Integrating Nature into the City with ImagineAustin

Imagine Austin is a 30-year plan established by the City of Austin aiming to help Austin grow in a compact and connected way.  In order to involve the community in this effort, the ImagineAustin Speaker Series was born. Every few months, a collection of speakers from all over the country join one another to discuss quality of life issues pertinent to our favorite city. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending an ImagineAustin Speaker Series on Integrating Nature into the City.

The night’s first speaker, Dr. Ming Kuo, is Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She presented very convincing evidence for the prevalence of (the not quite medically diagnosable, but well documented) Nature Deficit Disorder. Her assertion was this: studies show that, without nature, people display all the symptoms that any animal does when it is living in an unfit environment; this includes social breakdown, psychological breakdown, and physical breakdown. She gave us a broad taste of the science that shows that the presence of nature in people’s lives improves focus, generosity, friendliness, feelings of well-being, and peace of mind, while it lowers the likelihood that people will litter, behave violently, and report feeling isolated.

Even as a fairly new field of study, in the last thirty years, the effects of nature on human health that have been shown are robust. Luckily for those in charge of keeping our communities happy and healthy, Dr. Ming noted that it is not only hiking through forests and mountains that have this effect on us. Small green spaces, neighborhood parks, and even pictures of natural scenes improve our health and happiness. So frame a picture of your favorite outdoor space, and place it somewhere that will lift your spirits!

Patrick Murphy, who recently served as the City of Austin’s Environmental Officer, and was Assistant Director of the Watershed Protection Department, spoke next. He gave the audience a feel for the unique treasures and challenges of Austin’s natural spaces. He told us that in the city of Austin, there are 65 creeks, 885,000 people, and a longstanding record of ground-breaking environmental decisions. Austin was the first city in the U.S. to protect its trees under law, and it’s one of the few that protects its creeks such that they are allowed to flow naturally.

With 2 million people in the greater Austin area today, he was happy to report that the city is growing exactly as city planners twenty years ago designed it to: with most of the population growth focused in the city core, Austin is able to keep its natural green spaces and protect the expansive preserve land that runs throughout the city. This helps drive land development to where the city can spare it, and ensures that the ecologically sensitive regions, like those that recharge our aquifers, remain less developed. Surely, just about everyone in Austin can appreciate that.

When Laine Cidlowski, Project Manager for the Sustainable Washington D.C. Initiative for the District’s Office of Planning, spoke, I got the feeling that the Austinites in the crowd were feeling pretty proud of how well Austin’s natural spaces are faring compared to so many others. But what Laine had to show us about her work in the District of Columbia show just how committed they are to sustainability. She asserted that any city that attempts to strengthen their green presence will struggle with how to quantify a given space’s degree of sustainability. So, D.C. did just that. They have developed the Green Area Ratio (GAR): an environmental sustainability zoning measure that development sites across the city are expected to meet. The GAR score expected for land developers differs based on the zone and intended use of the site being developed, and it does not yet apply to all development around the city.

For those land developers that are held to a minimum GAR score, the question is not, “should we add anything that’s ‘green’?” but, “how can we leverage our space to get the highest Green Area Ratio?” This calculation has pushed land developers to get creative with how they “green” their spaces, not if they will. Being only two years old, this will be interesting legislation to watch in the years to come.

To learn more about the panelists, see the ImagineAustin Speaker Series website.