About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of eight books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

THE BOTANICAL CITY: Could Where You Live Become the Most Nature-Rich City in the World? Part 1.

A couple of years ago, I had lunch with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked (his most recent) and other books about our relationship with food and nature. (Culinary hint: when dining with Michael Pollan, order what Michael Pollan orders.) We talked, in part, about how each of us came to nature from a different direction. I came to nature through the woods behind my house at the suburban edge.

As he did in The Botany of Desire, Pollan described his route. The woods made him nervous when he was a boy. So he came to nature through his garden, where he found joy and wonder.

My friend Juan Martinez, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, came to nature through a single chili plant. His high school principal had given Juan, headed for trouble, a choice: he could spend hours in after-school detention or he could join the EcoClub. He went with the EcoClub “nerds,” as he called them.

As a new member, he was required to plant something. At first he was stumped, but then he recalled how, when he was younger, his mother had broken through a piece of concrete behind the house, exposing soil for a small garden. There she grew jalapeños and medicinal plants. To fulfill his EcoClub requirement, Juan decided to grow a jalapeño plant. One day he took it home to his mother. He wanted to show her that he could nurture life, too.

That entrance into the natural world changed Juan’s life forever. He is now a leader in the children and nature movement (he heads C&NN’s Natural Leaders Network), works to green South Central and other urban areas, and has spoken at the White House on the issue.

So although Michael Pollan, Juan Martinez, and I came to nature from different directions, each of us ended up at the same place: with a deep belief in the potential for a new nature movement to connect people to nature for their health, happiness, creativity and survival.

Urban gardens — community gardens, school plots and botanical gardens — play an increasingly important role in that movement. Last week, I spoke at the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. Both offer fertile, even wild-seeming patches of green and sunlight amidst the dense urban neighborhoods.

At the San Francisco garden (where I was able to spend more time), I was stunned to find a redwood grove where, if you blinked, you might assume that you were standing in the Muir Woods, immersed in the sounds and smells of that deep forest. Strands of light swirled hundreds of feet up in the high branches.

“These redwoods are mere babies,” explained Annette Huddle, Director of Youth Education. But to a child’s eyes, they’re giants walking. Approximately 10,000 children come through this garden every year. Before coming to the Garden, some of these kids have, literally, never stepped off the pavement.

“So many are like the one little child who, frightened, called out, “A plant touched me! What should I do?” Annette told me how she introduces them to a deeper experience of their senses. She encourages them to look, and smell and listen and, in a special children’s garden, to play independently, to touch the earth, to feel mud between their toes.

Such places in our cities do offer urban children and adults a portal into nature, and these institutions may also offer passage into the new era: the transformation of our cities. In that coming time, the city does not only contains a botanical garden; it becomes one.

What if cities were to become engines of biodiversity and human health? What would that future look like?

In my book, The Nature Principle, I describe spending a pleasant afternoon with students at Cornell University who were studying for careers in botanical gardens. I walked with several of them through Cornell Plantations, the university’s home for an arboretum that includes 4,300 acres of natural areas, including bogs, gorges, glens, and woodlands:

“As we sat in an open-air shelter for lunch, we discussed the Garden Cities movement of the early twentieth century, which was infused with the idea that nature experience was connected to human health, and we talked about how that connection has been all but scrubbed from public consciousness and urban planning. The education of these students was focused on creating botanical gardens to enhance city life. I asked them if they had ever considered careers that could lead to turning entire cities into botanical landscapes. They were intrigued by the question, and no, they had not considered that career path — yet.”

Click here for Part 2: What If We Truly Greened America?

Richard Louv is founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of eight books, including “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual World” from which some of this piece is adapted.

Top photo: Michael Pollan; second photo by Martin LeBlanc

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Photo: mother and child © Martin LeBlanc

Comments (6)

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  1. Eva says:

    Great to meet you last week. I really enjoyed this post. I am prepping for a couple of Healthy by Nature events this week here in Victoria, BC – one a walk with colleagues at lunch were we will discuss the health and nature connection and a second more policy focused event. Your post has given me a couple of good ideas for discussion.

  2. Jn Johnsen says:

    In 1973 I was 22 and had grown up in apartments in NYC. I wrote a college paper on hydroponincs with the dream of greening the city. I went to the NY city planning commission and presented my ideas. Rooftop gardens with the brand new soilless mixes, vertical gardens on skyscraper walls, etc. They looked at me quizzically.

    My paper was published as a book by Lippincott. but they changed it substantially and took out all my references to greening the city. I went to work for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in DC in 1976. I tried to interest congressmen in worm composting, rooftop greenhouses, urban agriculture. I won a Progressive Architecture award in 1981 for research on rooftop greenhouses.

    Here it is 2013 and it is time! Finally! Yay! Richard, Green those cities! I am still active and I have a landscape design /build firm and teach at Columbia University. Keep me in the loop. http://www.johnsenlandscapes.com

  3. Richard Louv says:

    Thanks for the pioneering work!

  4. Ken Beattie says:

    Brilliant! Go to know that others appreciate what our green and open spaces contribute to society.

  5. Jonathan says:

    By amazing chance, I stumbled on this blog post, as it was on a listserver I belong to. I am one of those Cornell students you referred to.

    I work now for NYC Parks, for three years as a community gardener, now as a city planner. Maybe I didn’t know it at the time, but I certainly know what you mean now, and in the intervening years I’ve become motivated to see the city the light of the same goal. I note and am grateful for the very tiny spaces—medians, street gores, playground edges, for examples—that we attempt to green. In terms of diversity and plant health, these are usually our worst spaces. They are the hardest to maintain, and the most droughty. But Parks’ “Green Infrastructure,” program retrofits rain watercourses to change this fact. Under this program and others, there are enough scattered small spaces that there has been meaningful progress towards a city visibly richer in plants, if not “nature.”

    Working as a planner—really a negotiator for Parks—I find ways to wedge a higher quality plant restoration into capital projects done by other public agencies within our parks. Projects not designed with Parks’ goals in mind, but which it is part of my job to bend to include our goals. A natural gas pipeline will be expanded in Brooklyn; the public lawn they are damaging and have to recreate above it could be, without costing NYC a dollar, rebuilt as diverse garden instead. Bridges on the Belt Parkway are being rehabilitated and their construction impact zones will be rebuilt as native meadows where invasive scrub exists now.

    NYC Parks retrofits our old city in the right direction, towards what you describe, and I am grateful to be a part of it.

  6. Richard Louv says:

    Wonderful, Jonathan. Thanks for your inspiring work in New York!

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