Children in Stockholm with richer experiences of nature show a better understanding of natural resources, appreciation of animal life and concern for environmental degradation.
By 2050 the global urban population is projected to grow by 2,7 billion people. Much of the urban space needed by then is still to be designed and the pressure is high to design sustainable and socially inclusive spaces. But, will this sustainable design nurture actual sustainable lifestyles? Can places in which nature is seen just as a resource to be converted for human purposes be labeled ‘sustainable’? The assumptions of sustainable urban design and planning still have some ‘blind spots’.
By bringing spatial cognition and environmental psychology into the picture we set sustainable urban forms in a different light so that we can answer different kinds of questions. For instance, does the design of urban outdoors influence understanding and appreciation of nature? We know that most adults greatly committed in nature conservation chose to do so because of formative experiences they had in natural environments when they were children. So, does that mean that when natural environments are not available during childhood we miss the opportunity to form a relationship with nature strong enough to create the next generation of environmentalists?
Playing a serious game
In a study recently published in the journal Children, Youth and Environments, we compared two groups of five year old children in Stockholm. While one of the groups had spent the last four years in a preschool with rich access to natural surroundings, the other one had gone to a preschool with poor access to nature. As the preschools and the children were elected based on their similarity in other aspects (for example regarding the school’s pedagogical approach and the children’s socio-demographic factors), the presence of nature in the preschool surroundings were the most influential variable in the study. Essentially, the two groups of children differ in how frequently they have experienced nature during the past four years. That is, they have had significantly different nature routines.
In the experiment, both groups of children played image-based games used to explore complementary aspects on their personal relationship with nature. The results of the games showed that the children who had spent more time on nature-based activities are were more empathetic towards living creatures, had a better ability to link ecological resources with everyday products and had a higher perception of pollution as something undesirable. Children with richer nature routines more easily understood that a deer is alive while a plane is not, they better understood where food comes from, and showed more concern towards deforestation or water pollution. However, in one aspect of their relation with nature the two groups shared the same attitude: they all equally feared to get lost and losing their parents in the forest.
Bringing back ‘dirt’ in sustainable urban design
From this study alone we can neither claim that the children in our studies will behave differently towards nature as adults nor that some of them will hold back from becoming the next sustainability advocate. What we can say is that the presence and form of the green infrastructure in Stockholm seems to have influenced how familiar children have become with nature. In other words, because of the urban landscape, children have developed a personal identity in which nature is more or less an integrated and valued component.
A desirable sustainable civilization is not one that tolerates sustainable policies and taxes. It is one in which the passionate affection towards nature motivates sustainable institutions, goals, and rules to emerge. As urban spaces provide the day-to-day experiences of the majority of people on Earth, urban design has the potential to remind, cherish or neglect the ecological basis of human life to most of us. If urban sustainability is intended solely as sterile technological fixes, sustainable urban design fails to nurture the psychological processes underpinning sustainable lifestyles. A change in mindset is crucial for a profound long-lasting sustainable trajectory. Urban forms might be crucial to make future generations of policy-makers value ‘dirt’ as more than just a pile of resources.
Boverkets Barn och unga är också medborgare!
De två första artiklarna under temat Gröna Städer kommer att fokusera på vår viktiga relation till naturen. Varför behöver vi gröna inslag i vår vardag? Hur kan vi tillgängliggöra närliggande grönområden för alla stadens invånare? Matteo Giusti är doktorand på Stockholm Resilience Centre och valde i sin masteruppsats att fokusera på barns upplevelser av naturen. Nästa gästinlägg är skrivet av Yusra Moshtat, projektledare för projektet Med andra ögon.