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GETTING THE URBAN INTO NATURE: New Research and New Thinking

About the Author

Susan Nall Bales is founder of and senior advisor to the nonprofit FrameWorks Institute, one of nine recipients worldwide of the 2015 MacArthur Foundation’s Award for Creative & Effective Institutions. Each year, FrameWorks trains thousands of policy leaders, scientists and advocates in narrative techniques based on sound social science. Bales has published widely on framing, science translation and communications for social good, in peer-reviewed and popular journals, and has lectured at institutions from Harvard University to the White House. 

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Some years ago, I worked as a “nature lady” at a Y camp in the San Bernardino Mountains above Los Angeles.

Urban kids who had no experience in nature came to Big Bear for a week to learn a new way to be in the world by touching a tree, singing a song, and riding a horse. The latter often proved challenging, as the culture of Los Angeles followed them to the camp and played havoc with the mundane world of natural tasks.

It came home to me one morning when the hay hooks were stolen and I had to improvise to feed the horses. So I put myself in their shoes and tried to find a bridge. The morning after the theft, I posted a sign in the dining hall: “A Hay Hook is A Horse’s Fork – Give It Back!

By noon, I had restitution. It was, perhaps, my first experience in what was to become my life’s work: understanding the way people bring culture to bear on new experiences and how using a reframing strategy, in this case, a metaphor, can help them engage with the world in a new way. It would have helped, of course, if we had more time with those kids and more diverse experiences.

But the fundamental lesson remains true: the dominant narrative in which you are raised  follows you through life. It is very hard to break out of it and see the world new. That challenge lies at the core of learning to be in the world.

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Today, the young people I nurtured in that forest above Los Angeles are voters, bankers, parents, teachers, plumbers, Rotarians, Methodists, union members, football fans and Twitter users. They have a lot more culture under their belts than they did when I knew them — media, films, stories, news — that provide even more comfortable and automatic assumptions about how the world works. Their lived experience has been shaped a thousand times by narratives about the difference between the city and nature. 

While they might long for similar experiences for their children, they will likely seek them in Big Bear — not South Central. Without further explanation, they are likely to leave their elected officials unaccountable for the state of local parks and zoning fiascos. And they will likely undervalue the role that exposure to nature could play in the health and long-term well-being of their children and their children’s children.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The good news is that my instinctive trick pony of long ago — a linguistic and conceptual provocation to rethink an issue — remains valid today. And even better, social science research offers us new tools and techniques to make sure that the metaphors we choose are not rejected  (“What does a horse need with a fork?”, my campers might have asked) but actually open up new thinking. 

The onus is on us to explain why nature matters and how we can get it closer to us, on a daily basis.

About 16 years ago, I founded the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit think tank that uses original, multi-method social science research to advance public understanding of social problems. Full disclosure: Rich Louv was part of early discussions and conceptual meetings for the Institute, and we have been good friends and sounding boards for 20 years.

Today, I have a finer-grained understanding of what I might say to a new weekend crop of would-be horseback riders, hikers and nature enthusiasts. This time, I am not pulling it out of my rucksack but rather out of a new study that FrameWorks has conducted for the TKF Foundation to figure out what gets in the way of Americans taking that appreciation home with them, down the mountainside and into the streets, parks and arroyos of the city.

Nature Doesn’t Pay My Bills” compares the way that experts who study health and urban environments understand the role of nature with the everyday understandings of ordinary Americans. Based on a series of interviews conducted by FrameWorks researchers with experts and the public, the report offers important advice to anyone who wishes to deepen public appreciation for urban nature and health. 

Here are three important insights that every nature advocate can use to prepare strong, explanatory stories about “Vitamin N”— where to find it, what it does for us and how we can ensure its availability and sustenance:

1. Yellowstone Syndrome. While we might all struggle to define nature, most Americans are sure about one thing: you have to “escape” to get there. Fundamental to nature’s definition is its contrast with cities.  FrameWorks’ researchers write: “While experts argue that a small garden or grove can bring health benefits to people, the public thinks about nature on a grander scale, far removed from cities, as that which provides respite from the stressors of modern urban life through its position as far away from daily life.” Reducing the size and scope of ideal nature such that it can be imagined within an urban radius is an important prerequisite to practical thinking about how we get more of it in our daily lives. Given this, nature advocates would do well to show smaller scale illustrations of nature — backyards, urban hillsides, etc.— as well as the more iconic memes.

2. Black Box. While experts speak to “specific immune, nervous, and cognitive benefits that come from experiencing nature, the public has little understanding of these underlying mechanisms, which undermines their valuing of urban nature and its contributions to well-being.” The benefits of nature cannot be reduced to “getting away from it all” without creating a tautological mess in which stress = the modern city, and nature = the anti-city. If we want more nature in cities, we have to explain how nature interacts with human health and development. Nature, experts say, “opens a breathing space for the mind and the nervous system.” And these moments of high quality, neurological rest can happen wherever there is space to breathe and attend to things in a fluid, non-intentional way. It also boosts immune function and strengthens community as people cross paths in relaxed environments. Giving people a working knowledge of how nature gets under the skin must be a key goal of engagement.

3. Dosage. Experts argue that a single “dose” of nature has limited and short-term effects. You need, as one said, “continual infusion of the stuff. And [having nature] nearby is the only way to do that.” Nature advocates know that we need to build exposure to nature into our existing natural infrastructure. Poor maintenance of parks and other green spaces, bad zoning decisions, and short-sighted transportation policies all work to undermine Vitamin N’s effects. But the real challenge for nature advocates is to show how accessibility can be built into the urban landscape and our education system so that nature is “at everyone’s doorstep.”

Of course, these three observations cannot substitute for the deep-dive into people’s cultural models of nature that FrameWorks’ report offers. I hope you will read the full report and find it useful to some robust conversations about how we engage and sustain potential nature advocates. But just addressing these three challenges would greatly improve public understanding: get nature nearby, get under the hood and explain how it works on human health, and populate our imaginations with accessible nature.

Additional Reading & Resources
Nature Doesn’t Pay My Bills
The Frameworks Institute

From C&NN
12 PRINCIPLES FOR A NATURE-RICH CITY
MAKING FRESH TRACKS: Natural Leaders from the Arctic Circle and Urban Los Angeles Partner Up
FROM ALASKA TO AUSTRALIA: A Global Odyssey to Connect Kids with Nature
BEYOND LEGACY CAMP: What C&NN’s Natural Leaders Do When They Get Home
THE LIGHT OF NATURAL LEADERS: Young People Move the New Nature Movement
LET’S CREATE A WORLDWIDE HOMEGROWN PARK

In the News
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR: City of Grand Rapids Aims to Reconnect Children with Nature
A CHALLENGE TO DECATUR: Embrace the Outdoors
NLC AND CHILDREN & NATURE NETWORK CHOOSE SEVEN CITIES FOR PLANNING COHORT

Charlotte Observer: Author challenges Charlotte to connect children with nature

New Initiative to Help Cities Increase Nature Access for Children Launched By National League of Cities and C&NN
4 Trailblazers Working to Increase Diversity in The Great Outdoors
Detroit River Canoeing Events Connect Youth, Families with Nature
National League of Cities, Department of Interior, YMCA of the US sign agreement
UK Parliament Report: Green Space and Health

Books
MAKING HEALTHY PLACES: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability
— Andrew Dannenberg, Howard Frumkin, Richard Jackson
BIOPHILIC CITIES: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning: Tim Beatley
BIOPHILIC DESIGN: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life: Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen, Martin Mador
VITAMIN N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: Richard Louv
THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual World: Richard Louv 

Photo(s) Credit: Wikicommons, Stocksy, National Park Service, Pexels


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