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The Surprise and Delight of Urban Nature

Monday, October 13th, 2014 | Biophliic Cities
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By Tim Beatley

Part of the great pleasure of living in a city is discovering the many forms of “nature in unexpected places,” the theme of this month’s e-newsletter. Some of this nature is designed, of course, but much of it is simply extant, and resiliently co-adapting to urban conditions.  The city is after all an ecosystem and habitat for non-human and human alike.

In a sense, for many who cling to a dichotomous city-nature mental frame, any nature encountered in the city is unexpected.  Over the course of a day there are typically numerous opportunities to be surprised (pleasantly) by the nature around us, as it appears and disappears from view (a bird, a mushroom, a flower), and appears again, depending on season, weather, and on the pathways and routes we choose to travel. And many of these experiences are just plain serendipitous, as when we catch a glimpse of a red-tailed hawk or a circling turkey vulture.  Discovery and surprise, the possibility of epiphanous moments of delight, are part of what makes living in a biophilic city so much fun.

An important goal of biophilic urbanism is to create the conditions for daily surprise and discovery, and the possibility of seeing and experiencing nature where and when you are less likely to expect it.   Some of the surprising places for inserting new nature into cities, such as human-designed natural features like green rooftops and green walls, are not as surprising as they used to be, as they’ve become more mainstream, and as more cities subsidize and mandate them. Yet, still they surprise sometimes when they appear in places. I recall the spectacular green wall in the restaurant at the Novotel hotel at the Auckland airport, for instance, or the quite different green wall encountered while running to make a flight connection at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The former, designed by a firm called Natural Habitats, used only New Zealand-native plants, and was quite striking, and quite beautiful. The latter, part of the Fly Green Chicago exhibit, is meant in part to educate about sustainability. In both cases, I suspect, the insertion of nature was intended to lessen the stresses, albeit in some small way, associated with modern air travel, and the surprising delight is part of what nature can do for us when we find it in unexpected places.

Novotel Hotel Auckland

Green Wall at Novotel Hotel Restaurant, Auckland Airport

These nature surprises extend as well to the many shapes, forms and images of nature that we paint, sculpt, and install in cities.  I’m reminded of the pleasant surprise of seeing a beautiful mural of life-sized blue whales in New Orleans, spectacularly painted on a wall facing a sea of parked cars. I came to learn later that this was part of a multi-decades effort to paint 100 “Whaling Walls” (an initiative by environmental artist Wyland), and that similar murals are found in many other cities, from Tokyo to Seattle (http://www.wylandfoundation.org/community.php?subsection=wyland_walls). I thought of whales that day and carried with me the visual beauty and color of that unexpected encounter.

New Orleans 160

Whaling Wall in New Orleans, Louisiana

Surprise can happen in less designed ways, of course.  I recall years ago visiting several of San Diego’s spectacular urban canyons—skipped over in the initial development of the city, but verdant and biodiverse.  Walking into them from around homes and buildings is a remarkable discovery. Every city has similar places—former industrial sites, vacant lots, side-yards—places and spots and slivers of land that either by design and active conservation, or through benign neglect, harbor a degree of wildness.

Partly this is a testament to just how resilient native flora and fauna can be in the presence of built environments.  Years ago we filmed a segment of our documentary film The Nature of Cities at the Congress Avenue Bridge, in Austin, Texas. Here every summer evening visitors and residents line up to witness the spectacle of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from their nesting sites under the bridge. They were unexpected new inhabitants following the rehab of the bridge years ago, but now many new bridges are being designed to intentionally attract bats.  An accidental accommodation of nature becomes an intentional effort to design-in opportunities for surprise and delight.  We perhaps expect such breathtaking spectacles of nature in national parks and in more remote settings, but perhaps not so much in and near where we live in cities and suburbs.

CongressAve

Crowd gathered at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas

There is a considerable amount of nature all around us that we fail, for various reasons, to see or notice. It would not be unexpected if we were more knowledgeable, or thought more carefully, but nevertheless it is often mysterious and hidden to us.   The “hiddenness,” of urban nature, if you will, flows from several things—it is the minuteness of much of the nature around us in the case of the micro-organic biodiversity of the soil beneath our feet, and it is the temporal mis-match of human and much non-human life (and the need for devices like camera traps and bat detectors to help us uncover and “see” things in the night). It is true that there are some pretty serious physical obstacles to seeing the nature around us, for instance because it is often underwater.  Working to uncover that hidden and unexpected nature, to make it more visible to the public, becomes an important task.

But we must also be careful not to take away too much of the daily surprise. The unanticipated but joyful discovery of something on our walk to work or school, the ants busily trekking across a transit bench, the songbird appearing on a sign post, or a wildflower peeking through the seam of a sidewalk.

Discovery, serendipity, and surprise are all important ingredients in the experience of urban nature delight, and being open to hearing or seeing something that might be unexpected may be one of the greatest pleasures of modern urban life.


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