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In all of my writings about the life-enriching link between nature and human well-being, I have never talked about the bearing this link has on the quality of family life. In my book, Claim Your Wildness, I advocate engaging in nature activities on a family basis, but nowhere have I actually explained the reason for my enthusiasm.

One reason for this is that research has little to say about the topic. This is very surprising as it is easy to find anecdotal evidence (from people’s informal observations and experiences) indicating that shared nature activities can enhance and strengthen family life in all manner of valuable ways.

Based on my own family’s experience, I feel that a great deal of confidence can be placed in this anecdotal evidence. This is not to suggest for one minute that what nature has done for my family it will do for all families. Families and family life are just too diverse for that to be the case. But there is much that families have in common so that what has happened to one family may be a helpful guide and perhaps inspiration to others in some respects at least.

So with that possibility in mind, I asked my immediate family members (wife, Margaret and adult daughters, Wendy and Susan) to reflect on the impact that shared nature activities, primarily bushwalking and trekking, have had on our life together as a family.

Beginning when our daughters were very young, Margaret and I made Saturday a “family day”, which often involved an outdoor activity of one kind or another. When the girls were older, these outdoor activities morphed into bushwalking which included the occasional backpacking weekend and extended supported walk such as the Milford Track “tramp” in New Zealand. When the girls were in their early teens, we graduated from bushwalking to Himalayan trekking. From then on, nature-based activities formed a core component  of our family’s way-of-life – fostering a healthy lifestyle centred largely on physical activity as well as expanding our pleasures, interests, mental well-being and social connectedness.

Margaret had this to say about this powerfully formative part of our family life:

Bushwalking was an activity that came into our family fortuitously. The girls were not involved with weekend sport, so the four of us were free to go out on Saturdays or weekends. The fact that we enjoyed this family activity set us a bit apart from others, as we were all involved in it at an age that was significant for the girls. It was an incredibly ‘ bonding’ opportunity, even though we may not have realised it at the time – experiencing an activity outside our day-to-day routine. 

We all had to learn about responsibility to the group as well as ourselves. We experienced many challenges, gained confidence, got over differences, cooperated, laughed and gained much knowledge and information. I think we saw each other in a broader, different setting.

The activity itself immersed us in nature to varying degrees on different occasions, but again laid the basis for nurturing our inner spirit as well as appreciating and understanding the beauty of the bush. 

Our first trip to Nepal was an incentive to take a shared ‘walking’ holiday in a very different country. It was, at the time, an unusual thing for a family to do and as we now know, set the background for a wider experience of the world than we could ever have anticipated. It certainly extended our horizons and influenced future choices in life.

Bushwalking introduced us to people beyond our social scene, creating long-lasting relationships and interests. It taught us that we can manage things we didn’t think we were capable of, and about patience, tolerance and adaptability, solitude and silence. Most of all, it provided us with a world of wonder and interconnected life that is to be shared and cherished.

Both Wendy and Susan were certain that the countless hours we spent together in nature contributed very significantly to our togetherness as a family. They provided these specific points in support of their view:

  • Trekking and bushwalking are unhurried activities that give the gift of time for being together as a family – talking and sharing or simply being in one another’s company. They encourage connecting with your companions as much as with the natural environment.
    • They were also activities that brought the family together around a range of shared attitudes and values, including: love and respect for nature, non-materialism, the primacy of experiences over possessions, living simply and openness to the world beyond suburbia.
  • Trekking and bushwalking also provided an abundance of shared experiences – many of them new and challenging (even fearful) but almost always satisfying and rewarding.
    • They are also levelling experiences in the sense that the demands and challenges were usually the same for all four of us; we were engaging with mum and dad as equals rather than as (powerful) parents and (less powerful) children – an unusual and healthy family dynamic that contributed significantly to building a distinctive family identity.
  • Bushwalking and trekking broadened and deepened our family’s social network, especially by giving us friends to share. People tend to be very supportive of one another when sharing the challenges, discoveries and pleasures of outdoor activities. As our family certainly discovered, strong and enduring friendships often result.
    • Highly valued and memorable shared experiences brought our family together by giving us those “Remember when…” moments that can help families move beyond conflict or irritation to affection or admiration. “Yes, X (dad, mum, sister) does sometimes drive me mad but the way they kept me going that day when I thought I would never reach the summit was so good!”
  • Doing demanding activities together as family was phenomenally powerful. The fact that mum and dad were doing something that was new and challenging for them as well as for us provided an extraordinarily valuable model (of considered “envelope pushing” and healthy risk-taking). For this reason preparing for a trek was often as valuable for togetherness and the trek itself.

Wendy offered the additional thought that our family togetherness owes something to a shared vision of life drawn from the kind of experiences of nature we have shared. This is how she describes this vision as it appears to her:

The whole bushwalking experience has been a very strong metaphor for my life.  There are the times you have a level path clearly in front of you, glorious views, a light pack and the opportunity to talk (or not talk) to lovely companions. There are times when you need one of those companions to shoulder your pack for you, take your hand, talk you through etc. There are times when the path is pretty unclear and you can’t see your companions, your pack feels like boulders and you just have to trust your gut that you are heading the right way. There are times when you just plod on, not really focussing but simply putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that it won’t always feel like this. And there are times at summits, along ridges or flying down a hill that you almost feel superhuman – super connected.

 And a final word from the two girls:

We are certainly very grateful that we bushwalked and trekked together as a family. To some extent it made us the family we are – resourceful, forgiving, tolerant of one another, aware of how to encourage (what to say/ not to say) and resilient.

 

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These are views of the greenspace I see from one of the balconies of my new apartment.

Having these views was a big reason for choosing the apartment in the first place. Even so, I feel very fortunate and privileged to have such greenery to look at every day.

Not all residents of medium density developments in our cities have such amenities to enjoy. After all, lawns and gardens take up space where apartments can be built. Where’s the financial sense in foregoing profits in order to provide a view of a bit of greenery?  Anyway, isn’t it the case that people don’t miss what they didn’t have to begin with. Besides, a few token plants and trees around the place will keep everyone happy.

While such cynical views may not be expressed openly, they might as well be. It is a rare apartment development these days that doesn’t occupy the entire block of land. And government regulators are doing little to curb the practice or to reserve land in areas of increasingly high population density for parks and gardens.

Evidence from the many studies of the relationship between green space and human health and well-being clearly shows how short-sighted, irresponsible and potentially damaging these policies and attitudes are.

Consider these research findings, for example:

  • People are happier and have lower mental distress when living in urban areas with more green space, especially biodiversity rich spaces.
  • Meeting one’s neighbour in a local park can help to build friendship and foster a sense of commonality, and can lay the groundwork for further socialising.
  • Green space in urban areas is associated with a long-term reduction in mortality (Proximity to green space helps people live longer).
  • People living close to (within 300 metres of) green space report better health, require fewer medications and are troubled less by anxiety and depression.
  • Green space can have beneficial therapeutic benefits for people suffering from mental illnesses and even reduce the risk of schizophrenia.
  • Access to green space can help to counter some of the risks to health associated with low socio-economic circumstances especially inadequate physical activity.
  • Access to green space can reduce childhood behavioural problems including hyperactivity disorders.
While everyone stands to benefit from having green space nearby, it is likely that children and disadvantaged people have most to gain.

I often wonder what it will take to awaken Australians and people elsewhere to the power for good that resides in urban nature (and nature in all its forms). I am not sure that writing about it achieves much, apart from warming the hearts of the converted. And I am not convinced that TV nature documentaries – even of the quality of Planet Earth II – have more than a transient impact on most people.

Certainly, there are signs of an awakening of sorts – most notably the actions being stirred by Richard Louv’s warnings about the epidemic of “nature deficit disorder” spreading through children of the First World. But even this awakening is struggling to find its way into the consciousness of society’s opinion shapers and policy makers. The movers and shakers are simply not being moved and shaken by a “nature narrative”. Even the most monumentally impacting of nature’s current narratives, climate change, is still being denied by some and heard without real understanding by many.

One major impediment, I think, is that nature has ceased to be personal for many citizens of Western societies. When something is personal it reaches beyond our minds to the depths of our emotions and values. When something is personal it is part of us, part of our sense of meaning and identity. We appropriate it to ourselves; we revel in it; we nurture it; we defend it. When it flourishes, we flourish; when it hurts we hurt.

A personal relationship is grounded in intimate experience – an “I-thou” rather than an “I-it” form of engagement. Our relationship with nature is no different – as scientific as well as anecdotal evidence clearly tells us.

What, then, has to be done to help people discover nature in a personally meaningful and significant way?  Perhaps the answer can be found by encouraging people like you (my valued readers) to tell how they (and you) formed a personal relationship with nature. There is a power in personal stories. Perhaps the way forward is to tap that power on behalf of ourselves and nature.

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In 1960, an American psychiatrist, Herbert Hendin, was looking through statistics showing the rates of suicide in various countries. He was surprised to find enormous differences across the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Of all the countries Hendin surveyed, Denmark had the highest rate (along with Japan) whereas Norway had the lowest. Sweden was also well up the list, much closer to Denmark than to Norway.

Hendin was so intrigued by the contrasting rates that he travelled to Scandinavia to investigate the likelihood that cultural differences lay behind the differences. He spent four years there, learning Swedish and Norwegian in order to undertake his research. Although many factors influence the incidence of suicide, Hendin was able to conclude that differences in childrearing values and practices across the three countries were part of the explanation.

Norwegian child at playIn simple terms, Norwegian children played more freely, enjoyed more independence, had more opportunities to investigate the natural environment and spent more time learning by doing rather than being instructed. In contrast, childhood in Denmark and Sweden was more subject to adult control and expectations concerning education, careers and life goals generally. Under these conditions, Hendrin believed, Danish and Swedish children were more likely to experience failure, to have feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-worth and to develop anxiety and depression as a consequence. Norwegian children, on the other hand, encountered much less external pressure and, through their greater participation in free play, were more likely to develop self-confidence and resilience rather than self-doubt and vulnerability.

These different worlds of childhood reflected the contrasting economic and social environments thatNorway a existed in Scandinavia at the time. The rugged terrain of Norway had fostered small-scale, family-owned farming and fishing activity that kept many Norwegians in close touch with the natural world. For the children this meant that playing in this world was an integral part of life – indeed it was their life to a very large extent. Just as their parents had to exercise independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness, so too did the children. It is no surprise that their fairy-tale folk hero, Ash-lad, was a reflective, nature-savvy and highly enterprising individualist who found all sorts of unconventional ways of coming out on top.

The Ash-lad studying the embers

The Ash-lad studying the embers

Independence and individuality were much less valued elsewhere in Scandinavia. The flatter landscapes of Sweden and Denmark were much more conducive to large-scale and technological farming and to the centralisation of ownership. This gave rise to much less economic and social autonomy at the personal level and the strengthened perception that it was necessary to compete through personal achievement in order to get ahead.

Unlike its neighbours, Norway resisted Germany in World War 11. This strengthened the Ash-lad ideology. Then, the post-war economic boom spurred the rebuilding and development of Norway’s fisheries, farming and industry, a process that was greatly accelerated by a work-force steeped in the Ash-lad ethos. But this transformation ultimately brought Norway into the world of corporate capitalism and international economic competition, to the detriment of small-scale farming and fishing. In this new world, the influence of the Ash-lad is weakening even though his example of learning through, from and in nature continues to shape Norwegian educational values and practice. Norwegian children are now behaving and striving much more like their counterparts in other Western countries. Free play in natural surroundings is much less the norm.

And what of the Norwegian suicide rate at the end of this era of change? It is one of the highest in the world!

Now, the Norwegian story does not conclusively show that a link exists between:

(a) a pressured childhood in which there are fewer opportunities for free play and contact with nature and

(b) heightened anxiety, depression and suicide risk in later life.

But we have to consider the possibility of such a link. There is mounting evidence that outdoor play has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Among other things, it fosters a sense of identity, feelings of autonomy and psychological resilience – all important contributors to a healthy sense of self-worth and a decreased risk of anxiety and depression.    

 

I found much of the material for this post in Sigmund Kvalϕy-Sӕtereng’s chapter in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way.

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Imagine this scene –

  • a rock ledge overlooking a six metre almost vertical drop to a small rocky creek bed
  • a doubled climbing rope, anchored to a large tree, falls from the ledge to the creek
  • Julia, a largish, middle-aged woman in a climbing harness, is attached to the rope and is striving vainly to lean back in the harness and let the rope support her
  • a second person, obviously an instructor, is gently coaching her to trust the equipment, to keep her legs straight and to let the rest of her body slowly slide to the abseiling position
  • a third person (also an instructor) is at the foot of the drop holding the rope in readiness to help the woman control her descent
  • after struggling for several minutes to overcome her fear and let herself lean even a few degree backwards, the woman suddenly loses patience: “This is bloody ridiculous. Make me do it Les. Bully me!”

Yes, I am the Les to whom the order was addressed. The amusingly ironic thing is that Julia, a well-known political activist, human rights champion and all-round formidable campaigner was certainly NOT a person to be bullied. Needless to say, I disobeyed and resorted to plan B which involved a shorter and gentler rock face on which Julia could build trust in herself and her equipment.

Julia was one of the 500 or so people that passed through a beginning bushwalking and camping course

Backpack workshop

Backpack workshop

for adults with which I was heavily involved for over 25 years. Guided by the principle of “gradualism” (as distinct from the “into the deep end” approach), the course took people through a series of activities, beginning with an

This the way you build a fire

This is the way you build a fire

 

indoor introductory workshop and culminating in an overnight, moderate grade, full-pack bushwalk in the Blue Mountains National Park.

“What has abseiling to do with basic bushwalking and camping?” you ask.

“Nothing”, I once would have said, but my mind was changed by a chance occurrence on the very first presentation of the course.

This is what happened. With a view to underscoring the message that safety in outdoor activities is largely of one’s own making, my co-leaders and I hit upon the idea of illustrating the principle in a demonstration of abseiling. There was no intention to do other than show the course members safety procedures before and during an abseil. But when we had finished the exercise, one of the participants said, “I’d like to have a go at that”. And he did – successfully and without fuss – and, in doing so, encouraged almost everyone else in the group to follow his lead.

The group that returned from the abseiling site was noticeably different from the one that walked there an hour or two earlier. Morale and camaraderie had surged and one sensed a heightened motivation for the course and for bushwalking more generally. The sentiment seemed to be, “If we can manage an abseil, bushwalking and camping will be a breeze”.

Just a matter of walking backwards - down a cliff

Just a matter of walking backwards – down a cliff

This change was not lost on my co-leaders and me. It was clear that the abseiling “demonstration” had to be a fixed part of all future courses – to be conducted in the same way with the move “to give it a go” coming from the participants (which, quite remarkably, it always did).

I am sure that Julia was fully aware of the value of giving challenges a go. She knew intuitively what she stood to gain from walking backwards down that drop. On another occasion during the course, she had this to say (in her characteristically forthright way) to us course leaders:

There should be more courses like this for older people. Everything is done for the young these days. We have to stop older people bringing down the shutters.

Her urging not to bring down prematurely the shutters on life has stayed with me – indeed inspired me – ever since.

Nature-based activities, including those like bushwalking or hiking that are not usually associated with “adventure”, are especially good ways of keeping the shutters wide open.

  • They take us into a world that stimulates our mental faculties and emotions, sometimes very powerfully;
  • They increase our openness and resilience to novelty and the unexpected;
  • They help us to discover mental and physical resources within ourselves that we may not know we have;
  • They nurture friendship, foster empathy and co-operation in personal relationships;
  • They can help us to re-frame and resolve personal problems and issues – and even to give added meaning and purpose to life.

And you have more than my word for all of this. Susan, a course graduate who became one of my regular bushwalking companions, was kind enough to let me record some of her thoughts about the benefits she derived from walking in nature.

This is a summary of what she said:

  • From the physically challenging walks, she gained a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-esteem. The camaraderie that came from sharing challenges with others fostered a sense of belonging and of being accepted by the group. Interestingly, she had valuable periods of alone time even when walking with and in the security of a group.
  •  In addition to increasing her existing friendship network, she also saw her socialising in bushwalking as an important part of maintaining connections and engagement in her more senior years.
  •  Susan valued the non-competitive nature of bushwalking and appreciated very much the way the activity could encourage caring attitudes and behaviour.
  •  Her bushwalking also strengthened her sense of purpose in life and her desire to keep well (“I do not want to be a little old lady with osteoporosis”).
  •  Not surprisingly, Susan admitted to having a “craving” for nature, revelling in its beauty, tranquillity and peacefulness.    
Susan and friends

Susan and friends

 

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I never thought I would think, much less say, that taking a mobile phone on a nature walk could be a good idea. Mobile phones have become technological tyrants in the lives of many people. Sure, they are a great communication tool, but they are an insistent source of distraction that can almost run our lives if we are not careful. And they certainly have no place in nature-based activities undertaken to find stillness, inner calm and tranquillity – or at least so I believed.

My mind was changed by Matthew Johnstone’s story. Having had a long struggle with depression himself, Matthew is now creative director at the Black Dog Institute. He has been greatly helped by what he calls “eyes-wide-open” meditation (EWOM). This, he says, is a form of mindfulness meditation that is for people who are turned off by conventional insight or mindfulness meditation (MM) – or who find it difficult.

The cover of Matthew Johnstone's book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

The cover of Matthew Johnstone’s book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

MM involves quietening the mind by channelling attention onto an object, such as a candle flame, a feeling, a word or mantra – “om” is a popular one – or one’s own breathing, and then observing in a non-judgemental way the thoughts and feelings that pop into your head. The key ingredient of mindfulness says medical academic, Dr Craig Hassed, is that “we are conscious of what is going on but not in a self-conscious kind of way – so paying attention rather than thinking about ourselves”.

In contrast to MM, which adopts an inward looking perspective, EWOM turns our observing to the world beyond ourselves. It requires us to slow down, look around, and let our attention be attracted and held. It centres our awareness on the “out there” and enables our senses to dwell on “beautiful light, beautiful shapes [and] beautiful colours”. It locates us in the present and the here and now and, in so doing, quietens the sometimes unpleasant and damaging “busyness” of our minds.

Matthew found that a camera can be a great aid to EWOM.

“A camera in your hands is the reminder to consciously slow everything down from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts… To take photographs, we have to stop, look around, focus and capture. It brings our awareness to what’s going on.”

The camera does not have to be a fancy one. The camera built into most mobile phones is quite suitable for the purpose. Indeed, a mobile phone camera is the perfect tool for EWOM, he says, especially for people on-the-go. A great advantage of your phone camera is that you probably have it with you all or most of the time. It is also convenient to carry and easy to use.

Based on Matthew’s remarks, I have identified some simple guidelines for using your camera phone as a EWOM tool (no doubt Matthew would suggest others):

  • Switch the phone to aeroplane mode so that you’re not distracted by texts, tweets and the like.
  • Let the camera remind you to consciously slow everything down – from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts – and then take time to look.
  • Imagine the camera is asking you questions like, “What can you see that no-one else can? What grabs your heart? What makes you smile?”

This last guideline underlines the importance of photographing only what resonates with you – what you find yourself drawn to happily and involuntarily. These will be subjects that you find intrinsically interesting and attractive; subjects that you attend to effortlessly and without direction from your conscious mind. Psychologists refer to this involuntary, interest and emotion-driven attention as “fascination”, and contrast it with the fatiguing, voluntary, choice-driven (or directed) attention that is so much part of day-to-day life.

In the human mind, nature and fascination go together. Just as directed attention is an inescapable part of life in modern environments, fascination is the “normal” or typical form of attention in natural places. The psychological relationship between fascination and nature is forged by our emotions. The emotional centres in the human brain evolved long before the thinking parts and continue to have a big say in our behaviour including where and how we focus our attention.

There is now overwhelming evidence that fascination experienced in natural environments is therapeutic. Apart from countering stress, it enhances recovery from mental fatigue and associated mood problems. It is not hard to imagine that regular doses of fascination help relieve depression and anxiety, perhaps by giving the brain time-out from negative thoughts and feelings.

Matthew Johnstone practices EWOM in all kinds of settings. But I think that natural settings have more than most to offer as far as EWOM is concerned.

Matthew Jonstone b

And if the phone camera can help with EWOM then I am willing to concede that there is a case for taking a mobile phone (switched to aeroplane mode, of course) on a nature walk. If you are going to be “in the present and the here-and-now” anywhere, the “present and the here-and-now” in nature are as good as it gets.

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That’s right: it’s “body and soil” not “body and soul” are one (although that may be true as well).

This ancient piece of Korean wisdom along with modern scientific discoveries is motivating a remarkable Korean public health initiative – the establishment of healing forest centres throughout the country. Talk about regarding nature as an essential resource for human health and general wellbeing (as I did in my last post)! A better example is hard to imagine.

I have more to say about the Korean healing forest centres below, but first I want to reflect on a recent related article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Quite by chance, the article, which also deals with nature as a resource, appeared soon after my last post was published. The article is by Gareth Collins, President of the NSW Chapter of Australian Institute of Landscape Architects and is entitled Sydney’s Beauty Lies in Nature.

Sydneysiders could see this as a slightly provocative title, given the world-wide admiration of the OperaSydney Harbour aerial House, the Harbour Bridge and indeed the many stretches of attractive urban development around Sydney Harbour itself.

But Gareth reminds us that Sydney has around it vast areas of natural bushland, much of it still in a state of wilderness. There are also ribbons of bushland within the metropolitan area itself. These are located mostly along rivers and creeks draining into the harbour or into Botany Bay in the city’s south. (The river entering the harbour in the centre top of the photo actually passes through one such ribbon of bushland, now preserved as a National Park.)

P1180407_1024

Suburban streets are not far away

As Gareth points out, these areas of natural bushland form an immense green infrastructure that pervades our suburbs, along roads, streets, creek lines and in parks, and makes Sydney one of the greenest cities in the world. This natural beauty, he writes, is a gift to Sydneysiders, which must not be taken for granted.

Like many cities around the world, Sydney is short of land to accommodate a very rapidly expanding population. In response, urban density is increasing along with the expansion of suburbs into formerly rural area. This, together with the development of essential infrastructure, poses a great threat to urban greenery, especially so if there is a failure to acknowledge the value of natural spaces as a resource for life.

Gareth sets out a charter of what is needed:

All development needs to contribute to the total urban forest so that shade, clean air and natural beauty are on hand. Projects need to be co-ordinated to ensure high-quality public space is accessible to all. A visual and physical connection to the landscape and water needs to be provided and maintained.

 And why?

[To] create a healthier environment, a happier inhabitant, and a more productive city.

The mention of health brings us back to Korea and specifically to Saneum Healing Forest near Seoul. South Korea is like Sydney in a way; it is richly endowed with vast natural areas, forests of towering pine, oak and maple. Saneum is one of 37 state-run recreational forest scattered across the nation. The forests offer citizens easy and enjoyable access to the country’s vast natural resources with cheaper entrance fees than other private or government-owned recreational forests.

Saneum is also one of three similar forests where healing centres have been established. These centres offer programs based on strong science that links forest-based activities, especially walking, to a range of health benefits, including reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure and improved concentration.

In this respect the programs are very similar to ones provided in Japan under the umbrella of the shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) movement. Activities included in the healing programs are meditation, forest yoga, dancing, poetry reading and “gi” (energy) exercising (shown in the photo).

So successful have these programs been that the Korean government plans to have 34 healing forest centres in operation by 2017, one close to all major cities. So far this policy, based as it is on the demonstrated value of nature as a public health resource, has increased visits to forest from 9.4 million in 2010 to 12.8 million in 2013. This is an extraordinary increase given that the comparable trend in Australia and other Western countries is in the other direction.

I wonder if I will ever see “bush healing centres” in national parks or reserves in or near Sydney and other Australian major cities and towns?

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A recent newspaper article attacked “baby boomer” empty nesters for staying in their detached houses after their families had left home instead of downsizing and making their houses available to younger people with families. As detached houses are in very short supply, so the argument goes, older singles and couples should release their free standing houses to the market. This would enable a greater number of families to enjoy the benefits of more indoor and outdoor living space.

Sounds reasonable?

Well, maybe – if it is indeed the case that younger people want bigger houses with front- and backyards.

Of course they do, you might think. Who wouldn’t want a big house with a spacious kitchen and living area and separate bedrooms for each of the kids, not to mention a garage for each of the family cars?

And as for front- and backyards, aren’t they part of the ideal modern family home? Well, they might be for some, but compare these photos of a new development on the left and an older suburb.

Loss of backyard

Loss of backyard b

Compared with the older suburb, the newer development has a much larger dwelling footprint and fewer trees. Instead of presenting as a patchwork of roofs and greenery, it is mainly roofs.

What the photos illustrate is a trend that has been going on since the early 1990s according to Griffith University’s Tony Hill. Since then, freestanding houses with big backyards have ceased to be built. Instead, the clear preference has been to build almost to the boundaries of the available land – and then enclose the site with high, opaque wooden or metal fences that provide privacy at the expense of outlook.

Freestanding houses and backyards are fast becoming a threatened species.

Even where the sizes of building blocks have remained much as they always have been (the “quarter acre” – actually eighth of an acre – block ), the same trend is occurring. People are choosing to build big and exclude green space. Here is an example from my own street.

IMG_2163The front yard will become a drive and the backyard a swimming pool surrounded by concrete or paving.

The finished house will certainly look very different from the original houses in the streetIMG_2165 like this one.

Practical or economic necessity is not all that is at work here. We are also seeing evidence of a general shift in the psyche of urban dwellers. We are succumbing to the belief that our “natural habitat” is the human-designed, developed environment. This allows us to tolerate the growing reality that the modern city is dominated by profit-driven development, marked by environmental degradation and disconnection from nature.

But as biophilic design guru, Stephen Kellert, reminds us,

This contemporary reality does not diminish people’s inherent need to affiliate with nature as a necessary basis for health, productivity, and well-being.

It does make it harder, however, to get home the message that by adopting a pro-nature approach to design and development, it is possible to restore an environment – even in our urban areas – where nature is still on hand to nurture and enrich the human body, mind and spirit.

And rescuing the suburban backyard from the threat of extinction has to be part of that process.

Many of my previous posts have directly and indirectly explored the place of the backyard in maintaining a connection with nature. A backyard is obviously critically important for building nature and outdoor activities into the lives of children – a theme of posts such as An authentic childhood, Nature play, An alarming message, and The campfire connection (with nature). For adults, having a backyard that contains a garden, even a small one, is hardly less important. The well-documented physical, psychological and social benefits of gardens and gardening are mentioned in such posts as Nature and wellness, The dream that can be a reality, and Urban density – the caution light is flashing.

Additionally, the backyard garden has a function and importance that goes beyond the interests of individuals and households. The presence of private gardens in aggregate brings significant advantages to the community, including:

  • contributing to clearing the air of pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and small particulates.
  • absorbing and sequestering atmospheric carbon.
  • increasing biodiversity – domestic gardens can exhibit a degree of planting density and variety that is not found elsewhere in urban areas, including playing fields and nature strips.
  • improving natural drainage and reducing the risk of excessive stormwater run-off.
  • combatting summer heat by lowering surface temperatures – by as much 5 degrees Celsius according to one Australian study.

Saving the backyard garden is not beyond the realms of possibility but it will involve a rethink of urban and household design by everyone, especially politicians, planners and developers. Far from being a radical move, it would be a return to traditional Australian values and the reversal of a trend that is, after all, only comparatively recent. And as Tony Hill rightly observes, It would also call upon people to relax and start enjoying life again, hardly a negative or puritanical goal.

 

 

 

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