Connecting People to Nature: Considering Urban Inequality

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 2016 by R. Byrd

By Rosaly Byrd and originally published at UNDP RIO+ Centre.

With an intention of getting people outdoors and into nature, the theme of this year’s World Environment Day was “connecting people to nature,” putting forth the call to protect our Earth through connecting with it. The theme is timely. As we see policymakers move away from environmental protection, the planet is in desperate need of more individuals that care and that hold their leaders accountable. Unfortunately, it is generally acknowledged that our society today is detached and feels separate from nature, preventing any type of incentive or motivation for its protection. This year’s theme recognizes that in order for us to care for nature, and thus demand action from policymakers, we must first familiarize ourselves with it: creating a connection then cultivates the motivation needed to protect it. Although humans are part of nature and depend on it intimately, the relationship between us and our planet is often muddled and even lost, especially when we live in urban areas or when nature might feel far away from the buzzing of city life.

Urbanization is taking place at fast rates, with many people, often young, migrating to city centers and leaving rural life behind. In this phenomenon, the powerful links between humans and nature that are prevalent in rural lifestyles often becomes blurred. In developed countries that may have experienced this migration decades ago, urban life still often prevents a bond between the environment and nature from being constructed, particularly since people may have no ties or even opportunities to visit places outside of the city. This year’s World Environment Day theme attempts to revitalize this relationship, reinforcing the idea that we as humans make up part of the environment, even if we’re surrounded by a concrete jungle.

However, we must be aware of the inequality that lurks behind this year’s theme, just as it often lurks behind many other issues, including those relating to environmental concerns and natural resource access and use. Not everyone can so easily escape to connect with nature. If there are no green public spaces in a city, marginalized populations may not be able to easily access a natural place. If going into nature requires leaving town and getting a hotel, or even a tent, there may be many urban dwellers that will be unable to participate in this year’s World Environment Day. Although nature can encompass any outdoor area around us, these places for many people who reside in city centers (and even the city’s peripheral areas) may be afflicted by air or water pollution. Even in the great outdoors inequality can follow us.

To achieve the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a fairly new agenda that world leaders agreed to in 2015, it’s vital to acknowledge the inequality relating to space and to natural resource use, especially in cities since two-thirds of the population is estimated to live in urban areas by 2050. SDG# 11, that works to achieve sustainable cities and communities, specifically addresses and targets issues relating to the urban environment. To implement and achieve this goal, along with the other SDGs, creative approaches towards sustainable cities are needed to ensure equal access to natural resources, green public spaces, and a clean environment. It’s only in this way that we can truly connect everyone with nature.

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