In Praise of Mundane Nature

The unsung nature in alleyways and backyards plays an important – and undervalued – role in urban lives.

OUR COLLECTIVE IDENTITY as Canadians and our conception of the environment is largely one of endless forests, untamed rivers and free-ranging wildlife. This vision, however, no longer reflects the reality of most of our lives. Four out of five Canadians live in major cities or their suburbs, far from the landscapes depicted on postcards.

OUR COLLECTIVE IDENTITY as Canadians and our conception of the environment is largely one of endless forests, untamed rivers and free-ranging wildlife. This vision, however, no longer reflects the reality of most of our lives. Four out of five Canadians live in major cities or their suburbs, far from the landscapes depicted on postcards.

The nature we find in our day-to-day lives exists mainly in empty lots and back alleys. It lurks in drainage ditches and along transportation rights-of-way. Far from spectacular, it is mundane. Most North Americans have a blind spot for mundane nature, no doubt the result of works by American authors such as Sierra Club founder John Muir.

Early conservationists praised a sublime nature – sacred landscapes that span horizons and provide the opportunity for life-changing encounters. They positioned this wilderness in contrast to the conditions found in urban areas. In some sense, this focus on the sublime was a necessary element of early wilderness preservation; in order to achieve the first nature preserves, proponents had to argue that nature has a spiritual and redemptive value. This focus, however, also encouraged the sense that nature and culture dwell in separate realms, and that the nature that cohabits our cultural spaces is a pale and lesser nature. This separation is one of the reasons that much of our urban space is not green. In our rush to preserve the sublime, we have dismissed what is growing in our backyards. The tragedy is that for many Canadians, mundane nature is their only nature experience.

William Cronon presented one of the first serious critiques of the nature/culture divide in his 1995 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” He felt that the North American conception of wilderness created a dualism that gives us permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead. As long as nature is “out there” beyond the city limits, Cronon suggested, we don’t need to concern ourselves with the nature in our backyards.

In her essay “Zoöpolis,” Jennifer Wolch points out that all cities contain an “animal town” of species that are in symbiosis with the city around them. Critters such as raccoons and plants like the “tree of heaven” have adapted to the environmental effects of the city and the food sources that our culture produces. Though often seen as pests, such nature provides a valuable if unappreciated resource. Even minor greenery lowers ambient temperature, absorbs stormwater, regulates humidity and improves air quality. Moreover, mundane nature is anything but mundane when it preserves our psychological health.

Hospital patients have been found to heal faster when given a view that includes greenery, and studies show that people are more willing to use public space for socializing if it includes natural features. Green space, even very minor green space, reduces the feeling of crowding. Moreover, roadside plants have been found to calm drivers – and the more significant the greenery, the stronger the effect.

Recognizing mundane nature’s value is particularly critical in lower income neighbourhoods. Many Canadians simply cannot access the wilderness areas outside major cities. Even within urban areas there are social justice issues associated with access to nature. Green space is strongly concentrated in wealthy neighbourhoods. In a study of Chicago that used satellite imagery, for instance, Louis Iverson and Elizabeth Cook found that vegetative cover is strongly correlated with household income. The authors argue that this inequality must be addressed “to sustain environmental services while providing humans with a reasonable quality of life.”

Dedicated to exploring the relationship between nature, culture and community in urban spaces, Evergreen is an organization that creates green play areas in barren school grounds. Cam Collyer, director of Evergreen’s Learning Grounds program, believes that green school grounds are particularly critical since the amount of free time children spend in nature plummets as families move to cities. Collyer suggests that childhood has moved inside, adding, “The schoolyard is the public space we spend the most time in as kids, and it is a space where adult supervision is minimal and free play can occur.”

Tim Grant, co-editor of the book Greening School Grounds: Creating Habitats for Learning and Green Teacher magazine, says, “Kids in North America spend thousands of hours on school playgrounds that are often a bleak, and possibly a paved, expanse … For urban children in our larger cities, schoolyard greening projects may afford them their only contact with nature.”

Greening our schoolyards is a step in the right direction, agrees author Richard Louv. In his popular book, Last Child in the Woods, Louv writes that the amount of time children from industrialized societies spend in free play outdoors is declining, and this shift can be damaging. “Kids will not have a true experience in nature unless they get their feet wet and their hands dirty,” he says.

Patches of mundane nature are particularly suited to play since children can interact with them without causing irreparable damage to valuable ecosystems. In The Geography of Childhood, Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimble argue that in an ideal world, a nature patch will be located within 100 metres of every home and have “loose parts” such as stones and sticks that a child uses for play.

Our ability to deal with environmental concerns such as climate change and conservation of biodiversity may, in fact, rely on advocates for mundane nature. The authors of “The Pigeon Paradox: Dependence of Global Conservation on Urban Nature” believe it is urban dwellers who have made a connection with nature who will save our wilderness. Louv asks, “If we so sanitize the experience that young people grow up to carry nature in their briefcases, but not in their hearts, they may care about the environment at some level, but how deep will that caring go?” Collyer agrees. He feels that a daily dose of nature establishes what he calls “ecological literacy.” He feels that without this basic understanding, a trip to a major wilderness area is like trying to read a Shakespeare play without first learning the alphabet.

Unlike the epic struggles to preserve special places such as BC’s Clayoquot Sound and Ontario’s Temagami region, maintaining the nature we encounter on a daily basis is fundamentally about local awareness. And mundane nature can be expanded. Municipal governments could, for instance, implement policies and regulations to encourage postage-stamp nature patches and discourage excessive parking and brush clearing.

We can also create more mundane nature on an individual level. Guerrilla gardeners, for example, undertake covert plantings in neglected public and private spaces. Though it’s hardly secretive, Toronto’s Public Space Committee conducts regular guerrilla gardening actions. Andy Brown, a representative, remarks, “I think that it helps people notice the places in between the private spaces they visit everyday, and gets them thinking about the importance of our shared public realm. I also think that it helps people feel they have an ownership of and responsibility for their neighbourhoods and places they live. In its own way, it gives them an avenue to make a positive contribution to the space they and their neighbours share.”

In “The Trouble with Wilderness,” Cronon claims that “nature is all around us if we only have eyes to see it.” By focusing on this mundane nature and expanding its scope and diversity, we could realize significant ecological, social and economic benefits, one urban square metre at a time.

Ann Dale is a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability, Royal Roads University. She held her university’s first Canada Research Chair (2004-2014) and is a Trudeau Fellow Alumna (2004).