Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cities + Nature

There's abundant nature where people live their daily lives but do they experience it? I took this shot during a vacant-lot safari with Sebastian at the corner of Monticello and Carlton Road, a block from our home.
As part of my professional development, I’m taking a class called Cities + Nature at the University of Virginia. It examines the importance of interaction with Nature and ways for planners to make it part of the everyday experience. This post is part of a series on the subject.

My professor invokes the notion of a Nature Pyramid to describe a practical diet of exposure to the Natural World. At the top, one finds rare but intense lifetime experiences such as a safari or a raft ride down the Grand Canyon; in the middle trips to state parks; further down daily or weekly rituals like gardening; and all the way at the bottom views through windows or even looking at art. When I worked in a downtown financial firm, the productive people all had flyers for cruises or postcards pinned to their cubicle walls so they could rest their eyes several times an hour. A pet or a houseplant serves a similar function.

From an urban planning perspective, it makes sense to focus on the bottom half of the ladder, seeking ways to improve the quantity and quality of experience in towns and neighborhoods where people spend most of their time. Do we hear birds or see butterflies? Smell flowers or leaf rot or a skunk’s nocturnal passage? Do possums cross our yard or robins nest in our porch? Can we see the sun rise or set or clouds pass overhead? Feel fresh breezes or crunch on a frosty path?

These are not man-on-cliff confrontations with the Sublime but through a lifetime they add up to a connection with something much larger than ourselves, a centering force that makes us better and healthier.

Yesterday at lunchtime I took a run from my home to Carter’s Mountain via Secluded Farm (which takes me about 10 minutes) and then as far up as I could go without trespassing. I took a break at my planned turnaround point, the border between the mature woods and the mountaintop orchard. There I was able to simultaneously experience two extraordinary ecosystems, with abundant flora and fauna and glimpses of the valley below.

Experiences like that, or playing in a stream, or the quick biology lesson one gets from turning a compost pile can and should be available to all and as readily so as they are for me. There’s work for planners and for program directors.

I am blessed with many opportunities like the ones I described partially because of where I live but their importance has been reinforced for me all my life from my mother shoving me out the door to this very moment as I look up to see a birthday card from Sebastian pinned to my wall that features a cute drawing of a mulberry tree he made when he was a toddler.

This stuff is easily obtainable but we need to keep being reminded. Planners can subtly push nature into our lives or at least allow it to flourish where people live. For too many, there is a lack of physical inventory but in my experience there is also an internal barrier that needs to be overcome to obtain the dose we need.

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