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Citywatch: Taking the nature cure

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city. This is the final part of a two-part series. Click here to read the first part.

Before I outline how this could be done, I should explain why I didn’t hand in this article last week, as originally promised. I faced computer problems that Bell Telephone’s exasperating voicemail machines couldn’t respond to, on the very same day I was trying to pack for an eight-day canoe trip while writing a complex article.

Photo credit: Deb BarndtPhoto credit: Deb BarndtIt was my mental health version of a perfect storm, a scenario many urban readers will easily identify with. My amygdala, and especially my cingulate cortex — which is supposed to manage negative emotions — weren’t firing due to my crazy-making urban environment. I had to postpone my deadline, but took a story outline with me during a delightful trip to the northern Ontario wilderness area of Killarney Park, where seven of us, led by Debbie Field and Dave Kraft of Beautiful North, clambered into canoes for eight days of virtual isolation.

Nature lover though I be, I didn’t relish a truly natural experience with brown bears, black flies, deer flies, or even fish that had to be beheaded and cleaned. Indeed, I found that human more than natural connections (perhaps for the natural reason that humans are also part of Nature) were part of the healing power of adapting to natural environments.

To start with, life on a canoe trip requires hours of strenuous physical exertion every day, and vigorous exercise is a well-known contributor to mental, as well as physical, well-being. Entire days spent beneath the open sun makes for big doses of Vitamin D, increasingly credited with promoting psychological as well as physical health. The hard day’s work, together with the absence of outlets for TV or computers at night, means more sleep, yet another producer of mental health.

When all the science experiments are said and done, figuring out the basics of mental health is pretty natural, and shouldn’t rely overly on the genius attributed to rocket scientists or brain surgeons.

The way Nature works on our minds is more complex than many of us imagine. Peace and quiet is the normal way people express the calming effect of being close to Nature, for example. That’s not how I experienced it.

Nature is anything but quiet or peaceful, but the sounds of everyday life in the woods are more soothing and harmonious, less grinding and nerve-wracking than, say, a humming refrigerator or police car siren. Nature is anything but clean, neat, gleaming and bright, but the repetitive (fractal) patterns of leaves and waves are as calming and soothing as the earth toned shades of rock and land.

Conversations are slow and easy, since there’s no need to catch up on the fly before moving on to the next appointment. We relate comfortably with one another, and it feels natural to rely on every one to do their share, to the best of their ability, in a reality where use values – a fire, a fish, clean water – are what counts, not exchange values. Slow food is not just a good choice, it’s the only option, which made for lots of fun at least three times a day.

And York University environmental educator Deb Barndt helps us identify that we, like the breeze, exist in relationship to our campsites, and that we are guests, not owners who control it. In eating and breathing, we feel the environment deep within us, and do not define the environment the way we do in the city — as outside of us.

Before going to sleep each night, we all took time to swat mosquitoes and gaze at the clear unlit skies holding up millions of stars. Impossible amidst the 24/7 bright lights of the Big City, this free light show gives us all some perspective on daily hassles, and fills us with the kind of gratitude and mystery that leads people to thank their lucky stars.

The absence of such a culture of activity, engagement and contribution, is a big part of the dark hole beneath Natural Deficit Disorder, I start to think.

PLANNING LIKE A SCARF

In a world where all the things we need have to be carried on our backs, most things have to serve more than one purpose.

The multi-purpose trip scarf most canoeists wear around their necks, much like the Swiss army knives around makeshift tables, provide clues as to how we will come to our senses back in the city.

The scarf makes sure we don’t become rednecks by protecting the neck from too much exposure to the sun. It can be dipped in the water to keep heads cool. It can be wrapped around hands holding hot handles of pots. It can wipe tables. It can tie things together. In an emergency, it can be a tourniquet.

It is a multi-tasker.

Once regional planners come alive to the planning considerations of cities designed for mental health, human scale and biophilic connections, they need to locate spaces and activities that can make pay the freight of high-spaced city land. This, in my opinion, is where urban agriculture wins its day in the sun.

What Swiss army knives and scarves are to multi-tasking in the wilds, urban agriculture is to multi-tasking in the cities, which is how it pays down the high cost of urban land to support it.

Gardens don’t just grow food. They make use of the compost from the 40 percent of food purchases most city people waste. They can use rain water that otherwise flashfloods through sewers, many times more expensive to repair or expand than gardens are to support. They store carbon beneath the ground, they breathe out oxygen, they evaporate water on hot days. They bring people together to work and team up and provide an icebreaker for conversations. They increase public safety, thanks to plentiful supplies of what the great New York and Toronto planning critic Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street.” And gardens are usually pretty and pleasing to look at. Food is only one of a garden’s productions, and not necessarily the most valuable or the most productive.

Because of its outstanding multi-tasking potential – the formal term for this is elegance – urban ag is the most efficient and productive way to add more green space and biophilic opportunities to cities.

It is part of a natural threesome for cities of the future attuned to the human brain’s innate need for Nature.

One part of the threesome is school curriculum and space supporting food production, an important baseline for overcoming what Richard Louv famously calls Nature Deficit Disorder among children. “No child left inside,” he chants.

Another part of the threesome is green or living machine architecture, championed by the Toronto-based Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, which supports green walls and roofs as well as water cleaning with aquatic plants. Where life-based infrastructure can displace cement and metal, it should be done, since it the job gets done both well and beautifully.

Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist who’s edited a prize-winning anthology on biophilic design, told the Toronto magazine Living Architecture Monitor that she sees such technologies as contributing Vitamin G (green) to the world. Because “nature nurtures,” she says, green technologies will “play a significant role in urban public health.”

Alongside reform to the educational and built environment, food production in parks, backyards, boulevards, balconies and windowsills completes the threesome of new elements that can enhance today’s recreational parks.

LIVING ARCHITECTURE FOR THE URBAN CENTURY

To my mind, such infrastructure addresses a central paradox of the next century, likely to be known as the Urban Century, in which over 60 percent of the world’s population is urban.

Cities are economically unbeatable because their placement of so many people and functions in so little space creates so many opportunities for cooperation and exchange, and for producing at scale – what Toronto author and green energy expert Jeb Brugmann calls the Urban Advantage.

This great strength has its own counterpoint — great fragility owing to an overly manufactured environment distanced from human scale and needs.

Nor does a manufactured environment hold out much promise for future physical health in the Big City.

In late July, the U.S. Center for Disease Control issued a media release on extreme heat events, holding them responsible for 675 premature deaths a year, more than the combined number killed by tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and lightning combined.

Living roofs and walls, which cool air through evaporation, are naturals when it comes to coping with such heat. By contrast, heat-storing cement, metal and pavement based technologies only compound health risks.

Heat events will be equally stressful for Toronto, where an average of 120 people a year have died prematurely due to heat stress over the past several decades.

To bring the city into harmony with human needs, cities will need to get their outside-in and inside-out with nature into shape. Figuring out stuff like is what brains are supposed to be good for. We now know it’s also what brains need.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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