see our vision of an integrated approach to good urbanism, which means green urbanism!

  2. Marc
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I think Louv’s ideas are mostly bunk. This nation has already been decanting itself into the “wilderness” for 60 years now and that’s only exacerbated environmental destruction and social/cultural isolation.

    Most Americans are NOT disconnected from nature. Most Americans live in suburbs or exurbs, and greenery is abundant in the suburbs – even the strip malls have their green “nature band aids.” Deer, foxes, coyotes, falcons, moose and other wildlife are abundant in the suburbs and are thriving. So introducing even more abstract “green space” into our living arrangement isn’t going to solve anything. The desire for “green space” is the problem, not the solution:
    http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/221/

    As the author James Kunstler would argue, we’re “blowing a lot of green smoke up our ass.” Louv’s eco-fetishism is historically compatible with the very old national ideal to establish a “little cabin in the woods, ” but that yearning has paradoxically only destroyed the environment.

    Urban greenery CAN be a wonderful thing – street trees, ivy, and window boxes are charming – but the call to “wild” and ruralize cities is a ridiculous and absurd one. No one in Pienza or Florence pines for an escape into wilderness because the cultural amenities of those towns (which have almost NO greenery in them; the squares are often completely paved) are extremely rich and more than make up for a misguided desire to retreat into the wilderness.

    No other nation fetishizes the wilderness as much as we do but, paradoxically, no other nation has destroyed the countryside surrounding its existing settlements as much as we have. No other nation has as many people trying to live urban lifestyles in “spiritually satisfying” rural areas. (A connection to other humans is actually more spiritually satuisfying because we’re social animals by nature, which is why we continually drag urban amenities out into the countryside we’re told is supposedly better for us. In reality only eco-nuts are interested in spying on herons and setting up camps underneath eagle nests.) “Wilding” cities is just more of the same stuff we’ve been doing ever since the romanticism of the 19th century (Central Park), and it hasn’t resulted in many great cities where people would voluntarily want live such that they could stay away from “wild” areas. So how will more of the same help?