I recently attended a lecture featuring Dr. Heather Tallis, Acting Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy. Dr. Tallis was presenting her study on the positive relationships between views of nature and elementary school test scores, beginning with raising questions about people’s perceptions of nature: What is the nature we are talking about? Does it have to be green? Is there something about the structure of trees and shrubs, or is there an element of naturalness that matters to people? Dr. Tallis posited that the answers to these questions will reveal the values people have about nature and broaden the understanding about how greener views around schools might improve learning.
“Imagine: raising inner city test scores just by planting some trees.” – Dr. Heather Tallis
According to research, our diverse perceptions of nature result from our cultural history, socio-economic status, and other influences. I reflected upon my own childhood in the Bronx. I don’t remember much about the green-ness of our neighborhood. We played where space was available—primarily the sidewalks and streets in front of our apartment buildings. I have no memory of street trees on our block, but distinctly remember the high school yard across the street. The all-asphalt yard (absent of trees or other vegetation) was surrounded by a very high chain link fence, providing our neighborhood with a place to hang out and play dodgeball, handball, or whatever. Our parents felt the yard was a safer alternative for us than the streets—and we were quite aware of their watchful eyes upon us from the windows of the surrounding buildings. Did we miss having nature? I doubt we thought about it in that way. In the context of time and place, being outside with friends was all that mattered. Being outdoors was experiencing nature.
While in college, I had a favorite poster on my dorm room wall which I kept for a number of years after graduating. The poster was actually an image used in a full-page magazine ad for silverware—an elegant composition of a single flower growing within a sidewalk crack. At the bottom of the poster was the line: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The poster is long gone but the image and its personal meaning about perceptions and connections have stayed with me. I am inspired by nature wherever I am. How I see nature however is likely different from the way someone raised in suburban St. Louis would see it, or for that matter, anyone raised in Los Angeles’ many diverse neighborhoods. Although I don’t think about nature all of the time; I think about it as present in my daily life rather than some distant destination or place of naturalness I go to. As represented by a flower growing from a sidewalk crack, I experience moments of awareness when my urban-nature reveals itself to me in a way that engages me anew.
I follow a variety of research being conducted to support theories about nature’s benefits. According to Dr. Tallis, there is enough evidence to shift the discourse among scientists, educators, healthcare professionals, conservationists, and many others. Even if my childhood interactions with nature can be construed by some as less than ideal, I believe the absence of nature led me to landscape architecture. Through our work, we can discover and reveal the distinct narratives of nature that resonates with the diverse cultures and experiences of the people we serve.