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The Wild City

The following article was written by MLA student Sarah Bartosh for The Field, the ASLA Professional Practice Networks’ Blog.

two children standing before an abstract cityscape

Sarah Bartosh is currently a master’s of landscape architecture student at the University of Washington. She received her Bachelor of Environmental Design from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and then went on to work for Growing Up Boulder, Boulder’s child- and youth-friendly city initiative. She also worked with the Seattle Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program to lead Seattle’s Playful Learning Landscapes Pilot Project.
– Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network Co-Communications Director

With one quarter left of my MLA, I would like to pose this question to our profession: how can we challenge the way that we think about designing for children’s connection with nature in our increasingly urban environments?

Just as we are challenging many other spaces we design, I believe it is time we begin to do the same for nature play. As landscape architects, we are some of the most progressive and game-changing thinkers. We are constantly questioning the role of built environments, how they can address pressing climate issues, and how they can foster relationships between humans and the world around them. Yet, when it comes to children’s environments, we often settle for adding a few logs in a park, and call it “nature play.” I recognize and respect that this is a result of the many legal barriers that prevent us from creating bolder, designated spaces for children to connect to nature. This article suggests a way to think beyond these barriers.

Our relationship with nature can be explored through multiple spectrums. The first spectrum is domestic to wild experiences. In their book The Rediscovery of the Wild (2013), eco-psychologists Peter Kahn and Patricia H. Hasbach explain these two ideas. They suggest:

Many people who currently advocate for the importance of nature in human lives focus on what’s close at hand: domestic, nearby, everyday nature…the other part is wild nature. Wildness often involves that which is big, untamed, unmanaged, not encompassed, and self-organizing, and unencumbered and unmediated by technological artifice.

These ideas are translatable into design. I see domestic nature experiences as something that humans consciously control, such as when we tell our dogs to roll over. The dog is a product of nature, but our conscious decision to train this dog, and have control over it, makes for a domestic experience. Domesticated and controlled experiences can provide people with a false sense of holding ultimate power over nature and our environment. Yes, we shape our world, but we do not control it. I believe that thinking like this can put humanity into a precarious position, and can cultivate a partial, distorted image of what nature is, especially if it comprises the majority of our experiences.

On the other hand, when we experience wild nature, humans are reminded that we lack control over our environment. Through wild experiences, we begin to understand that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. When we experience the wild, we feel awe in its most pure form.

Considering this spectrum of domestic and wild experiences in design will empower landscape architects to provide experiences that may lead to deeper connections and understanding in their designs. Designing naturalized play spaces in the 21st century is simply not enough. For instance, in E.O. Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist (1994), he describes how when he was nine years old, he “pulled away the bark of a rotting tree stump” and discovered “a seething mass of citronella ants” that “left a vivid and lasting impression on me.” In 1938, when Wilson was nine, there were no defined nature play areas like there are today. In fact, the type of playground that we think of today did not even exist in 1938. While pulling bark from a rotting tree stump, Wilson was simply out in the woods, immersed in nature, which is drastically different than spaces that we assume could be the stage for this similarly life-changing experience today. When we try to transfer this experience to today’s environment, the response does not add up to the same sum.

A wild experience helps us understand that our interactions with nature can, and should, take many forms and approaches. As an outcome, wild experiences allow relationship building with nature in which we recognize our part in a greater system and are inherently more empathic. In thinking of a wild experience, our immediate internal vision may be making eye contact with a moose in the backcountry, viewing the Milky Way, or climbing above the tree line to gaze upon an entire mountain range. While these experiences are truly wild, I believe we can create experiences for children with the possibility of producing similar results in an urban environment, likely the least “wild” of environments. By providing the wild version of an urban environment, we push what is possible for the results of children interacting with nature in cities.

I recognize that saying that we can design wild experiences in cities is littered with oxymorons. But if the point of wanting to create wild experiences in nature is to build a more holistic understanding and empathic relationship with nature, then there is a way that we can start to do this. We need to start by asking, why do we need to insist that a child’s connection with nature in a city needs to exist in a designated “nature play” area? Do children have to be engaged in organized play to foster a connection? Does balancing on a log and playing with sand or other loose parts allow children to understand their place in a greater system? How would a child’s relationship with the natural world change if everyday spaces in our cities provided them with safe opportunities to connect with the wildness of nature that is inherently all around them?

By asking these questions, we start to rethink what is possible, and we approach a more realistic vision for recreating E.O. Wilson’s ant discovery in the 21st century. He found the ants so fascinating because he was regularly exposed to them and could slowly build the connections between the world around them, and find the wildness within them. Of all the pieces that make up building a relationship with nature, constant exposure is the most critical. Alternatively, can bus stops, rain gardens, sidewalks, and all of the spaces in between be the stage for a child to understand the wildness of our cities? I think yes.

We can look to the projects developed by developmental psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and the Learning Landscapes initiative to understand how everyday public spaces can be transformed into more meaningful places for children. One project, Urban Thinkscape, transformed a bus stop and adjacent lot into a hub for playful learning while families were waiting for public transportation. What would that project look like if these learning opportunities were focused on the nature that is all around them?

We need to start thinking about how we can use our skills to create experiences that connect children to nature beyond nature play places. If strict regulations curtail the ability to create robust nature experiences, we need to start thinking about how we can create these connections elsewhere, in unexpected ways, in children’s everyday experiences.