Green Scene Blog: The nature right here

Folks, this post comes from Joanna Salidis, a Charlottesville resident and mother of two. She has a compelling perspective about where nature really exists–and what that means for city planning.

Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle, opened his talk at the Paramount March 15 with a sobering picture. Most adults, he said, tend to imagine the future as a post-apocalyptic world, with social, environmental, and political chaos. He shared with us an alternative vision, in which we re-wild cities and regenerate nature, and stressed the importance of connecting children and adults to nature to achieve this future.

How ironic, then, that our local environmental organizations, one of whom sponsored Louv’s talk, are leading us in the opposite direction. The unquestioned assumption of many pro-environment organizations and individuals is that we need to preserve and protect “nature.” Unfortunately, in this view, there is not a whole lot of nature in the urban area, as it has been paved over, killed, and polluted out of existence. Therefore, in order to preserve “the environment,” environmentalists promote development in the urban area’s remaining green spaces, and sprawl all around its edges. They call this “smart growth.”

I understand this perspective; I used to share it. I chose to live in the City, largely because I did not want to contribute to sprawl and be auto-dependent. I thought that the more people in the city, the better, as long as somewhere, out there, nature was protected. The problem is that I unconsciously took for granted that compact development would look something like Louv’s green future–that City parks would be sacred, that the City’s edge wouldn’t sprawl, and that access to nature would be understood and respected as a right of the urban dweller. A city that has room for both a lot of people and other nature, though, cannot be filled with cars, roads, and parking lots. Similarly, a city that can afford to regenerate its soil and water, and use green infrastructure, cannot spend its tax and utility revenue extending its road, sewer and water, emergency and other services further and further out.

The dogma that auto-dependent growth is inevitable has led, and continues to lead, to unseemly and counterproductive “compromises.” In an attempt to avoid a bypass in the rural area, local environmental organizations supported a road through Charlottesville’s central park. In an attempt to preserve rivers and steer sprawl as close to the City as possible rather than further out, these same organizations supported a new dam and reservoir in our forest park. These examples are representative of a prevailing attitude I’ve heard repeatedly from government and non-profit organizations and community leaders alike.

To care about the nature “out there,” City residents and their children need to experience it right here. I have spent countless hours and a lot of energy driving my children to parks or natural areas and supervising them there because there is nowhere to play outside my door, nor woods or streams (that aren’t dangerously polluted) within walking distance. Few people have the time or inclination to do this. Adults see a dark future because they know, at least subconsciously, that our current systems are unsustainable. Yet the very organizations we count on to protect our future are complicit in its destruction. It is time for a paradigm shift.

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