Sunday, September 19, 2010

Natural Relations

Yesterday, Randy McDonald at A Bit More Detail made a post exploring individuals' engagement and relationship with natural environments. He cited a study that suggests natural settings "are good for the mind" - I entirely agree, and I'm not the only ones. The latest Niagara Parks ad blitz, the "Break Free" campaign that inexplicably drove George Smitherman into a crazy snit - presumably because, at that point in the campaign, the candidates did not have to concern themselves with out-Rob Fording each other - was firmly based on that concept. Likewise, my experience at Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver was a journey into nature like I haven't had in years; nature pure and untrammelled with only a flagpole and some footprints to indicate that I hadn't stepped through a stargate to some world the Goa'uld never seeded with human slaves.

It was refreshing, calming, relaxing - not so much as a world apart from the one we've built for ourselves, but the true world beneath all the constructs and rationalizations. That is something that is lost not just in the city, but in all but the most rural of communities: a clear view of what the natural world is really like. In cities it's strictly controlled, regimented, packaged, and parcelled into lots. Not that I oppose greenspace in cities - indeed, greenspace should be as basic a component of citybuilding as roads or sewer systems - but the sheer nature of the city tends to make it incompatible with wild nature.

Tends, though, is not an absolute. Just look at Vancouver. Aside from its reputation as being a pothead's haven, Vancouver is well-known for its environmental bona fides. Greenpeace was founded there, and a sidewalk plaque in Kitsilano marks the location even today. Stanley Park, only a stone's throw from downtown, is an intact fragment of the primeval temperate rainforest and a window onto what Coal Harbour would have looked like before it became Caprica City. The North Shore Mountains are visible from practically everywhere. I wondered why Vancouver was so environmental before, but when I arrived there I knew: it's because the environment is right there. No wonder it has such a laid-back atmosphere.

From Granville Island the Art Deco span of the Burrard Bridge frames the towers of Vancouver's West End, the forests of Stanley Park, and the tree-covered North Shore Mountains.

Nevertheless, Vancouver got lucky. Even where cities grow under similarly picturesque peaks, the natural human impulse to extend dominion over every possible inch of land seems like it's won out more often than not. I mean, Los Angeles has mountains too, and look what happened there. It's the lessons of Vancouver we need to learn and the motto of Toronto - "A City Within a Park" - that we need to make true.

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