Words by joey gardiner
Can we afford to make space for nature in our ever more crowded cities? Faced with overheating, flooding, pollution and the threat of total ecosystem collapse, can we afford not to?
Bringing nature into cities is hardly a new idea. In fact, it has swung in and out of vogue for more than a century, ever since Victorian social reformer Ebenezer Howard published what became the Garden Cities of To-morrow manifesto in 1898. Prompted by the squalid, polluted and dangerous environment faced by Victorian city dwellers and their growing alienation from the natural world, Howard’s idea was simple: to create places that brought together the best of urban and rural — homes surrounded by nature, but close to work and shops.
Despite all of the improvements since Victorian times, we still face challenges not that different from those that Howard was seeking to overcome. But now the stakes, in terms of mankind’s survival on the planet, are significantly raised.
On the one hand, a compelling body of evidence suggests that cities remain dangerous places for people to live. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, worldwide, 7 million people die each year from the effects of air pollution, with nine out of ten of us breathing air that breaches safe limits. The US government says excessive urban heat kills more people each year than all other weather-related disasters. Meanwhile, cities’ untold expanses of asphalt make them liable to floods that threaten lives and damage property, overwhelming water treatment facilities and sending raw pollution into rivers. As Pascal Mittermaier, global cities managing director at conservation charity The Nature Conservancy (TNC), says: “Many cities are becoming really toxic, dangerous and even deadly places to live.”
At the same time, and as a direct consequence of man’s activity, nature is being wiped out at a frightening and unprecedented rate. The scientific consensus is that habitat loss, man-made chemicals and climate change are together triggering a mass extinction event as severe as anything since the demise of the dinosaurs.