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How the Built Environment Is Damaging Children’s Connection to Nature

October 1, 2020
Not a tree in sight: “In a drive to increase profit, we have densified our cities to the point where children have no safe natural places to play in and no wild areas to escape to,“ argues Teresa Coady in her new book “Rebuilding Earth: Designing Ecoconscious Habitats for Humans.” (Photo credit: hyeon hyeon/Flickr)

As we reduce the areas of wild nature in our cities because of development pressure, we increase our fear of it, and we reduce our children’s time in the remaining areas of wilderness.

By Teresa Coady 

The following excerpt is from Teresa Coady’s new book “Rebuilding Earth: Designing Ecoconscious Habitats for Humans” (North Atlantic Books, 2020). Reprinted with permission.

11 min read

The free-roaming range of the child has been reduced dramatically in only a few generations. About three generations ago, most children were free to travel the full range of their town, but they rarely went beyond it except when accompanied by adults. Two generations ago, children biked and walked freely within a few miles of home through developed and wild areas, often spending entire days out and about without supervision. One generation ago, most children were restricted to biking or walking a few local blocks and to playing in their back yards, and they were generally supervised for their own safety.

The current generation of children is mostly limited to the home and garden, and to supervised organized play outdoors. This restriction in range limits children’s ability to explore their world without fear and to know the complexity of the real world.

Just as the exploring range of the child has been restricted, so too has the personal mobility range of the child been restricted.

The parent is obliged to “walk” the child in a stroller, or else he might run or toddle off the narrow sidewalk into the fast traffic now rumbling down every street. Parents working on tasks cannot rely on community supervision and are forced to sit children in front of screens indoors to occupy their attention. Parents often have nowhere to take the child to play that would constitute a wild nature environ, so they move the child from stroller onto manufactured play structure. Parents must get everywhere by car, which keeps the child strapped into a car seat. When the parents have more than one child, it is much harder to protect the children, so the mobility restrictions increase.

This is not just a North American problem.

A University of Glasgow study showed that three-year-old Scottish children were spending an average of only twenty minutes a day actively mobile. The rest of the time was spent in mobility-restricted strollers or beds, or in highchairs or baby seats usually in front of some form of digital screen. Every parent knows that children need good nutrition, adequate rest, and lots of free time to play outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine in order to thrive.

Twenty minutes of activity per day?

How could we have forgotten the importance of this last piece in our universal child rearing conventions?

New evidence is linking less time playing outdoors in the sunlight with poor eyesight, specifically myopia. In China and East Asia, as many as 90% of recent high school graduates are thought to be near-sighted. There has been a 66% increase in the incidence of myopia in the Americas since the 1970s.

What is going on?

New research published in JAMA Ophthalmology indicts sunshine, or the lack of it, for changing the shape of children’s eyeballs permanently. Children spending less time outdoors and experiencing less sunshine grow up into myopic adults. I was the only person, child or adult, in my family to need glasses. I was also the least outdoorsy, so I can relate to this.

How did the exploration range and the mobility range of our children—worldwide, in all developed countries—become so restricted in just a single generation?

Much of the blame can be laid on the doorstep of the design, development, and construction industry. In a drive to increase profit, we have densified our cities to the point where children have no safe natural places to play in and no wild areas to escape to. They are reduced in many cases to a couple of lots dedicated as play-park areas that consist of grass and a bit of manufactured play equipment. The inevitable consequence of this lack of safe and engaging outdoor play space is that children are kept home for their own safety and learn to play quietly with technology.

But the issue is deeper than this.

As we remove large semi-wild parklands and play areas from our communities, we restrict the opportunity for our children—and ourselves—to explore and develop a comfort level with these environs. When we are not comfortable with wild nature, we discourage our children from exploring it. And so, we have now created a positive feedback cycle.

In many cities, children cannot name even one local bird. We do not protect what we cannot name. As we reduce the areas of wild nature in our cities because of development pressure, we increase our fear of it, and we reduce our children’s time in the remaining areas of wilderness. As we reduce our own and our children’s play time in wild nature, the benefit and use of these spaces diminishes, and the protection of these spaces is reduced, allowing their unopposed destruction and development as urban areas. Because of this strange and unhealthy positive feedback, we find ourselves valuing wild lands less, even as they become much scarcer.

The children themselves are telling us through dismal school statistics around escalating special needs (now 10% of all children worldwide, per the 2015 World Happiness Report), poor physical fitness, and lowering academic scores that there is something terribly wrong with the way we have designed their world. For instance, daycares are set up to carefully provide for safe sleeping and cleaning, but the outdoor play areas are often hard surfaces with intricate manufactured play sculptures usually fenced off and opening onto parking areas.

What are these children imprinting?

As we work toward a solution, we must make sure we do not get swayed by the arguments in favor of structured sports over unstructured playtime. The hard, regular surfaces required for many sports are anathema to the creative soul. These spaces do not provide the mystery and magic needed by our exploring young minds, nor do they encompass the myriad creatures caught up in even the smallest ecosystem for the child to connect to and develop empathy for.

Just like our children, we adults refresh ourselves when we catch early morning light filtered through trees, walk green tree-lined streets filled with birdsong to work, gaze out at changing skies and landscapes from our place of employment, take breaks in beautiful gardens, walk home and indulge in a stroll after dinner, and fall asleep to the night sounds of tiny insects, breezes, and rustling leaves.

This idyllic imaginary day was the norm for most families only a generation or two ago. Now, for most of us, it is a dream unlikely to manifest. We wake to the traffic sounds and smells of a busy city, take crowded transit or a busy freeway to work, eat our lunch at our desk or in a crowded café, take transit or the freeway home, and then stay indoors in front of a screen and fall asleep to the noise of traffic and the city. For those who live in the suburbs, the home environment might be a little more connected to nature’s sights and smells, but the long commute significantly offsets the overall benefit.

New programs like the WELL Building Standard and the Health Impact Assessment Toolkit are quantifying the effects of poor urban design for us. They tell us that without access to walkable districts, adults grow fat and develop diabetes and heart disease. They also tell us that without the fresh air created by natural environs, adults develop respiratory diseases.

Further research is connecting the dots, but we know that dealing with the stress of constant crowds creates the adrenal fight-or-flight response in some adults. Chronically high levels of cortisol, released by the adrenals in response to stress, lead to cancer and heart disease and a host of other conditions, including nervous breakdown. Adult mental illness is epidemic in our developed nations, and this heartbreak is triggering a hard look at the way we force ourselves to live now in our so-called modern world.

How did we arrive at this point where so many of our children have no exposure to nature, and where time spent in a wild environment is just a memory for most adults? Where we are stressed almost from birth by roads and construction, unrelieved by trees and gardens?

In my career, I have resisted designing places I would not live or work in myself, but there is a constant pressure on all designers to make built living space smaller and to eliminate wild areas. There is additional pressure to widen roads and build deeper parking garages. We design apartments that are too small, condos that have no privacy, communities with no access to green space, schools without safe walking paths and natural playgrounds, hospitals that are completely mechanistic and inhuman, universities without daylit classrooms and adequate natural retreat spaces, and office buildings with no connection to nature at all. Our builders, developers, engineers, and architects have convinced us that we cannot afford any other option. We have come to believe this as individuals and as communities.

The truth is that we have all allowed an untenable situation to develop without questioning it. Before we explore what I think it means to address these issues, I feel it necessary to describe what natural development is not. I see an ironic trend toward unnatural green buildings worldwide. This is what happens when we use a mechanistic approach to design something “naturally.” We are so lost in a mechanistic design paradigm that we confuse imitating nature with constructing in harmony with it.

My personal experience with this was when I visited Singapore for a World Architecture Festival event. Once a year architects from all over the globe gather in a selected city to celebrate the world’s best architecture. Gardens by the Bay in Singapore took top prize for the world’s best project. They consist of a massive new island formed from dredged sand; they feature gardens built on themes from around the world. The highlight of the gardens is a series of artificial “trees,” which light up at night with a sound and light show. The trees are major constructions of steel, featuring a walkway connecting the canopies. Somewhere in the middle of the “tree canopy” there is a bar from which you can view the Singapore skyline with a drink in your hand.

While all of it is quite over the top, my disconnected moment resulted from a queer juxtaposition. The open gardens are spectacular but uncomfortable in the heat of the day so are mostly used at night. It was a hot day. I decided to go to the enclosed and cooled part of the gardens. I visited the rainforest garden to refresh myself just before my long flight home. I wandered through artificial waterfall mists, walked up a constructed mountain, meandered through transplanted rainforests, and arrived at the geodesic dome on top of it all.

Then I walked back down and flew home.

The next day my husband and I walked through a mountainside rainforest in our community for a refreshing stroll along a river, and I found myself glancing up, momentarily disoriented and looking for the dome. In crowded Singapore, the diorama may feel like the real thing, and it may even momentarily fool a rain coast hiker like me, but it is not the real thing.

A lot of so-called sustainable building has so much technology operating it that the real intent and original feel of the design is lost in the complexity of the mechanical solution. Award-winning buildings designed as machines in organic shapes so that they imitate opening shells or wings are also not natural. I believe this intensely fabricated nature ultimately has a disturbing effect on the adult human psyche, especially on the open and creative mind. We must be clear about our objectives and protect the natural systems we have. We will need to provide daily access to real nature in all communities if we are to restore our true health and vitality. This does not currently seem to be the direction we are going in.

The eVolo Skyscraper Competition invites futuristic architectural solutions to overcrowding, global warming, and environmental disaster. The 2019 winning entries were all, to my eyes, rather alarming. They are, almost without exception, fantasies based upon bizarre robotic buildings without any connection to the natural fabric of our planet.

It seems that young imaginations around the world are exploring the future as a fabricated realm of artificial skyscrapers floating or supported above the earth. The apparent disconnect with natural physics is astounding. While it is true that these are only thought experiments and not to be taken seriously as future construction projects, they nevertheless represent a current fascination with extremely artificial environments and a rejection of wild nature.

I believe imposing such exotic construction on an already stressed and fragile planet—and on our stressed and fragile psyches—is not the solution. We need to turn this ship around, now, and move in the direction of elegant and simple solutions in harmony with natural forces. I feel that this is the only way we can comprehensively address the real and complex problems of neighborhood planning for the urban populations we anticipate in the next century.

How We Might Rewild Our Cities

Contact with nature nurtures us into a state of relaxation that supports our health and the development of our intelligence, sociability, and creativity.

When we remove contact with nature from our world, we live a circumscribed existence that increases levels of anxiety and fear and compromises creativity. Social tensions arise when we are too crowded without the relief provided by parks and waterways.

As developers, designers, and builders, we need to ensure that buildings are connected to natural light, views, and sounds. We need to build communities that are garden-based with real links to waterways and to wild nature. We need to redefine the postindustrial city; we need to rewild it.

Teresa Coady is an award-winning architect and Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. In addition to her work as president and CEO of BuntingCoady B+H and COO of Kasian, two of Canada’s largest design firms, Coady is also a director of the International Initiative for Sustainable Built Environments (iiSBE) and a member of the United Nations Environment Programme Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (UNEP GlobalABC). She received the YWCA Women of Distinction Award in 1999 and the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award in 2008. She resides with her family in Vancouver.

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