Near is the New Far

Green Flight, Slow Travel and Nearby Nature

Posted Aug 31, 2008

Green Flight, Slow Travel and Nearby Nature

“Near is the new far.” That’s the sly headline in a recent issue of Outside magazine, which reports on the trend toward eco-vacations. The article rates green lodges in Zanzibar, tree houses in Costa Rica and other such places, and it also questions the eco-friendliness of jetting a few thousand miles to stay at a green resort that recycles rainwater. It suggests that people consider leisure destinations closer to home. Great idea.

Now to make sure we have enough “nearby nature” — urban or state parks, regional nature preserves, clean urban streams, or the little woods just beyond the cul de sac. All of these special places can improve the psychological and physical health of children and adults.

The value of nearby nature has gained recent cache with Travelocity, one of the largest travel companies on the Web. During Earth Week, 2008, the company began to promote “the reinvention of the American road trip.” Their Web site offers information on how parents can take their kids to local and state parks. Rather than fly to more exotic locations, families can discover the underappreciated natural gems in their communities, and take close-by vacations by car (hybrid, if they can afford it), bicycle, or public transit (if they can find it). Or they can take a “staycation” and explore the patches of natural habitat in their own community.

If we stick around long enough, we might even protect what’s left, reclaim poorly used land, and create new green habitat. In the future, nearby nature could be woven more explicitly into everyday experience if future urban residential developments were designed similar to a Dutch eco-village, which I visited recently, shown here.

Dream on, some pessimists will say. In their version of the future, green flight – people moving from sprawling suburbs to more efficient cities — will drive us deeper into our electronic cocoons.

In July, 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 and projected that a 53 percent increase in gasoline prices will boost sales of yard toys by 18 percent and backyard pool supplies by 15 percent. The nearby is there, but nature is not in this picture. 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.”

Conventional thinking would lead to that conclusion. Let’s think differently.

First, there is nothing new about people moving to cities. Since 1800, city dwellers have gone from just 3 percent of the world’s population to more than 50 percent. At least 23 cities will have a population above 10 million by 2015, according to the United Nations. Suburban life once offered the illusion of country life, but residential developers have been packing us into tighter and tighter spaces for decades – which partially accounts for our children’s growing alienation from nature. But these aren’t our only choices. Enlightened urban planners have recently revived a late 19th, early 20th century idea: cities can and should be places rich with nature, no matter their population density. That’s the thinking that led to New York’s Central Park and the early urban parks movement, which were created for the public's health.

Second, you’ve heard of the Slow Food movement – one of its objectives is to encourage regional food producers. Now comes the slow travel movement. Hybrid drivers (I’m one) tend to make a fetish of wringing an extra mile from every gallon. Drivers of cars with conventional engines are also learning how much money they can save by slowing down. The limitations of electric cars – shorter driving range and a restricted number of fueling stations – will restrict the travel radius of that mode of transportation, at least for a while. In the meantime, with brakes applied to some unnecessary auto travel and the return of well-patronized bus and train, we could slow down long enough to look out the window – to notice the natural beauty in our immediate environment, or at least the brief flashes of green bracketed by cement and stucco.

Third, we could see significant restructuring of the travel and outdoor recreation industries, as they direct some of their marketing efforts at “staycations.” Conceivably, smart outdoor business leaders will diversify, adding opportunities in nearby nature to their promotional portfolios.

Similarly, outdoor equipment companies such as REI and BassPro could protect their franchises and increase market penetration by emphasizing and helping develop closer-in opportunities for kids and adults. REI already offers something called Weekend Getaways, designed to encourage brief, localized escapes into the outdoors. Government can get involved, too. For example, some cities and states are creating storm water retention and detention ponds in urban areas, stocking them with fish, and creating kids’ fishing programs.

Will these trends help shape our lives? That depends mostly on gas prices. It also depends on our ability to fiercely identify, protect and make accessible appropriate pieces of nearby nature (and that is a topic for another day). The most creative cities could be densely populated and at the same time offer an urban environment enriched by both natural and naturalized habitat. Parks, woodlands, and fields might be expanded and revitalized by incorporating land reclaimed from industrial pollution and decayed shopping centers. Urban life might well be defined by biophilic architecture and planning through the creation of green roofs, vertical farms, food-producing office buildings, and recycled rainwater streams.

These strategies and more could all be part of the future urban greenprint. In the past, such thinking might have been dismissed as fantasy for a faraway future. But today, near is the new far.

_____________ 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.”    

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