There were many epiphanies coming out of the pandemic, and some felt decidedly better than others. For city dwellers, perhaps the most enjoyable of them happened when we stepped, blinking, from the confinement of our homes into some form of green space—a yard, a park, a bike path, a forested trail, or even, if we were fortunate, an actual forest.
Eyes opened, lungs filled, minds cleared, legs stretched, cheeks flushed, endorphins flowed. It was love—our collective, intense, newfound love of nature. The nature that we drove by or rushed past on the way to the office or school suddenly took on the allure of an oasis, a sanctuary, a hideaway. Even, somehow, a vacation.
We became, personally and collectively, aware of what science—and developers—have long known: nature is good for us, spiritually, physically and quantifiably.
This is not news; it just became arrestingly relevant. In nature, we felt, at the very least, mentally refreshed, found ourselves with fewer symptoms of some illnesses, and noticed what MIT and the World Economic Forum knows: that that simple street tree canopy helps mitigate extreme temperatures, provides a natural respite from traffic, noise and congestion, and improves the quality of city life. (With TREEPEDIA, they’ve created a tool that measures and compares the green canopy using Google Street View data.)
Often, urban nature makes us feel enriched. In a survey of some 31,000 Torontonians conducted considerably before the pandemic, a group led by the University of Chicago found that people living on simple tree-lined streets reported health benefits equivalent to being seven years younger or receiving a $10,000 salary raise.
Nature also consistently enriches the valuation of homes: Resonance research from 2019 showed that proximity to green space of any size increases real estate values—andan older University of Washington College of the Environment study pegged the value of homes “adjacent to naturalistic parks and open spaces” at eight to 20 percent higher than comparable properties.
During the pandemic, that number went through the proverbial roof. Proximity to and possession of nature, and the well-being that goes with it, caused a run on suburban houses, country estates and cottages of all kinds—anywhere that offered breathing space. Long-time residents of rural communities suddenly found themselves in the hottest market in decades.
As our visceral appreciation of urban nature grew—and as skies cleared over cities and dolphins allegedly frolicked in commercial waterways—so did we begin to apprehend the impact we were having on nature writ large, the global environment. As we strolled our urban nature, reflecting on Orange Day in San Francisco, wildfires in Australia and the catastrophe of the pandemic, awareness dawned for many. We needed to do better by the nature around us.
Drew Wensley, CEO of mt planners in Toronto, puts it this way: “During the pandemic, our understanding of our needs hit a moment of clarity: environment is the baseline to make all economic progress possible.”
Today, with some emerging form of normal taking shape on the horizon, the race is on—from governments and individuals—to go from what Wensley calls “exploitation to regeneration” in cities around the world. Making the environment integral to planning is not a result of the
pandemic, but COVID has accelerated the process, as it has many trends. For more than a decade, Wensley’s firm has taken a systems approach to projects, be they cities, entire waterways in Europe or huge undeveloped regions in China or the Middle East—they start by defining challenges on, above and below ground and working from there.
Wilder Than We Were
The result of giving the environment more importance in planning and placemaking, even in the most dense of cities, is the creation of places that are considerably wilder than they were under conventional practices. Interestingly, the wilder places are, the better they may actually be
for us, if early studies are an indication. This could serve to guide the planning of public and green spaces in the future, and be one of the more surprising takeaways of the pandemic. Relative wildness serves a multitude of purposes that go beyond enjoyment and well-being. It also contributes to climate resiliency, a growing need in virtually every city.
A 2020 study of some 300 people by the University of Washington Seattle suggests that interactions with nature in Seattle’s 500-acre Discovery Park were more resonant in the park’s “wilder” terrain. Anthropocene magazine reports that “of the participants who noted an especially meaningful experience with nature, 95 percent of them had an interaction that depended on Discovery Park’s relative wildness. Among those who described an experience linked to a positive psychological state, 96 percent had an interaction that depended on wildness.”
We’re not talking about “wilderness” here, just “varied habitats, relatively unmanaged land, high levels of biodiversity, old-growth trees, large open spaces and wide vistas, and opportunities for visitors to experience solitude and a sense of removal from civilization.” Many large-scale, big-city parks offer that.
Some of the world’s biggest and most dense cities are leading in efforts to give nature a freer rein. London, consistently ranked number 1 in the Resonance World’s Best Cities rankings, has a striking number of projects underway with objectives from restoring biodiversity to providing moments of respite in the city to reestablishing the connection between urban dweller and nature. These range from sprouting fresh social impact initiatives (London Re:Wild) to improving quality of life by enhancing waterway environments (the goal of Thames21) and creating a London alive with nature, where everyone can experience and enjoy wildlife (London Wildlife Trust).
Some projects make for interesting bedfellows: The planting of a “heritage forest” of 630 native trees and shrubs in London’s Chelsea brought together the rewilding company SUGi, estate managers Cadogan and Louis Vuitton.
Large property developers and big investment estates, also in London, have banded together in the biodiversity enhancement business. Their partnership, the Wild West End, brings together the Church Commissioners for England, the Crown Estate, Great Portland Estates, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, the Portman Estate, the Howard de Walden Estate and Shaftesbury in an effort to “encourage birds, bees and bats back into the heart of London, and create greater connections with nature for residents, visitors and workers to enjoy” through a range of projects.
This is enlightened self-interest at its finest.
Kidding aside, all these projects seek a more equitable partnership between what architect Usman Haque calls “human and non-human” actors. Haque, whose work embraces design, the Internet of Things, community infrastructure and, yes, rewilding projects, says that in order for that to happen, the humans need to get on the same page.
The brutal fact is that either we change the way we live, or the local and geo-scale effects of the climate emergency will change our lives for us—wilder cities are coming, one way or another. We’ve already seen the effects of climate change resculpt the physical fabric of our cities, disrupting infrastructures we rely on, and substantially altering their social fabric, widening the chasm between haves and have-nots.
Participatory urban wilding would be about all of us co-imagining, co-producing and co-creating such a future, building explicitly upon a model of interdependence and mutualism that evolves along with the changing climate. How do we engage not just people but also birds, mice, fish, bees, mushrooms and trees?
For Haque, who’s working on an urban rewilding initiative supported by the Eden Project, participatory urban wilding—reshaping the processes through which our cities are designed, built and lived in to enable mutual cooperation (humans with each other as well as with non-human systems)—would challenge how we relate to our neighbors, to the mice in our walls, to our political systems, to the environment that supports us. It would reshape how we feel about public space and who owns it; how we make decisions about our homes, our consumption and eating habits. But it would also evolve our cities into much more dynamic and sustainable engines of survival than the socially constricting, energy-intensive and life-shortening beasts that they are right now.
As ambitious as these varied projects are, they’re far from what some would call “‘rewilding,” a fraught term with many definitions. The True Nature Foundation defines it as a process of reintroducing key lost animal species, which in turn helps restore natural processes and wilderness areas. For others, rewilding is getting out of the way so that the nature currently occupying space can take over. Yet planning firm Arup says that, “rewilding can only succeed if it is considered as a dynamic process of restoring ecosystem functionality rather than an outcome of creating a wilderness.” For Arup, the goal behind ecosystem restoration is to “create greater connections between people and the natural world, and to breathe new life into our cities.”
Rather than rewilding, mt planners’ Wensley prefers to describe a process of “creating opportunities for nature”, which the firm has done in areas as varied as Wadi al-Aqeeq in Madinah, Saudi Arabia, and the Seine river region, from its source through Paris to Le Havre on the Atlantic. The region was growing but there was no vision to tie it together; awareness of environmental assets was lacking and resources were being depleted; and the region was increasingly susceptible to climate change issues like flooding and sea level rise. mt planners worked to help stakeholders see the river region as a great “source to the sea” park system in order to strengthen the identities and economies of communities. In parallel, the team worked
to regenerate the river estuary, harness the river’s energy and enhance farming through new water infrastructure. “We wanted ecological frameworks to guide urban growth,” says Wensley. “That way we could improve quality of life and enrich mobility—and also create a region of what we call ‘environmental brilliance,’ with a living natural framework that takes into account all elements, from air quality to carbon sequestration, agriculture to stream valleys and ridges, walking and cycle paths to trains and other community connectivity.”
“Enhanced opportunities for nature” is the route chosen by Singapore, a city conceived as a manicured garden in the ’60s—the green, controlled landscape was an amenity designed to bolster the confidence of foreign investors in the new metropolis. From a Garden City, it has evolved into a City in a Garden, and now a City in Nature. It’s current master plan envisions “turning Singapore into a thriving tropical urban ecosystem unique in the world.” The goal: “Bring the benefits of climate resilience, ecological resilience, and social resilience in coming decades.”
It’s ironic that as we become ever more urbanized, we are also discovering that we’re at our most civilized—calmest, happiest, healthiest and most creative—when we’re closest to nature. Perhaps we are, after all, wild at heart.