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, sometimes we found ourselves with fewer symptoms of some illnesses, and we all 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 from 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 rise.
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 and an older University of Washington College of the Environment study pegged the value of homes “adjacent to naturalistic parks and open spaces” at 8-20% 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 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 Days in San Francisco, wildfires in Australia and the catastrophe of the pandemic, awareness dawned for many—we need to do better by the nature around us.
Drew Wensley 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% 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% 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 Wildlife Trust with an ambitious plan to enhance wild aspects of the city. Their aims are, among others: Protect and conserve biodiversity and where possible, deliver net wildlife gain to enhance ecological resilience to green spaces; Connect Londoners to their local natural greenspace, to enhance social cohesion and because the more people understand about nature, the more likely they are to champion it; Connect local greenspaces to the wider landscape of London, because well connected green spaces can better deliver ecosystem services around air quality, temperature and flood alleviation, and boost wildlife populations; and Connect nature conservation and greenspaces to the wider sustainability agenda to have a bigger tent and engage more people.
Large property developers and big investment estates 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.
As ambitious as the projects are, they are far from what’s known as rewilding, a conservation strategy that the True Nature Foundation defines as a process of reintroducing key lost animal species, which helps restore natural processes and wilderness areas. The term is fraught, and definitions abound. The 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, Wensley of mt planners prefers to describe a process of “creating opportunities for nature”, which seems to be the route chosen by Singapore, which has created ever-increasing opportunities to bring nature and citizens closer since its founding. The city was conceived as a manicured garden in the ‘60s, a controlled landscape designed to bolster the confidence of foreign investors in the new city. From a Garden City, it has evolved into a City in a Garden, and now a City in Nature. Its 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.” (Singapore already has Treepedia’s highest Green View Index ranking—the city has a nearly 30% canopy coverage of its territory, which has a population density of 7,797 per sq. km.)
At the Resonance 2020 WRLDCTY Festival, Liang Jim Lin of the Biodiversity Centre at Singapore’s National Parks Board, said that the new master plan included not just extending and connecting the city’s Nature Park Network, but restoring nature into the urban landscape and intensifying nature in parks. During the pandemic, when maintenance fell by the wayside in parks, a variety of species made themselves at home. Now the evolution will go further, with the reintroduction of native plants and animal ecosystems even in the smallest parks.
It’s ironic that as we become ever more urbanized, we are also rediscovering our love—and our need—of nature and her wild things. Perhaps we are, after all, wild at heart.