I was born with a love of nature encoded in my DNA. Virtually every summer of my youth, my family—mom, dad and five kids—would load into a station wagon, hitch a camper to the back, and take off to explore a different part of the country. By the time I graduated college, I’d amassed some unique experiences in nature: camping under awe-inspiring redwood trees, witnessing firsthand the power of a flash flood, becoming transfixed at the sight of a gushing geyser and watching the eerie, yet beautiful dance of nature during a tumbleweed storm. Those encounters shaped the woman I am today.
What are some of your best memories of nature? Growing up, did you spend hours in a lopsided treehouse in your backyard? Maybe you spent your summers at camp, fishing, swimming and camping; or piled into the family car and took road trips like we did, recording miles of mountains, rivers and grasslands.
If you were to return to those cherished places today, what might you find? Is the tree that held your fort still standing? Is the lake where you swam and played and fished still healthy? Has that park you so loved been altered or paved over? If you have ever lamented the loss of your favorite place in nature, you’re not alone.
In 1950, the United States population was just under 180 million people; today, we have an estimated 315 million. As cities have expanded to accommodate a rapidly growing population, our natural landscapes have borne the brunt of urbanization. Wetlands and coastal habitats have disappeared as more and more Americans relocate to coastal regions; our freshwater resources are becoming increasingly constrained, and valuable green space is disappearing from cities large and small. One recent example is in Houston; an errant bulldozer from a nearby townhome development site felled dozens of trees at a local park. The incident raised some important questions about the value of trees, which have traditionally only been viewed as beautiful background scenery. But not only do they beautify cities, they clean our air, encourage economic development and offer a way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. And of course, trees play a big part in creating memorable, magical experiences in nature.
As our cities expand, how can we ensure our trees, rivers and open spaces are protected? Cities have started to innovate in order address that challenge. Major urban areas like Chicago, New York, St. Louis and Philadelphia all have plans to expand green space and connect people to nature—plans that have been recognized and honored by the American Society of Landscape Architects. And we’ve seen inventive examples around the country.
- In Houston, the Buffalo Bayou Promenade added 23 acres of parkland to Houston’s Inner Loop and snakes under a collection of freeways and bridges to connect the downtown core to the city’s central business district. Nearly 300,000 plants, including more than 640 native trees, were planted to help buffer freeway noise and cleanse the air of pollutants.
- In May 2007, a tornado destroyed 90 percent of Greensburg, Kansas, a rural farming community of 1,400. But amid the sea of devastation, city officials saw the opportunity to build a more sustainable future. Greensburg’s reinvigorated Main Street features innovative stormwater management techniques; drought-resistant native plants and a drip irrigation system that uses far less water than traditional irrigation; and rain gardens that can absorb 32,000 gallons each hour, which will ultimately help recharge the region’s groundwater resources.
- Developed in 1991, Orlando, Florida’s 19-acre Greenwood Urban Wetlands was created to accommodate massive stormwater runoff from the surrounding roads. The extensive tree canopy and myriad of aquatic plants helps filter water and mitigate erosion within the watershed.
As important as it is for cities to do their part, so to must we. It’s incumbent upon all of us to champion nature in every way possible—around our families, among our friends and within our communities. We should plant more trees to increase our urban tree canopy, and vote for legislation that protects local water supplies, and funds new parks and green space. We need to support smart development within cities. And we need to encourage our children to get out of the house and discover nature; our research shows kids who have positive experiences are more likely to develop a strong conservation ethic. Our efforts today are no good unless we ensure that our children will be good stewards of our planet.
Photo © jonclegg/flickr
By Laura J. Huffman, The Nature Conservancy