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Biology, Psychology, Sustainability

Finding urban nature

An overview of the river valley from a set of wooden stairs

Heading into the river valley in Louise McKinney Riverfront Park

I used to take people on voyageur canoe trips down the North Saskatchewan River Valley in Edmonton. Today, I paddle and coach dragon boats on the river. I bike through the river valley on a regular basis, both commuting and for recreation. I meet friends in the river valley parks for campfires and walks. And so, I am always completely amazed when I meet people who have never been outside of their car in the river valley. In fact, I have talked to any number of people who admitted that they had never noticed the river valley until they had to come into it to meet me for a program.

Edmonton is incredibly fortunate to have the river valley. It was not always going to be: the late 1800s to early 1900s saw fairly heavy resource development. Logging was a prominent feature and contributed to the wealth of John Walter, Edmonton’s first millionaire. Fortunately for all Edmontonians, early city councils saw the incredible value of the river valley, as a natural landscape in the city, and implemented various measures of protection.

Why does the river valley speak to me, while others can’t hear it say a word? I think I found the river valley by chance. I had spent a lot of time growing up in a community park, another great feature that you can find interspersed all over Edmonton. I went camping with my family, so I was not unfamiliar with the outdoors. But I really began my love affair because of a job: the job that had me leading those voyageur canoe trips, along with biking, inline skating, outdoor skills, cross country skiing, the list goes on.

The job thrust me into the nature of my city and I am so thankful that it did. Sadly, most jobs don’t come with this requirement, and so, many people never discover the nature their city has to offer. I think though, that this discovery is a necessary one. Research has shown that natural settings have positive impacts on the symptoms of ADHD1. Seeing nature through your window can lead to shorter recovery times from surgery2. Seeing a tree out your window has a restorative effect because nature is inherently interesting3. In other words, you don’t have to work to pay attention to nature which gives your brain a mini-break and allows it to work harder when it needs to. Communities with naturalized meet up areas tend to have a higher sense of community4.

And then there are all the ecosystem services that natural areas provide such as air and water purification, erosion protection, and preservation of biodiversity.

I truly believe that we need to spend more time in nature. Lewontin suggested in his 1991 book Biology as Ideology5 that one of the failures of the environmental movement is picturing the environment as something external to us. We are part of the environment, no matter how much we modify it to suit our needs and desires. By spending time in the natural environment, perhaps we will be able to adjust so that we can think and act as part of the environment. This will help to bring us to a more sustainable future.

So this week, go find a patch of nature, perhaps even one that you haven’t visited before. Take advantage of all the psychological benefits, maybe add some physical benefits by being active, but most importantly, picture yourself as part of the nature you are in.

Sources

1Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001). Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77. doi: 10.1177/00139160121972864

2Franklin, D. (2012). How hospital gardens help patients heal. Scientific American, 306(3). Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nature-that-nurtures/

3Kaplan, R. (2001). The nature of the view from home: Psychological benefits. Environment and Behavior, 33(4), 507-542. doi: 10.1177/00139160121973115

4Kim, J., & Kaplan, R. (2004). Physical and psychological factors in sense of community. Environment and Behavior, 36(3), 313-340. doi: 10.1177/0013916503260236

5Lewontin, R. (1991). Biology as ideology: The doctrine of DNA. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press Ltd.

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About Peyto

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities. Peyto is a reference to Bill Peyto who was an outfitter, trapper, and eventually a park warden in Banff National Park. Peyto Lake and Peyto Glacier are both named after him. He is also a distant relative of mine.

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