More Fertile Imagination: 'Nature Deficit Disorder' Gains Traction

Published on
by
The Sydney Morning Herald

More Fertile Imagination: 'Nature Deficit Disorder' Gains Traction

by
Peter Ker

(photo by flickr user andy_carter)

Revealing the inspiration behind his latest epic, Avatar,
legendary filmmaker James Cameron recently described himself as a
''nature geek'', and said modern humans were suffering a degree of
''nature deficit disorder''.

It may not be a
medically recognised condition, but ''nature deficit disorder'' is a
concept gaining traction with childhood and behavioural experts around
the world.

Afflicting those in hard, urban
environments deprived of nature's randomness and balance, it is a
challenge facing cities such as Melbourne, whose children will grow up
with rising urban density and pressure for open space.

Just
as it inspired Cameron, experts hope an appreciation of the modern
''nature deficit'' can inspire Melbourne's city planners to plot a
future with vegetative density amid the urban density.

Fertile as his imagination is, Cameron didn't coin the phrase ''nature deficit disorder''.

That honour belongs to Richard Louv, the American author of the award-winning book Last Child in the Woods.

Compiling
research from around the world, Louv's book argued strongly for
children to be reintroduced to the wilderness. Suggesting social and
developmental benefits from exposure to nature, the book highlighted
research claiming that a range of psychological conditions could be
mollified, at least partially, by spending more time in the great
outdoors.

Australian authorities hold similar views:
in a 2007 investigation into playground spaces in Victoria, the state
government found that young children ''need exposure'' to natural
environments to appreciate the ''complex variations of texture, sound,
light, smell, colour and temperature''.

The government report The Good Play Space Guide,
highlighted the creative impulses that can be fostered by play with the
''loose parts'' of nature - the leaves, twigs and gumnuts.

''Such
play is uniquely satisfying as there is no pressure to conform. Various
ability levels and strengths, whether they are physical, imaginative,
sensory or social, can be applied to loose natural elements to promote
meaningful play,'' the report said.

Vigorous debate
over the use of public space has long been part of Melbourne life, as
organisers of major international events including the formula one
grand prix and the Commonwealth Games have discovered when trying to
use the city's parks for their events.

But Louv - speaking to The Age ahead of his visit to Melbourne in April - says it will no longer be enough to preserve the parks we have.

''Conservation
alone won't provide the biodiversity we need in the future. To achieve
that we need to - as ironic as this sounds - create nature in our yards
and our cities,'' he says.

Rethinking the urban park
is one of Deakin University expert Mardie Townsend's favourite
conversation topics, and one she thinks the nation will be focusing on
more often as it evolves towards high-density living.

''We
now have a lot more people with little or no backyard, so there's much
more pressure on the public parks, and we have to find a way of
creating more public parks or more green spaces that people can
access,'' she says.

Townsend believes parks need to
become more interactive and offer not just trees and grass to visitors
but also spaces to cultivate plants.

''Parks that include a gardening element will be really important,'' she says.

Melbourne's
inner suburbs already have several community gardens, where locals can
lease a plot of dirt to grow vegetables or other plants. Townsend says
multiple benefits flow from such places: they offer recreation and
encourage healthy eating while tackling the problems of rising food
prices and carbon emissions from the transporting of food.

''It
has very significant impacts on children's understanding of food -
where it comes from and how it's grown - but also their willingness to
try new foods, their willingness to eat nutritious food and their
engagement with food,'' she says. ''All of this is really important in
modern society, where kids are often sitting in front of computers,
televisions and not socialising.''

Towns in northern
England, such as tiny Todmorden, have already ripped out council flower
beds and replaced them with simple crops such as broccoli, encouraging
passers-by to harvest vegies at their leisure, free of charge.

But
in Melbourne, meddling with parks has always been easier said than
done. Yarra Council discovered that last month, when plans to establish
a community garden within a park in Princes Hill sparked local anger.
One group of locals wanted the space to grow plants, while others saw
the move as a reduction of existing park space for the benefit of few.

The passion sparked by the debate caught the council by surprise, and it will come to a head at a council meeting in April.

Mindful
of that controversy, and echoing Louv's comments, Townsend says we will
need to be creative when scouring the urban environment for places to
establish new parks and community gardens. She suggests taking
advantage of laneways, disused blocks of land and river frontages that
are unsuitable for housing developments.

Longer
term, she says, there may be commercial benefits for private companies
that turn some of their land into public recreation spaces.

''Think
of a place like Chadstone [shopping centre], where they have miles of
car-parking and have two or three layers. Why not make the top one a
[nature] park, which keeps everything cool under that roof and provides
a wonderful open space for people,'' she says.

''People
are far more likely to go to Chadstone if there's a nice park there,
where they can sit and have their lunch before going in to shop, so it
becomes an economic attractor to business.''

In the serious business of playtime, few places are more important for children than school.

In
a more congested city, the sports fields, playgrounds and other
facilities within schools will be too valuable to be simply locked up
after 3pm.

Victorian government policy already
encourages schools to open their facilities to local communities
outside school hours, welcoming night schools into empty classrooms,
and sports clubs on to vacant ovals.

While each
school decides for itself the extent to which it opens its gates to the
broader public, the idea is to turn schools into ''community hubs''
with greater connection to those living nearby.

In
places where social disadvantage coincides with a paucity of parklands,
such as Dandenong in Melbourne's south-east, there is an even greater
need for schools to take a leadership role, according to Martin Culkin.

Culkin
is principal of Dandenong High School and says he wants to see his
school enjoyed by community groups at night and on weekends. ''I like
to see the facility used; it's not right that a facility that will be a
$45 million cost to the taxpayer be locked up at 3.30pm. We will want
to see some use of the sporting areas, the gym areas and other areas by
the community,'' he says.

While vandalism has forced
some schools to limit access to their grounds after hours, Culkin takes
the opposite view. ''If you lock a place up, you are asking for
trouble. If you allow managed access, you get a better result. You're
not going to get a high volume of intruders and people up to no good
when you've got activity in a place.''

Finding the
space for parks in the decades ahead will be one battle, but keeping
those spaces green and usable will be quite another. Melburnians need
no reminding of the impact drought has had on their parks and sports
fields in recent times. As a drying climate has turned fields to dust,
many councils have installed artificial surfaces in recreation spaces,
including sand, asphalt and, increasingly, synthetic grass.

While
those solutions have had localised success, they don't suit a society
wanting to curb urban heat absorption, grow food in parks and combat
''nature deficit disorder''.

Instead of looking to
the heavens for rain, the answer to keeping parks green seems to be
stirring in the pipes below. Authorities in charge of Melbourne's sewer
network have recently conducted a major review of the city's wastewater
system, and are writing a strategy for its management in the decades
ahead.

A key focus of the strategy, led by Melbourne
Water, was to investigate whether the treatment of sewage could be
conducted in a less centralised way.

Virtually all
Melbourne's sewage and wastewater is pumped long distances to one of
two massive treatment plants, one in the west at Werribee and one in
the east at Carrum. Despite being treated to very high standards, the
vast majority of that water is then simply pumped out to sea.

The
recent sewage strategy investigated whether a larger number of small
treatment plants could be built around the suburbs - reducing the need
to pump the water long distances, and increasing the likelihood that
treated water could be re-used locally on parks, gardens and fields.

The strategy ultimately found it could be done - but at a ''significant'' cost.

CSIRO
water expert Tony Priestley says ''sewer mining'' is another option,
where existing underground sewage pipes are tapped at strategic
locations where water is needed above ground.

Once wastewater is tapped, pumped to the surface and treated, it can be used as a reliable water source for parks.

Successful
trials have been conducted around Melbourne at places such as the
Botanic Gardens, and Priestley says the technology is ready to go.
''But,'' he warns, ''it's bloody expensive. It's basically a matter of
having enough money - and what value you put on the parks, gardens and
recreation spaces.''

The mythical Navi people - the indigenous tribe portrayed in Avatar
- valued nature and their forests above all else. As heroes tend to do
in big-budget Hollywood films, they prevailed in the end, protecting
their wilderness against the advances of the corporate bad guys.

Good
and evil are not so easily cast in the real world, where the good guys
might as easily be those creating affordable housing as those
protecting parks.

Louv openly declares he is not an
architect, nor an urban planner. But as cities such as Melbourne
contemplate fitting more people in the same amount of space, he says,
ordinary people must make their voices heard in the evolution of their
cities - by starting petitions, writing to MPs and attending community
meetings.

''Let planners understand how vital it is
in a civic blueprint to build or retain natural spaces ... let lawmakers
know that natural play areas need to be part of the mix.''

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