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Green Urbanism guru: Nature in cities to thrive

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/04/19 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Plants & animals, Natural Cleveland

When Timothy Beatley launched Green Urbanism in his eponymous 2000 book and 2010 Biophilic Cities program, he deftly tied together examples of cities where nature appears to be linked to health and happiness.

Green Urbanism holds that “as a species we have an innate connection to nature. That we are happier, healthier and able to lead more meaningful lives when nature is around us where we live and work.”

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Nearly 20 years has provided Beatley and co-authors of a Sustainable Earth article with much more evidence to support the theory that nature — green space, gardens or street trees — functions as a reset button, a “green soul” to dispense with the stress of cities.

“Attention Restoration Theory argues that urban life is taxing because there are so many stimuli that require attention,” they write, “and that time in nature replenishes our ability to pay attention and focus, thus leading secondarily to a reduction in stress.”

Pittsburgh, Edmonton and Singapore are some of the leading practitioners of green urbanism. Singapore is elevating nature to a new level, planting gardens on skyscrapers to meet a goal of replacing green space lost to development. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is working with Phipps Conservatory CEO Richard V. Piacentini and others on what it means to be a Biophilic City. Edmonton has produced Breathe, a comprehensive plan that calls for 27 wildlife corridors to crisscross the region.

“It is important that cities grow and develop in ways that protect and grow nature, that put nature at the core of design and planning,” write Beatley, et al.

On a smaller scale, doctors in New Zealand are prescribing a Green Rx to patients to get them outdoors, Koreans are going forest bathing, and Scandinavian parents are signing up for nature kindergartens, for example.

Broadly, a daily dose of nature requires a rethink of urban design. Thus Singapore’s Landscape Replacement Policy, which requires new buildings to at least replace 1-to-1 the nature lost at ground level with nature in the vertical realm. Or, bird-friendly design guidelines, like those advocated by Lights Out Cleveland, to require bird-friendly glass and facade treatments. New pollinator pathways in cities like Oslo and St. Louis could lead the way for Northeast Ohio where the group LEAP has a Regional Biodiversity Plan advocating for the same. Green infrastructure is also an urgent climate resilience strategy, cooling cities and reducing stress from runaway heat waves.

There’s plenty of work to be done. The authors acknowledge the challenge in weak markets like Cleveland. But, without public-private ownership around biophilia, the authors warn, the future will be gray, hot and hostile. Currently only 13% of urban dwellers on the planet may be living in close enough proximity with nature to experience its mental health benefit, they write. Reaching 20% tree canopy is considered a necessary step (Cleveland is at 18% overall) toward a greater, green urbanism goal.

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