THE BEST CITY IN AMERICA FOR CONNECTING KIDS TO NATURE: Ten Ways Your Urban Region Can Claim the Title
“If you build it, they will come.” I believe in that line, from the movie “Field of Dreams.” Or another interpretation: “If you imagine it, if you name it, they will come.”
Imagining a goal doesn’t get the heavy lifting done, but without imagination, nothing gets done.
On April 29, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; Saint Paul Mayor and President of the National League of Cities Chris Coleman; and Neil Nicoll, YMCA USA President, among others, announced that their organizations are joining forces to get kids outdoors in cities across the country:
“As part of Department of the Interior’s ambitious youth initiative the National League of Cities (NLC), YMCA of the USA, and the Department today signed an agreement to coordinate efforts to bridge the growing disconnect between young people and the great outdoors by creating meaningful connections to nature …”
Mayor Coleman said the effort will “build upon the work we’ve done locally and to which NLC has already committed—with partners like Wilderness Inquiry, the Children and Nature Network, MNRRA, and the Outdoor Alliance for Kids.” You can read the announcement here.
Some cities are already doing a pretty good job. For example, the Charlotte urban region (spanning the border in both Carolinas) offers some great park and recreation models for the future.
Last week, when I spoke at a large civic luncheon, I challenged Charlotte to formalize the goal, as reported by the Charlotte Observer, to become America’s Best City for Children and Nature.
A few weeks earlier, I had given the same challenge to my own urban region of San Diego. And last year, I suggested the goal at a similar gathering in Houston.
The idea isn’t brand new. Back in 2009, Backpacker magazine ran an article called “The Best Cities to Raise an Outdoor Kid.” Boulder, Colorado led the pack of “25 places to beat nature-deficit disorder.” The qualifications (maybe backpack sales?) were never fully explained. Still, it was a good, conversation-provoking piece.
So let’s amp this up. Why wait for a national competition to be officially declared? We can begin by issuing an informal challenge city by city, town by town, to make this part of their official DNA, to set tangible, measurable goals, to see their civic future through the lens of nature.
Charlotte and other cities could establish a two- to five-year plan with benchmarks and reachable goals. Here’s a starter list of goals (and not necessarily in order of importance):
- Creation of an envisioning process to see the future through the prism of nature
- Number of family nature clubs and programs that connect families with nature
- Number of schools with natural play spaces
- Degree of economic and cultural diversity in outdoor settings and programs
- Number of pediatricians and other health professionals prescribing nature
- Number of private yards and public spaces planted with native species
- Increase in nature trail, bike paths, natural parkland, open space and wildlife corridors (“childlife” corridors, too)
- Commitment of businesses, nonprofits and public institutions to the cause
- Public awareness campaigns; for example citywide or statewide children’s essay contest on how they connect with nature
- Increase in local nature-based tourism and other economic measures — including property values, tax base; and successful efforts to market the region as a great place for children and nature
And so on…
Ideally, such a competition would have national sponsors, but if these cities were to set and reach their own goals, they could reasonably pronounce themselves among the nation’s — or the world’s — best cities for connecting children to nature.
Some cities love a challenge. Charlotte is certainly one of them. We’ll see what happens.
Regarding the first item on the list above, in 2011 I wrote a piece about how regions and states could see their own futures more creatively through the prism of nature. I had recently attended a conference held at the Minnesota Arboretum, where several hundred people from a variety of sectors – tourism, housing development, health care, education, and others – came together to explore nature’s role in their state.
As I wrote at the time, I was especially intrigued by the remarks of Mary Jo Kreitzer, a nursing professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the university’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. She said the state should make it a goal to become the healthiest state in the country, and that viewing the future through the prism of nature could help Minnesota reach that goal.
Could an investment in creating more nearby nature reduce obesity, save health care costs and improve student testing?
In such an envisioning process, cities and states could ask a series of questions. For example, what would health services, and results, look like? What would the region’s future education system be like? (After school programs, field trips, science education, and so on.) What if more nature were woven into everyday life – if natural watersheds were revived, if more parks were created, if community gardens and other forms of urban agriculture (including immigrant agriculture and high-rise farms) were encouraged. What would the economy and spirit of the region be in, say, ten or twenty years?
What would our homes and yards look like, feel like, if the restorative power of nature was considered in their design or remodeling?
How would the true greening of a region affect property values and other economic measures? What would be the long-term impact of a region-wide campaign that greened businesses and workplaces? We’re not talking here about just saving energy costs, but about creating human energy, through biophilic design, which is linked to higher productivity, lower employee turnover, and more creativity in the workplace.
On many levels, such an envisioning process would be fundamentally different from the usual way that urban regions and states think about their futures. Tired approaches focus on subsidizing corporations or one-upping the next town over — we’re the New Silicon Valley — on building an economy at the expense of other regions.
But a community that decides to be a great place for children and nature nurtures life itself – which helps every species, including humans, everywhere. Why not envision that future?
Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network
Follow Rich Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter