Amirah Mitchell, 14, harvests beets on a suburban Boston farm.
Amirah Mitchell, 14, harvests beets on a suburban Boston farm. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Author Richard Louv invites us to imagine a future filled with urban parks, greenery, and gardens.

Homes destroyed by mudslides, villages flattened by hurricanes, glaciers melting into the sea, land cracked by drought: Such images of the effects of climate change fill social media feeds and television screens. These images may spur awareness and prompt declines in fossil fuel use, but they don’t encourage us to envisage a hopeful, green future.

Writer Richard Louv wants us to focus on this more optimistic vision. While such a view involves fighting climate change by using more-sustainable energy sources, Louv invites us to go further by imagining a “nature-rich” future. “If you only talk about energy efficiency, the conversation stops at solar panels,” he says. “‘Nature-rich’ conjures up the images that we want to work toward.”

Louv, who co-founded the Children & Nature Network, is a longtime advocate of reintroducing nature to people, especially children. In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, he coined the term “nature-deficit disorder,” which he says American children are suffering from due to recent trends that keep kids indoors.

CityLab recently caught up with Louv to discuss his nature-rich vision as it applies to cities, and what municipalities and individuals can do to ensure a future wealth in things green and leafy.

You’ve written about how Americans need to change the way they think and talk about the future. Can you elaborate?

We often talk to each other, as well as to our children, about our future in dystopian terms. There’s a reason dystopian novels and films, such as Blade Runner and Mad Max, are so popular. And these visions of the future don’t have a lot of nature in them, though at least The Hunger Games has a few trees. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that these narratives exist; Orwell’s 1984 offered a good lesson. The problem is an absence of another set of images, of a different, more hopeful future—and one that is rich in nature.

The good news is that this is a vision that many people can agree on. Our children’s disconnect from nature may be the only current cultural issue that brings together people who don’t agree on much of anything else. Pediatricians, developers, urban planners, liberals, conservatives: Once they get to the same table and start talking about it—and start remembering their own childhood connections to nature—they open up to each other and to plans for change.

Why is engaging with nature so important, especially for children?

A growing body of research suggests that kids who spend more time in natural environments are less apt to be obese or suffer from depression, anxiety, and attention disorders. They learn more effectively in school, and they play together better. Studies indicate, for instance, that in natural play spaces children bully each other less and are more likely to include others who they might not engage with otherwise. Adults benefit in similar ways. Research suggests, for example, that people who spend time in more natural environments in cities tend to nurture closer relationships with their fellow urbanites and to value their communities.

When did we start to lose our intimate connection to nature?

It probably started when we were no longer hunters and gatherers, and certainly industrialization moved people away from their rural homes into the less natural environments of cities. But in the past few decades, the divide has increased greatly. This is caused by such trends as the disconnect that comes from looking at screens all the time. In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that young people were spending nearly 52 hours per week consuming some kind of media, almost all of it electronic entertainment.* When do they have time to play, let alone play in nature? And adults are on screens all the time, too. The virtual world is addictive.

Another cause is parents’ fear of letting their children play outdoors alone. In some neighborhoods, this may be well founded, but in most neighborhoods violent crime toward children from outside the home has been declining for decades. Bad urban design is another source. Parents get lectured all the time: Go for a walk with your kids, don’t watch TV. But walk where? We’ve built communities that are all about the car.

Do children and adults in more rural areas engage with nature more?   

In less-urban areas, there’s a greater likelihood that kids will have the opportunity for the kind of free-range childhood that people used to have. But kids in rural areas are also getting the same messages about stranger danger, and they’re experiencing the same attraction to virtual life. They’re also getting the same messages from public schools about the devaluation of nature, as schools across the country have cut recess and outdoor play.

Rural adults are not likely to be working on the farms that previous generations did. Large, corporate farms have bought up most small operations. So if people have stayed in the rural community where they were born, they are more likely to be working at a convenience store or in another service job, rather than outdoors.

What can cities and their residents do to take the more hopeful, nature-filled path?

Urban leaders and communities can establish new parks and dedicate underutilized land to native species. Educators can help create school gardens and natural play spaces. Developers can build energy-efficient residential communities that integrate nature trails, rooftop gardens, and urban wilderness. Architects and designers can incorporate natural elements, including natural light, into their designs for homes, retail outlets, schools, and workplaces, which can increase productivity and improve health.

At the individual level, families can make a conscious choice to connect to nature. They can form or join family nature clubs, in which a collection of families get together to spend time outdoors. There are now hundreds across the country. In San Diego, where I live, 1,800 families belong to one. This doesn’t mean that 1,800 families show up to a park at once; a family may announce on the club’s listserv that they are going on a hike and ask other families to join. Perhaps a dozen come.

People find that on these outings the kids play with each other away from the adults. This is an important way for children to learn how to make independent decisions and negotiate with their peers. And the parents aren’t worried about stranger danger. The outings don’t have to involve far-away locales or expensive equipment. In low-income neighborhoods, families often explore natural spaces close by.

Richard Louv’s Children & Nature Network is partnering with the National League of Cities to help municipal leaders across the U.S. create nature-rich cities and improve nature access for low-income communities.

*The Kaiser Family Foundation statistic has been updated from a previous version of this article.

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