Sunday, April 28, 2013

Being a Citizen Naturalist

"In every bio-region one of the most urgent tasks is to rebuild the community of naturalists, so radically depleted in recent years, as young people have spent less time in nature, and higher education has placed less value on such disciplines as zoology……The times are right for the return of the amateur, twenty-first-century, citizen naturalist. To be a citizen naturalist is to take personal action, to both protect and participate in nature.”
-Richard Louv, author of the Nature Principle

There is much excitement in the urbanist community about how the millennial generation are forgoing driving in favour of living in dense cities; however few people talk about this generation’s complete disconnection and ambivalence toward nature.

Lisa Rochon recently wrote an article in the Globe and Mail asserting that cities of the future will belong to the millennial generation - nearly two million people born between 1980 and 2000 who live in Canada’s major cities and inner suburbs. Yet, according to Environics’ values-based data,their attachment to nature is ambivalent:

“Don’t expect many millennials to turn up at the opening this summer of the big, flood-protected Don River Park in Toronto’s east end. What would fire up their Facebook and Twitter accounts would be the much-anticipated, much-delayed reinvention of John Street in Toronto’s entertainment district.”

This may be a sweeping generalization, but there is some truth to the claim that my generation spends more time loving our iPhones and drinking craft beers at a hip new downtown pub than hugging trees.

In Vancouver, I am fortunate to live in a city that is so surrounded by nature that it is impossible to ignore; however many city-loving millenials don’t have the same access to nature and will suffer as a result.

I recently finished the Nature Principle, a book by Richard Louv. Louv created the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe possible negative consequences to individual health and the social fabric as children and adults move indoors and away from physical contact with the natural world. Louv cites research pointing to attention disorders, obesity, a dampening of creativity and depression as problems associated with a nature-deficient lifestyle.

Our society is so dependent technology that we don’t realize or even adequately study how human capacities are enhanced through the power of nature. According to Louv, tapping into the restorative powers of the natural world can boost mental acuity and creativity; promote health and wellness; build smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities, and economies; and ultimately strengthen human bonds.

Spending time in nature was a big part of my childhood and even teenage years. My parents took us camping every summer, and skiing, hiking and canoeing on weekends. Growing up in Vancouver, my primary and high school education always involved lessons on local First Nations and the salmon life cycle (bet you don’t know what an “alevin” is unless you grew up in BC). I also took high school courses on local fisheries and ecology (we even had a “salmon club” where you could participate in the local fish hatchery).

Unfortunately now that I, like most millennials, am a city-dwelling adult working 9-5, I don’t get to spend as much time in nature as I used to. But, before you pick up your iPhone and go back to social media surfing - this doesn’t mean we millenials can’t be one of Louv’s citizen naturalists. Here are some tips to appreciate and support nature in an urban environment.

Try guerilla gardening: most of us living in cities don’t have access to a garden, but there are many opportunities to go rogue and plant local species of trees, flowers and bushes in empty lots around the city. For tips, check out this site:

Residents of neighbourhoods across the city have been quietly adding flowers and other plants to lanes, boulevards and traffic circles. In Vancouver, along the boulevards of 100 block West 10th they have added planters, bicycle baskets, wheelbarrows and flower beds. Residents near McLean and Grant, 8th and Sasamat, 16th and Trimble and 20th and Fleming have also planted their boulevards with flowers. One east-side resident plants her boulevard with beans and other vegetables for public picking.

Laura Sandberg is a guerilla gardener in Prince George. She transforms vacant lots into vegetable and flower beds. (Photo c/o CBC)

Get educated on local flora and fauna: There are organizations in and around Metro Vancouver (and cities around the world) that host nature walks, bird watching excursions, etc. where you can get to know the local plants and critters in your bioregion. For more information on Metro Vancouver nature events, visit these sites: Every week eventsNature VancouverMetro VancouverOngoing Natural Walks.

Support and introduce local plants in your neighbourhood: If you really want to support your local ecosystem, plant local species to support the bugs and animals that live there. According to Audobon at Home: 

“The most significant factors in the decline of bird populations are habitat loss and degradation. One solution to curb habitat loss is for each residential area (new and established) to provide birds and other wildlife the necessities for survival — food, water, nesting area, and shelter……By creating healthy habitat for birds and wildlife in our yards and neighborhoods, we can temper the habitat fragmentation and displacement caused by urban and suburban expansion by helping to build that matrix.Your yard is an important piece of the matrix. Its singular importance is magnified by the combined efforts of others.”

You could even plant a homegrown Butterfly Garden!

Enjoy your local parks and nature: Take The David Suzuki Foundation’s 30 for 30 challenge and spend 30 minutes a day outside in nature for 30 days this May. You will be amazed at what this does for your happiness and sense of peace, trust me. This great infographic illustrates how nature impacts human health.

Pick up litter: Canada just celebrated its Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup last weekend. But, we can do our part every day to pick up litter in our back alleys, parks and beaches.


Use clean transportation: Riding a bike or taking the bus means you spend more time in the outdoors, get more physical activity and reduce your carbon footprint. ‘Nuf said.

Shop local: support your local farmers market, co-op grocer, health food store, florist, etc. Money spent at a local business generates 3.5 times more wealth for the local economy compared to money spent at a chain-owned business. And, it is better for the environment since major chains burn 1 billion metric tons of CO2 shipping products around the world. Here is another infographic that provides further evidence on why you should shop local.

“Close the landfill, and own your shit!”: This was the response from Jennifer Marshall, partner in Urban Arts Architecture, in a Tyee article last year that asked local Vancouverites what paradigm shifts would enhance the city. In her words:

“If we all took ownership of our consumption, if there was no such thing as “away,” if we closed the landfill… what would the consequences be? I believe it would reduce waste, reduce unnecessary consumption, and reduce unnecessary production and use of raw materials. But it would also shift our paradigm. For one, we’d value what we have more. We’d demand higher quality, more durable goods. We’d create new industries of reuse, and foster community through sharing resources and means to recycle. Call it Craigslist on your block.”

These are just a few simple tips to help you get outdoors more and appreciate and conserve nature in your city. I would love to hear more. What do you do in your daily life to be a citizen naturalist?