In many American cities, people go about their day in a mechanized fashion. They scurry to work or school, grab a coffee on the go, and rush about hurriedly. There is a city beat. There are bright lights. Not many people stop to enjoy a bit of nature. In fact, many city dwellers are oblivious to the fact that cities are eco-systems.
Cities are man-made, designed and constructed by people. Most city-dwellers are not aware that there is an eco-system around them. Sure, they are probably aware and appreciative of city parks and the aesthetic qualities of plants and flowers. In Chicago, where I live, you cannot miss Lake Michigan if you are living or working near it. Unfortunately, many city dwellers live far from any of the blatantly obvious signs of nature like big city parks and, in Chicago’s case, the beauty of the lake. Instead, they are surrounded by streets and cement lots. It is even more difficult for them to feel connected to nature.
In fact, cities are fact eco-systems in their own way with a community of different species. There are mammals, birds, bugs, trees and plants. They are interdependent. They each call the city home. They are each an integral part of the urban eco-system.
The lack of connection with nature in the city became apparent when I visited the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago during a day off from my downtown Chicago high school, I decided to visit the Butterfly House, where I sat on a bench marveling at the wondrous creatures flitting around, occasionally lighting on a plant or a person. The reverie was broken when I heard shrieks, some of delight but more of fright. There was a group of younger school children from the city that included many that were horrified and truly frightened by the butterflies. You would have thought we were in a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Birds, where birds attack people. One child even crawled under my bench!
The scene really struck me. I realized many of these children had never seen a butterfly, which was why they were scared. Their irrational fear was grounded in lack of knowledge. I realized there is a need to have urban children understand and appreciate nature they see in their own environs. If they do not understand nature in their community, I thought, how can they appreciate nature and conservation beyond?
I developed an idea to help solve this problem. While these kids were at a great nature museum, there are financial limitations at many schools that do not allow for such trips. Many of their parents experience economic challenges preventing them from taking their children across the city to these places. Many do not live anywhere near a park or green space. I decided to bring the learning to the children at school.
Only by understanding nature in their own backyard or, in this case, their own back lot, can youth understand and appreciate nature further afield and in distant lands. With more knowledge, there are many conservation measures that can be taken on by kids – not littering, protecting habitats, helping with community gardens, understanding pollution, learning about climate change impact.
Urban Education Toolkit by Kent Keller
I developed a plan to create and disseminate an urban education tool kit. I received a grant from the National Environmental Education Foundation to develop it. It will be used in Chicago schools to educate elementary school age, urban youth about birds. I chose birds because they are readily viewable in city ecosystems. Birds are the one bit of nature city children frequently see, and birds resonate with younger children.
Peregrine Falcon perched in city by Kent Keller
Birds are everywhere in the city, whether near a park or not. They are an important part of a city eco-system. For example, Peregrine falcons were becoming extinct in the early 1970’s when the pesticide, DDT, was still in use, which weakened their eggs. They now are making a resurgence in cities because there is plenty of food in the form of pigeons and sparrows. They help keep those populations in check. With cleaner air, birds are more plentiful. Birds eat bugs, helping to control insect numbers. There is so much to learn about nature from learning about birds.
By educating them about what is around them in the city, these children are likely to take notice. They’ll know twitter is a sound a bird makes, not just a message! There are many youth growing up today without experiencing or appreciating the natural world. I went to a lecture by Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, who talked about nature deficit disorder, a phrase he coined to describe the great number of youth who are missing out on nature experiences. Our technologically focused world is making the situation even worse. With the focus on cellular phones and devices, children and adults are not taking the time to look around them to notice nature. It is all around, even in urban areas.
By raising urban youth awareness about nature and conservation, I hope to spur their interest in conservation long term. As these students get older, they will have an understanding of conservation transferrable to a bigger world. I am hoping, through these efforts, I can help in some way to create youth advocates of tomorrow.