By Caroline Schultz
When in downtown Toronto, Ottawa or London, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that we were at one time a predominantly rural society.
At the turn of the 20th century, fewer than half of Ontario’s population lived in towns and cities. But by the 1940s more than 60 percent were urban dwellers. Today more than 85 percent of the province’s 12 million people live in urban areas, almost two-thirds of them in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
The first generations of city dwellers had roots in the rural landscape. Now we are raising children several generations removed from the land or who are new Ontarians with little or no connection to the countryside beyond our urban boundaries. But, as we’ve migrated into the cities, have we left nature behind? As Edward Keenan describes in his article “Wild for the city” on page 28, our towns and cities aren’t all asphalt and concrete jungles. They can harbour an astonishing array of wildlife. Despite the inevitable conflicts and challenges the interface sometimes poses for humans and animals alike, nature in the city can have huge benefits for people.
But greater forces are keeping our relationship with nature at bay. As cities grow and suburbs sprawl, we spend more time commuting. We rely on television for escape and entertainment. The advent of the Internet has made us a wired society spending large chunks of time seeking information and amusement in electronic form.
Kids today are more likely to be able to distinguish between video game modules than to be able to tell an oak tree from a maple. And that means that there is a big hole in our children’s lives.
This isn’t an exclusively urban phenomenon. Having lived for almost 20 years in small Ontario towns with woods, wetlands and ponds on the doorstep, I’ve seen as much disconnection from nature there as I have among city kids. But children have a natural affinity for nature. Take any child out to visit a frog pond or to lift up rocks to spot salamanders and the enthusiasm and delight is universal.
Lack of exposure to nature has been shown to lead to attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses in children. Author Richard Louv has coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe what happens to kids who rarely get outside or who rarely roam far from asphalt. It’s simple, Louv says: “If we want healthy well-rounded kids, we need to make sure they spend time outdoors in natural settings where they are free to imagine, problem-solve, discover and dream.”
Ontario Nature couldn’t agree more, and that is why we are proud to announce our new From the Ground Up program. From the Ground Up will hook kids back into nature by offering outdoor recreation and hands-on conservation experiences, as well as volunteering and leadership opportunities. And what a wealth of hands-on nature experiences our cities and towns can offer!
Caroline Schultz is the executive director of Ontario Nature.
“I love shooting for ON Nature,” says photographer William Ciccocioppo, “it’s like getting free science lessons.” Ciccocioppo’s latest assignment (“Wild for the city,” page 28) took him to the Brick Works in Toronto where he learned the green future of an abandoned industrial site. The site’s bleak state didn’t put him off: “There is a lot of beauty in nature even when it is seemingly brown and grey. It seems quieter and more unassuming.”
As Ontario Nature’s Greenway conservation coordinator, Amber Cowie works closely with farmers, private landowners and community groups to expand and protect Ontario’s green cores and corridors (“Blueprint for a Greenway,” page 35). “For me, true environmentalism means bringing together everyone who respects and cares for their earth and never drawing arbitrary lines around who qualifies for the role.”