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Toward a Nature-Rich Urban Future: Five Ways Houston (or insert your city here) Could Lead the Way

Richard Louv / Sep 07 2013

For Release Saturday, September 7, 2013

Richard LouvHouston is well situated to become a leading city – perhaps the leading city — to envision its future through the prism of the natural world. Given the city’s reputation (no zoning, all business), that may sound counterintuitive. And as one Houstonian said to me recently, “If you were to say that around here, people would say you’re not from around here.” So why do I single out Houston?

Before speaking there a few months ago, I had learned that Houston’s leaders were considering rebranding the city. Usually a city rebranding will focus on economic competition. But what if Houston (or insert your city’s name here) were to reimagine its future by looking through the prism of nature?

What would its health care and education systems, shopping areas and residential developments be like? What about its economic health, its ability to market itself to the most creative people and businesses around the world? What would the future look like?

Here are five ways Houston – or your city – could create a nature-rich urban future.

1. Incubate future entrepreneurs through the nurture of nature. Houston is known as a city of business, of independent thinkers. New research suggests that more time spent in natural environments can reduce the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder, encourage creativity, improve learning and nurture executive function. Executive function is the ability developed in early childhood — and primarily through imaginative independent play — to be your own boss. Yet many U.S. school districts have cut recess and discouraged independent play.

What if Houston bucked those trends and added more natural areas and independent play to children’s learning time, thereby enhancing its reputation as an incubator of entrepreneurs?

2. Lead a campaign to reverse the pandemic of inactivity. Houston boasts some of the most sophisticated medical facilities in the world but also has a high rate of childhood obesity. Harold W. Kohl, a researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, is one of the leading U.S. voices suggesting that obesity is partly the result of a pandemic of inactivity. A top correlate to children’s physical activity “is how much time they spend outdoors,” Kohl has said. Time spent in natural areas can also reduce stress and emotional disorders, as evidenced by the hospitals, mental health centers and nursing homes around the country that are creating healing gardens. Some pediatricians now even prescribe “green exercise” outdoors.

What if Houston were to do all this – bigger and better?

3. Become the first city to declare itself an engine of biodiversity. Many people in and around Houston do not know of the region’s incredible ecological diversity. As Houston Wilderness – a broad alliance of business, environmental and government interests – has pointed out, “This ecological diversity has been known for decades to experienced bird-watchers and natural scientists, but it has gone largely unrecognized by the general public and our economic leaders.”

What if Houston more aggressively marketed its distinctive bioregion? Researchers tell us the parks with the highest biodiversity are the ones with the most positive effect on human psychological well-being. Maybe in the future, our sense of personal and regional identity will depend as much on our bioregion’s natural history as on its human history.

4. Be the leading pioneer city of nature-smart development and the new agrarianism. In the 21st century, conservation is no longer enough. We need to “create” nature where we live and work. Decades ago, Houston helped set a standard for planned communities incorporating natural features. Could the Houston urban region become a seedbed for nature-smart builders, those who specialize in window-appeal (the view of nature from inside) — not just curb appeal? Those nature-smart developers could:

  • Use local materials to reflect the region’s history,
  • Incorporate new designs for natural air conditioning,
  • Install super-insulated green roofs that can last 80 years (compared to the usual 20).
  • Weave nature into homes and offices in even the most crowded neighborhoods.

Houston and its bioregion could be a leader of the new agrarianism: vertical farms in high-rise buildings, community gardens, expanded farmers markets, and immigrant agriculture in city neighborhoods. On the outskirts would be innovative ranches and farms focusing on local sustainable food, fiber, and fuel production.

5. Create nongovernmental ways to connect people with nature. While government has a role, Houston could be a leader in encouraging individual and private initiatives: family nature clubs and green gyms, a city- or statewide Natural Teachers network, and an informal network of health-enhancing organizations focused on nature.

Houston could champion a vast, homegrown native park of lawns and private land-holdings replanted with native species across neighborhoods and outward through the piney woods and prairies. It could build biodiversity while improving human well-being – and, not incidentally, helping create an even more robust economy.

Houston (and probably your city, too) already has the leadership. The region and the state of Texas have been assembling a mix of nonprofit organizations, government entities, and private enterprises that envision a nature-rich future.

What if leaders put their sights on a goal even more ambitious than energy efficiency? What if they began to imagine, and then make real, a nature-rich city? Such thinking may sound far-fetched – but Texans like to think big.

What about your city?

Richard Louv is founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network and author of eight books, including Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual World, from which some of this piece is adapted. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Bert Berkley
    Posted September 7, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    It’s good to see you are continuing to come up with creative ways to bring nature to the city. I hope your thoughts gain traction.

    I continue to be busy at my tender age of 90. Next month I head for China and Taiwan on business. Fortunately, my son, Bill, who is CEO, lets me tag along. It used to be the other way around. Bill and I will be two of five speakers at a postal event which will include the top executives of the China and Taiwan Post. Our GM in Taiwan, who also oversees our operation in China, is responsible for bringing these two entities together. Quite a feat.
    If your travels bring you this way, please stop in. Although Joan passed away a year ago, I’m still in the same house, so you can choose one of several bed rooms. Rates are reasonable, and breakfast is included.

    Warmest regards,

    Bert Berkley

  2. Posted September 13, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Interesting to target Houston with these recommendations.

    When I was on a whirlwind series of speaking engagements in Houston several months ago on integrating sustainability with community design I discovered through many conversations some unique attributes. Despite not having zoning there are major regulatory mechanism including those for storm water management that though well intentioned actually prohibit compact walkable development and promote sprawl. I was especially surprised when talking to a well intentioned developer that was giving me a tour of his latest project. I asked why there were no street trees and he said they wre not allowed. On my final evening of lectures I was asked to summarize what I would recommend Houston could do, my answer was plant trees, plant trees, and plant trees. The audience was somewhat perplexed at this advice coming from an architect and urban designer.

  3. Neal Peirce
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    To those who don’t know the previous commentators–
    Bert Berkley is a great humanitarian (on top of his lifelong business role– see
    Tom Low, of CIvic by Design in Charotte, N.C., is a renowned exponent of sensitive and human-based urbanism.
    It’s a delight to have two persons of their stature commenting on our Citiswire articles.

  4. Michael Godfried
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Seattle’s sculture park and it’s connection and renewal of the adjacent waterfront park and walkway/bikeway has been marvelous. The park attracts all ages and connects the urban experience to the water and the mountains. It is a profoundly successful public space that re-knits the city with it’s natural environment.