Nature for the Rest of Us




Nature for the Rest of Us

If man is not to live by bread alone, what is better worth doing well than the planting of trees?


In 2008, our species crossed a significant Rubicon of habitat: for the first time, a majority of us lived in cities. We could now be called, as at least one anthropologist has suggested, Metro sapiens. And we’re not done. Globally, 2 billion more people will move to cities in the next thirty years. By 2030, there will be 590 million urbanites just in India. China is already half urban; so is Liberia, and the percentage of urbanites in Bangladesh and Kenya quadrupled in recent years.

This momentous urban migration could be a good thing. Cities are often the most creative, wealthiest and most energy-efficient places to live. City dwellers typically experience better sanitation, nutrition, education, gender equality and access to health care, including family planning, than their rural counterparts. The world’s growing megacities, though, are not generally the centers of enlightenment that we might hope. In Kinshasa, a city of more than 11 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, per capita yearly income is $250. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser has asked how a megacity with such a poor population can “be anything but a hell on earth?” Making cities like Kinshasa livable, he argues, is “the great challenge of our century.”

Cities will have to figure out how to cram more people into smaller areas without everyone going literally crazy. Back in 1965, animal behaviorist Paul Leyhausen described what happened to cats in unnaturally crowded environments: they become more aggressive and despotic, turning into a “spiteful mob.” In similar conditions, Norway rats forget how to build nests and start eating their own. In confined primates, hormonal systems get goofy and reproduction can plummet. So what about us? Extensive reviews of the medical literature show a 21 percent increase in anxiety disorders, a 39 percent increase in mood disorders and a doubled risk of schizophrenia in city dwellers. Urban living is associated with increased activity in the brain’s amygdala—the fear center—and in the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, a key region for regulating fear and stress.

Meanwhile, a study from Portugal found that people living near industrial “gray space,” as opposed to green space, reported “decreased use of coping strategies” and less optimism. That last bit is not trivial; optimism is associated with healthier behaviors, lower triglycerides and mental resilience. We could use some more resilience: globally, depression is responsible for more healthy years lost than any other condition, according to the World Health Organization.

Now that I’d learned about the ways in which being in nature changes our brains for the better, it was time to figure out how to bring the lessons back to where most of us live, in cities. Here are some of the essential take-homes: we all need nearby nature: we benefit cognitively and psychologically from having trees, bodies of water, and green spaces just to look at; we should be smarter about landscaping our schools, hospitals, workplaces and neighborhoods so everyone gains. We need quick incursions to natural areas that engage our senses. Everyone needs access to clean, quiet and safe natural refuges in a city. Short exposures to nature can make us less aggressive, more creative, more civic minded and healthier overall. For warding off depression, let’s go with the Finnish recommendation of five hours a month in nature, minimum. But as the poets, neuroscientists and river runners have shown us, we also at times need longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces to recover from severe distress, to imagine our futures and to be our best civilized selves.

Basically, we need hits from a full spectrum of doses of nature. Is it even possible that megaurban habitats could provide them?

To see how an optimist might view our crowded future, I went to a city where the future has arrived: Singapore. It’s unusual for being both a city and a country, the only one in the world. More than 5 million Singaporeans, about eight times the population of Washington, D.C., live on an area only four times larger. Singapore is the third-densest country on earth. It is, as planners say, hyperdense. Primatologist Michael Gumert, who teaches at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, calls the city a human experiment. “It must increase stress in ways we don’t fully understand,” he told me. “We’re undergoing self-domestication,” said Gumert. Will Metro sapiens evolve fast enough to adapt?

When I pictured Singapore, I thought of the ban on chewing gum and public spitting, enforced by arcane punishment like caning. Ridiculed globally for these policies, the city-state brings to mind Nanny McPhee-meets-the-death penalty. But then I heard about Singapore’s green walls, its lavish parks and vertical farming, how it is sometimes considered the top “biophilic city” in the world. Flying in, it’s immediately obvious that this is a verdant megalopolis, with huge housing blocks interspersed with lush greenery. The roadway from the airport is bordered by palm trees, flowering shrubs and a spreading green canopy. This isn’t surprising in a tropical island, but then I learned that this part of the city rests on reclaimed damaged land. Massive deforestation had left the place barren of nutrients. Every one of those trees and shrubs was planted, on imported soil. Like an insecure diva, the city wants you to notice. My hotel and many other buildings downtown looked like chia plants, every few stories and sometimes entire walls sprouting cascading layers of plants. “You can wake up and start grazing!” joked my cabdriver as he dropped me off.

I thought a good place to start diving into the country’s nature ethic might be the world-class, 155-year-old Singapore Botanic Garden, which is large, open nineteen hours a day, and free. A new UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also the headquarters for the country’s powerful national parks agency. I ducked out of a downpour and into the administrative building, where I was met by bespectacled Yeo Meng Tong, the affable director of parks development. In most nations, the parks departments are small, underfunded and scrappy. But this country spends 200 million Singapore dollars per year “to develop scenery,” as Yeo put it. That equals .6 percent of the national budget, five times the share the National Park Service gets from the U.S. federal budget. No wonder he was smiling.

Yeo told me he was born in 1963, two years before the former British colony cleaved from Malaysia. Under the fifty-year leadership of one ruling party—and mostly one man, the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew—Singapore grew into the third-most-successful economy in the world, ranked higher than the United States on GDP per capita, educational attainment, standard of living and life expectancy. Its accomplishments are all the more impressive given that the place had virtually no exportable natural resources, little room to expand, and a surging population made up of a potentially volatile mix of ethnicities.

Lee Kuan Yew—or LKY, as he’s fondly known—planted a public tree in a traffic circle soon after he took office, setting off what would become a personal obsession. Singapore was soon importing thousands of trees and hiring small armies of arborists and horticulturalists. He launched a “garden city” plan that later morphed into a more ambitious “city in a garden” vision. In his memoir, he writes: “After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries. I settled for a clean and green Singapore. One arm of my strategy was to make Singapore into an oasis in Southeast Asia. . . .”

As Yeo proudly told me, if you add up the forest preserves, the pocket parks, undeveloped land and the manicured street trees, half of Singapore’s 276 square miles is under some sort of green cover. “We try to create more green in every inch of space we can find,” he said. The city day-lighted and landscaped its once-utilitarian canals, adding paths, so it now offers 300 kilometers of green corridors that connect the many parks. When a new development goes in, the builders must figure out how to more than replace the nature it displaced, by making green roofs, integrated gardens, parks over parking lots, and so on. The government will help fund the extra costs. I visited several mesmerizing structures, including the “world’s largest vertical garden,” a twenty-four-story condo tower whose entire west face was covered by 23,000 Thunbergia grandiflora vines. The effect was a little bit Body Snatchers: the wall was alive! The builders calculate a 15 to 30 percent savings in energy use from better insulation and reduced air-conditioning, a big deal on a tropical island on a warming planet.

Because of these policies, the country’s percentage of green space is actually increasing. Even while the population grew by some 2 million between 1986 and 2007, the percentage of green space expanded from 36 to 47 percent. By contrast, my city, Washington, D.C., has experienced the opposite, along with most places on the planet: only 36 percent of the overall tree canopy remains, a decrease from 50 percent in 1950. Singapore is a remarkable model of what’s possible when green gets coded into a city’s DNA. Furthermore, “we try to achieve a goal that 80 percent of people live within 400 meters of green space,” Yeo said. “We’re pretty close. Now we’re at 70 percent.”

Yeo bounded outside, where the rain had ceased, to show me the garden’s heritage trees. One, a sprawling, 150-year-old native Tembusu tree, is so beloved that it graces the five-dollar bill. A long, horizontal branch as thick as a barrel thrusts out from the trunk not far above the ground. “This is a sentimental tree for many Singaporeans because children grow up climbing it on the family outing,” he said. “And then they hang out there with their friends, and it becomes a dating tree, then a proposal tree, and then people take their wedding pictures here!”

“Was your wedding picture here?” I asked.


IT ALL SOUNDED good, but like much in Singapore, the nature love was well packaged, ready-made for brochures and airport posters. Were all the nice parks and green-carpeted buildings the ones the tourists and investors see? Was this a Potemkin paradise? To examine the reach of nature into the lives of real people, I visited a community hospital, Khoo Teck Puat. It’s not close to the center of the city, and it’s not used much clinically by foreigners or expats. But it’s known as a new and successful example of simple biophilic design. I have to say, it was gobsmackingly nice, especially for a hospital. Many rooms faced the inner, luxuriant garden courtyard, dense with trees and shrubs specifically selected to attract birds and butterflies. Outside sat a sizable pond, a medicinal herb garden and a walking path. Artificial mini islands floated in the pond to attract egrets. The overall site employed a conscious design for biodiversity: endangered fish swam in a little watercourse that wove through the garden. Sadly, this is about the only habitat they have left.

Plants draped over balconies on each floor, giving the impression the building had just risen from the jungle floor, adding to the Shangri-La effect. “We call it the hospital in a garden,” said chief gardener Rosalind Tan, who is sometimes called Madame Butterfly, as we walked by a blooming hibiscus, popular with the tiny golden sunbird. “We know from practical experience that people enjoy greenery and we try to create a healing environment for patients so they can have lower blood pressure and be in a better condition to see a doctor.”

We walked through the spotless ICU, where every patient has a view of trees out six-foot windows. At many points, corridors and landings open up to the outdoors. I noticed none of the usual antiseptic hospital smell, despite the place having one of the lowest hospital-acquired infection rates in the country, according to Tan. I was reminded of a 2012 study from a Portland, Oregon, hospital showing that rooms with better ventilation from outside garnered more diverse bacterial profiles and fewer “bad” bacteria. Tan next showed me the organic vegetable garden on the roof, which is mostly tended by locals who enjoy gardening. Patients eat some of the produce, and some is sold in a farmers’ market. She plucked a few long purple and green leaves off a rhoeo oyster plant and gave them to me to make a tea. “Our signature drink, full of antioxidents,” she said. “Good for cooling.”

I went back to my chia-plant hotel and brewed some. Then, newly cooled, I headed out again. Everyone told me that before I left Singapore, I had to see the Gardens by the Bay. This is a huge, showy billion-dollar attraction on the newly reclaimed waterfront land. A “premier urban recreation space,” it consists of numerous outdoor gardens and two ginormous horticultural greenhouses. Typically, such conservatories have to be heated; here, they have to be cooled. They showcase biozones from temperate climates, including cloud forests, Mediterranean olive groves and the California chaparral. But the park’s piece de resistance is a grove of eighteen Supertrees that are entirely fake. Better than the real thing, they soar between 80 and 160 feet into the sky like giant skeletal golf tees. A narrow walkway snakes through the canopy of a few of them so that you can view the city skyline unencumbered and then eat high-end egg rolls on cowhide cushions at the penthouse restaurant. The structures collect and sprinkle rainwater on the (real, but planted) vines and bromeliads growing on them. They collect solar power in panels, and, best yet, they convert that electricity into an evening light extravaganza.

Recovering from the egg rolls, I settled onto the finely clipped lawn below, surrounded by couples and small children running around on the family outing. The sky grew dark, and the first notes of an electronic symphony began. Suddenly, the trees erupted in colorful neon bursts that kept perfect time with the symphony. The Led Zeppelin stoner laser show has nothing on this. I felt an emotion not dissimilar to what I experienced in the canyons of Bluff, Utah. I felt the stirrings of awe.

This was nature in the Future City, a mix of metaphor, technology and evolutionary impulse. It embodies what the writer and digital pioneer Sue Thomas calls “technobiophilia.” Who’s to say what real nature is anymore anyway? The human hand underlies all of the world’s ecosystems now. Singapore just represents the extreme end of constructed nature. It still pushes many of our neurological buttons for grass, green, blue, safety, beauty, play, visual interest, wonder. Could I find it truly satisfying? Could any of us who have spent time in wilderness? In a word, no. It wasn’t unpredictable and therefore couldn’t be interesting for long; it didn’t stay novel or fulfill the Kaplans’ quotient of being mysterious or escapist enough. But I looked at these children, and their young parents, and I realized that most of them had probably never seen a much wilder nature, and they didn’t miss what they didn’t know. If this isn’t an argument for conserving wilderness and making sure people experience it, I don’t know what is.

Heading out of the park, a fragile sliver of hazy moon hung in the southern sky.

I hadn’t noticed it at all.

I TOOK AWAY two big lessons from Singapore. For greenery to truly seep into all neighborhoods, there needs to be a strong governing vision. Second, urban nature will serve us best when it’s allowed to be a little bit wild, at least in spots. I couldn’t help but wonder if cities had something better to offer in the awe department. Real nature, the kind we evolved in, incorporates entropy, blood, high winds, a beating, pulsing geophony. In Singapore, nature more or less looked like nature, but it didn’t sound like nature. It didn’t act like nature. Where was the possibility of all that Darwinian tooth and claw?

Celebrating living trees instead of fake trees seemed like a logical first step. In fact, trees might be our single best tool for urban salvation. City dwellers get most excited about two natural features: water and trees. Now fans can even write emails to trees in Melbourne (“As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.” The trees, which are tagged with individual identification numbers in St. Mary’s Park, sometimes write back via the park crew).

My man Olmsted understood this devotion. In his principles for park design, he thought no features should stand out as too distracting or spectacular. There should be no flamboyant flower beds and only a minimal amount of overt architecture. The magic formula: generous meadows loosely defined by trees. Winding pathways leading to mystery, flirtatiously half concealed by trees. Trees, trees, trees. They were so important to the Olmsted schema that he ordered no fewer than 300,000 of them for Central Park’s 800 acres, effectively freaking out his budgetary overlords. There were so many trees and shrubs that Calvert Vaux had to recruit a small team of family and friends to fill in the master drawing with tiny green spots. This was pixelation, circa 1858.

Urban trees provide not just aesthetic pleasure but concrete health benefits. Although certain species of trees can worsen asthma through pollen and other compounds, taken as a whole they generally improve people’s physiology in several important ways. Public officials perhaps didn’t fully appreciate this until a rather astounding study was published in 2013. Geoffrey Donovan, an urban forester with the U.S. Forest Service, spotted an intriguing natural experiment: a pesky scourge called the emerald ash borer, a “phloem feeder,” landed on our shores in about 2002, whereupon it decimated 100 million ash trees throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Gone, poof. Donovan decided to see if there was any relationship between the treepocalypse and the incidence of cardiovascular disease in humans.

Donovan was already aware of some seminal European studies looking at human stress, illnesses and loosely defined “green space” in cities. And there were other studies, including Richard Mitchell’s work in Scotland, showing lower mortality rates near urban parks. While Mitchell’s research revealed a big health boost to poor people, Donovan’s work showed the sudden tree blight had a bigger impact on wealthier neighborhoods, probably because those had the most trees to lose. Overall, the counties that were hit by the borer suffered 15,000 additional deaths from cardiovascular disease and 6,000 more from lower respiratory disease. Those figures represent a sizable 10 percent increase in expected mortality. It’s hard to say whether the deaths were caused by worsened air quality or changes in stress brought on by not having the tall, green, comforting trees to look at, or both. If trees can move us so powerfully in their metaphoric reach, as the veterans on the Salmon felt, then perhaps looking at sick or dead trees is in itself stressful.

Toronto takes its 10 million trees very seriously, valuing its urban forest at $7 billion. A recent study there showed the higher a neighborhood’s tree density, the lower the incidence of heart and metabolic disease. Putting it into raw economic perspective, the health boost in those living on blocks with about 11 more trees than average was equivalent to a $20,000 gain in median income. Lucky residents were rich in trees.

Every tree helps. As the founding nature/brain researcher Rachel Kaplan told me, “nature doesn’t have to be pervasive. One tree is an awful lot better than no tree.” But more trees are best. The city of Washington, D.C., and partner nonprofits have been trying to plant at least 8,600 trees a year in an effort to increase the street canopy to 40 percent in the next two decades. New York City recently completed a wildly ambitious campaign to plant a million trees, and Los Angeles, Shanghai, Denver and Dubai are in the middle of similar ones.

Trees are considered a critical part of the global carbon storage solution, the heat-island solution and the urban air-quality solution.

It’s a tall order, but they stand at the ready.




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