In August, CBS’ “The Early Show” recognized the danger of what we’re now informally calling “nature-deficit disorder.” The show featured the 25 best cities in America for raising kids so they live healthy young lives that are connected to – not cut off – from the natural world. As coiner of the “nature deficit disorder” phrase (an informal, not medical term), I couldn’t have been more pleased. But more important, the media recognition underscores how critically important it is to help kids connect to nature, designing our communities to make it more possible.
The top three cities were announced by Backpacker magazine editor-in-chief Jonathan Don. Selected by his editors, they were Boulder, Colo., Jackson, Wyo., and Durango, Colo. Boulder was the magazine’s first choice, Dorn said, because it not only offers easy access to wilderness, but also to hundreds of miles of networked bike and running trails. After snowstorms, the city plows its bike paths before plowing the roads. It should be noted that most of the top cities on this list are destination locations–small, scenic, and relatively wealthy.
What about the rest of us, who aren’t able or willing to relocate?
Through urban design and family decisions, it’s time to make sure every child in America has access to “nearby nature” – by that I mean urban or state parks, regional nature preserves, clean urban streams, or the little woods just beyond the cul de sac.
One way to achieve that objective is to recognize the value of nearby nature. As Outside magazine puts it, “near is the new far.”
In March Illinois’ new governor, Pat Quinn–referencing nature-deficit disorder and the importance of nearby nature to families during a recession–reopened seven state parks closed by his predecessor. He cited the economic importance of urban parks.
It’s also time to start creating more nature, nearby.
Dream on, some pessimists will say. According to their vision of the future, rising energy prices will stimulate green flight, to more energy-efficient, self-contained exurbs. Paradoxically, green flight could drive us deeper into our electronic cocoons–or, at best, our back yards.
Last year, during the height of the oil crisis, Newsweek projected that “life at $200 a barrel” could radically reduce our activities in natural surroundings. Michael Lynch, of Strategic Energy & Economic Research, estimated the effects of rising fuel costs on our lifestyles would produce a 53 percent increase in gasoline prices, boost sales of yard toys by 18 percent and backyard pool supplies by 15 percent. A spike in gas prices, he added, could also enhance another close-to-home form of entertainment–leading to a rise of 1.2 percent in pregnancies. Newsweek opined: “If he’s right, stock up on videogames.”
That’s it? That’s the best we can do? The missing motivation here is health, which, over the long haul, will trump the pump.
Growth of the original suburbs offered the illusion of healthy country living; it was stimulated by green flight as well as white flight. Even before that, late 19th and early 20th century planners believed that cities could and should be places rich with nature. That philosophy inspired the urban parks movement. The industrialists who pushed for the creation of New York’s Central Park weren’t concerned with gas prices. Their priority was worker productivity, linked to the health benefits of nearby nature.
Unfortunately, planners and consumers lost touch with that philosophy. Now we have denatured urban and suburban neighborhoods.
In Last Child in the Woods, I described the growing body of scientific evidence indicating that the rise in attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and an assortment of other childhood maladies might have something to do with children’s nature deficiency.
Recent studies have also suggested a connection between the decline in outdoor activities and the dramatic rise in childhood Vitamin D deficiency and myopia. In October 2008, Science Daily reported “the first study to look at the effect of neighborhood greenness on inner city children’s weight over time.” Researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of Washington reported an association between higher neighborhood greenness and slower increases in children’s body mass over a two-year period, regardless of residential density. In other words, urban design can provide a greener, healthier environment, even in the densest of neighborhoods.
So it’s time to create nature and health where we and our families live, work and play. We can do it by expanding urban parks, by creating new woodlands and other natural spaces out of land reclaimed from industrial pollution and decaying shopping centers. New and redeveloped neighborhoods should incorporate natural play spaces, green roofs, community gardens, vertical farms, food-producing office buildings, and recycled rainwater streams. When it comes to the health-giving properties of the natural world, near is the new far.
Note: Parents who wish to find nearby nature can go to NatureRocks.org for an online ZIP code-oriented directory to nature near to home, and a planning guide to create family nature “staycations.”
Richard Louv is chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”, and a member of the Citistates Group.
Part of this column is adapted from a previous blog entry. The column was released September 4, 2009
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