Nature in an Urban Environment

by Verity Evans

What can we learn from small, seemingly insignificant green spaces?

Walking through a city you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s only humans living amongst the concrete and the only energy exchange networks functioning are man-made, but there are green spaces everywhere; wildlife, water and waste systems, transportation networks as well as the built environment all working together. Parks, a street lined with trees, a sports field, city owned planters, roundabouts, rooftop gardens, grassy verges, and even plants growing in the nooks of walls and cracked pavements. We are surrounded by nature.

The relationship between nature and its human inhabitants can be fraught but it doesn’t have to be.

Permaculture encourages working with nature and each other to heal the damage that has been inflicted on the earth by the world of industry (ahem! capitalism) and to enhance the world that sustains us.

It is easy to become accustomed to walking past nature in an urban environment without a second thought and not even noticing its presence. Becoming mindful of the nature around us has many benefits, not only to nature itself but to us humans. Our mental health is improved when we surround ourselves in nature (you can benefit even if, as a city dweller, you don’t have the means and opportunity to escape to the countryside).

*How do you view the nature around you in your cityscape?

*Do you walk by and appreciate the green spaces (however small) or not?

*Do you benefit from the city’s green spaces? How?

The power of nature and plants is incredible. Using green spaces in the city benefits us and our communities. Every green space and small corner of nature seen and experienced in the city is a learning opportunity. Going out and occupying these spaces regularly means that, not only do we benefit personally, but we also create opportunities to meet people from different backgrounds and communities.

Nature brings people together. It is a great leveler. The more these spaces are used, the more we realise that the people sharing the spaces with us aren’t strangers, but neighbours and friends that we have much more in common with than we are led to believe. It in itself becomes a radical act. By bringing people together in nature we begin to share positives and negatives about our very own communities. We are then able to formulate plans to change or improve whatever is deemed important or vital for the group/community at large.

Problem: A food bank has very little fresh produce.

Solution? The church hall it’s run from has a small outdoor space that can be developed into a garden in which to grow fresh produce.

These actions are made possible by getting to know your community, finding out who has the skills and time to volunteer. This is facilitated by spending time in the city’s green spaces.

Go out and find an area close to where you live that you can see nature. Ask yourself:

  • What plants are thriving there?
  • What wildlife is seeking refuge in that space?
  • How is nature adapting to the city?
  • What could be changed or adapted for the area to thrive?

You could ask these questions about a large park or garden, but it could also be a narrow strip of grass alongside a pavement, an alleyway, a small roadside bank or even plants growing between the stones in a wall or a long forgotten rubble pile.

It is in the asking of these questions we can learn and pick the positives for our own designs (and eliminating/learning from the negatives).

*You want to grow dandelions but not let them take over precious space in your tiny balcony garden? Is there a cracked wall that can accommodate?

*You notice that the piles of autumn leaves are a fantastic environment for insects and even small hibernating mammals. This year don’t clear up the fallen leaves and nurture these habitats in your urban garden.

Take a walk in your neighbourhood and make a note of any type of nature space you see. You’ll be surprised at how much the natural world is present in the city or town. Keep an eye out for smaller, more intimate examples of nature, where nature is thriving despite adversity.

Adventure along a stretch of polluted river, or the site of an abandoned public building and explore what plants are living there. What insects and animals have made their home there? How have they adapted to their environment?

The answers to these questions are tiny nuggets of gold that you will want to bring to your own design. Perhaps you live along a busy road with a lot of pollution. How are you going to improve this and invite nature into your space despite the perceived negative issues? Use examples from nature to inspire you. Look at how nature thrives around us and borrow her hints and tips for your own benefit. Remember that the problem is often the solution.

Not everyone is able to get out into green spaces in our towns and cities for many and varied reasons. Whether we can or not, we can all still benefit by bringing nature and plants into our own indoor spaces.

Using plants in the home brings many benefits. Ornamentals and edibles can be grown indoors and will not only provide food, but will also help clean the air in our homes as well as improve our mental health and sense of wellbeing, and we can design our home spaces (whether rented or owned) to maximise these benefits.

A study called Emotional and mental health benefits of plants (Hal and Dickenson (2011) discusses the benefits under the following categories: anxiety and stress reduction, attention deficit recovery, fractals and visual responses, decreased depression, enhanced memory retention, greater happiness and life satisfaction, mitigation of PTSD, increased creativity, enhanced productivity and attention, reduced effects of dementia, and improved self-esteem.

The power of plants seems limitless.

The city’s green spaces, however small, allow us to breathe and enjoy the mental space they provide. How do we benefit from the space and how do we benefit that space?

Walking through a high street, there are often trees planted in rows amongst the concrete. These trees not only provide beauty but also shade in the summer, letting humans benefit from their cooling effect on the immediate environment. They also provide a home for nesting birds, their fallen leaves a home for a microcosm of insects.

A verge in front of an apartment block is a place to enjoy and sit to watch the world go by while a network of insects and mycelia work silently around us.

A sparse looking football field is usually teeming with activity at dusk and dawn. Birds feasting on insects and worms before the dog walkers arrive. The unmown edges or a lawn gone wild is likely to be a haven for amphibians, small mammals and beneficial insects.

Go and explore and look at how we can benefit the nature around us as well as how we can benefit from nature.

Permaculture isn’t about having your own land and developing a design. It is also about thinking about the spaces around us and utilising them as best we can.

Go and sit on a blanket on a grass verge and observe the systems around you. Systems that sustain life: food, water, shelter/protection for different species. What they can teach us when looking at our own systems design and how we can help rather than hinder them.

Look at the relationship between nature and humans living alongside each other. Look at how we both benefit from and damage the natural world around us.

What ideas can be borrowed from nature in the city and how can we apply this to our permaculture design?

From rooftop gardens, allotment gardens, parks, football pitches, grassy verges, balcony pots and even planted up roundabouts there is nature everywhere, even in the most densely populated towns and cities. And where there is nature, there is a learning opportunity and inspiration for permaculture design students.


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