Friday, June 15, 2007

Greening the Urban Animal

A few days ago, for the first time in our history as a species, the human population of the planet Earth became predominantly urban, not rural.

Some bold researchers pinned down this epochal moment of passage to May 23, 2007. The date was of course a polite statistical fiction, based on a United Nations estimate of how fast people worldwide are shaking off the dust of the countryside and moving into town.

In any case, nobody stood up to ask the important question: What does it mean to become a city-dwelling species?

That’s the question Richard Conniff raises in his New York Times article, The Greening of the Urban Animal (6/11/07). Some notable excerpts from that story:

One school of thought has always treated cities as the antithesis of nature. Maybe that's because cities originated in part to shelter people from scary beasts and other blessings of Mother Nature. …

Even Jane Jacobs, the great theorist of urban living, once disparaged modern nature as a "tamed pet" which do-gooders wanted to foist on the city "so the city might get some nobility, purity and beneficence by association."

But the evidence increasingly suggests that these attitudes are misguided. Even city dwellers need nature, and what they get from it is their sanity. ...
In the public housing projects of Chicago, for instance, studies have consistently shown that trees make for healthier neighborhoods, with more people spending time outdoors and more kids playing in creative ways. Housing projects with trees also have about 7 percent less crime than their treeless counterparts.

You wouldn't use a word like "sylvan" about any of these neighborhoods. They're still just public housing projects. But "what's relatively green for" a given individual "is better than what's relatively built," says Frances Kuo, an environmental psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Other studies have shown that patients recovering from surgery in a room looking out on trees need far fewer painkillers than patients in rooms looking out on a brick wall. Open-heart patients in rooms with nature scenes on the wall have lower blood pressure and smoother recoveries than patients with blank walls or abstract art. ...
[The postcard views of Asheville's Pack Square and Battery Park Hotel are from almost a century ago in the mountain metropolis.]

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