May 042017

Take a moment to envision the most meaningful place of your childhood. There’s a good chance that it was somewhere outdoors. Ours, however, may be the last generation to remember what it’s like to deeply connect with nature. Why? Because children around the world today spend as much as 90% of their time indoors. On average, seven hours of this time is spent in front of a glowing screen. And, for the first time ever, most live in urban areas, often far from green space. This trend has serious implications for children’s healthy development – and for the health of the natural environment itself.

To address this growing lack of nature connection, more than 900 educators, public health advocates, urban planners and researchers from 22 countries gathered in Vancouver in mid-April for the 2017 Children & Nature Network International Conference. The gathering brought together people who are seeking to create a planet in which all children benefit from nature in their daily lives.

Along with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha, I had the pleasure of attending the conference and presenting an outdoor workshop based on activities from “The Big Book of Nature Activities”, which we co-authored. There were also forums and workshops on topics such as forest kindergartens (a preschool held almost exclusively outdoors), naturalizing schoolyards, risky play, the health benefits of nature, honoring indigenous knowledge, designing natural playgrounds and supporting culturally relevant leaders. The keynote speakers included Richard Louv, co- founder of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) and author of the best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods”.

Jacob Rodenburg and I led activities from our “Big Book of Nature Activities” at the C&NN conference in Vancouver – Drew Monkman

Children’s Health

Children today are more likely to report symptoms of attention disorder and depression and are often medicated for these problems. Mental health issues, childhood obesity and even myopia appear to be exacerbated by a lack of time spent playing outdoors in nature. However, “Science increasingly tells us that time in nature has the power to make children healthier, happier and smarter,” says Sarah Milligan-Toffler, the executive director of C&NN.

Thirty years ago, there were no more than a handful of studies on the restorative effects of natural environments on children. Today, more than 500 studies have been done and their conclusions are well-aligned. The research consistently shows restorative effects when children have improved access to nature. Depending on the child’s age, this may be the backyard, a municipal park or a wilderness area. In a pilot program in Portland, Oregon, doctors have begun writing “spend time in nature” prescriptions to their patients as part of a longitudinal study on mental health. It’s no wonder. Humans are genetically wired to be in nature, which is where our species evolved.

While it’s not practical for most families to adopt a rural life of unsupervised child-rearing, many parents and grandparents are taking steps to ensure their kids get that potentially healing contact with nearby nature through unstructured outdoor play time. The positive effects are especially strong when they are out with other kids. “We have to do this consciously, because it doesn’t happen on its own very often,” says Richard Louv. In one response to this need, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, a co-sponsor of the Vancouver conference, has created WILD Family Nature Clubs, a loose network of families that organize group hikes and other outdoor experiences.

The conference began with an address by Gil Penalosa, who advises decision makers on how to create vibrant green cities for everyone, regardless of age, gender and social, economic, or ethnic background. His talk focused on how to create connections to nature in an urbanizing world. More than half the world’s population now lives in cities. The majority of these people do not have a park or greenspace within walking distance. Sadly, the proximity of green space decreases as income decreases. However, this can be overcome by establishing everything from naturalized schoolyards and playgrounds to vastly increasing the urban tree canopy and even closing streets to traffic once a week.
Nature connection

One of the most inspiring presentations was by Scott Sampson, CEO of Vancouver’s Science World and creator of the popular PBS show, “Dinosaur Train”. Sampson explained that achieving nature connection can be encompassed in the acronym “NEW”. The N stands for “notice”. If we, as adults, explicitly notice nature, kids will notice it, too. When you step outside in the morning, take time to smell the air, listen to the bird song and point out what’s happening in the trees and gardens. Most children won’t make a habit of noticing nature unless we do.

The E is for “engage”. Nature connection, in Sampson’s words, is a “full contact sport” involving all the senses. Kids need opportunities to get down and dirty – dig in the mud, climb trees, play with sticks, catch wild creatures and even get scraped and bruised from time to time. We therefore need to rethink the notion of risk, and ask ourselves “What’s the risk of NOT letting a child engage in nature play?” If kids don’t deal with risks when they’re young, they may not be able to deal with them when they’re teenagers – a time when drugs, alcohol, cars and other potential dangers enter their world.

The final letter, W, stands for “wonder”. Adults need to be conveyors of wonder and awaken children’s eyes to how amazing the natural world actually is. In addition to expressing wonder yourself – “Wow! Look at all the pollen on this bee!” – ask questions and encourage kids to do the same. Let’s say you come across a bird or insect that catches a child’s attention. Rather than simply saying what it is (if you know), take time to observe it: What do YOU think it is? What do you think it’s doing? Why do you think it might be that colour or behave in that way? Later, you can sit down together to check a book or website for answers. Questions are powerful and almost always lead to rich learning. Encourage children to tell the story of their nature experiences to other people, too.

What Sampson is describing here is the importance of “mentoring”. This doesn’t mean you have to be a nature expert. Rather, a mentor’s job is to be a role model, to encourage and guide questions and to share experiences. Be sure to tell stories of nature experiences from when you were a child, too. Stories are a powerful way to engage young minds and deepen nature connection.

A vision

An essential part of this “New Nature Movement” is providing an inspiring vision to young people. We need this vision to counter the apocalyptic view of the future that inhabits so many of us these days. Many young people think the world will be a far worse place when they reach old age.

The vision needs to be much more than just a sustainable planet. As one speaker said, “Would you just want a sustainable marriage?” It must embrace the idea that people need nature and nature needs people. We can’t thrive without it, and in a world moving towards 10 billion people, nature can’t thrive without us. We need to go beyond simply saying that spending too much time indoors is bad for you, and connecting to nature has all kinds of health benefits. An uplifting vision must include the idea of “relationship”. When we look at nature, we need to see ourselves as deeply embedded within it. A forest is not simply a collection of resources or a pleasant location for jogging or playing. We need to recognize and feel the intrinsic value of other species and of entire ecosystems. When we are in nature, we are in the presence of plants and animals with which we co-evolved. We share most of the same genes. Their stories are every bit as intriguing and imbued with mystery as the story of Homo sapiens. If you need a reminder of how we co-evolved with other species, just remember that at least half the trillions of cells in our bodies are non-human. They are bacteria (over 500 species in our gut alone), viruses, mites and so on. They keep us healthy, and without them we would not survive. In other words, we need to shift to biocentric thinking – an ethic that extends inherent value to all living things.

The vision must celebrate who we are as humans and where we came from. Variously called the Universe Story, Big History or the Epic of Evolution, it is the staggeringly beautiful account of our deep time origins. The story starts with the Big Bang and extends right to us – and every other living thing. Completely anchored in science, it paints the picture of a creative cosmos in which stardust has literally become living things. When children know this story, they will be inspired to shape where the narrative goes from here. Learn the story yourself, and tell it to the children in your life. Google “big history project”. Pick up a copy of Sampson’s “How to Raise a Wild Child” too. It’s full of great mentoring ideas and includes the Big History story.

When we think of the most important issues of our time, climate change, habitat destruction and species extinction all come to mind. However, unless we connect young people – and ourselves! – to nature, a long-term solution to these problems is probably impossible. If voters and decision makers have no emotional connection to the natural world, we can’t expect them to vote or make decisions in its favour. Simply stated, we will not fight to save what we do not know or love.

Feb 042016

As much as news reports of dying sequoia trees in California, disappearing seabird colonies in Iceland, and lifeless coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean are disturbing, these impacts of climate change are still far-removed from our everyday experience. We, of course, don’t live in these far-flung places; we live in Peterborough or Lakefield, on Chemong Lake, or maybe in the Cavan Hills. For most of us, many of the consequences of a changing climate have yet to be felt personally. However, it’s only a matter of time. The impacts won’t only be on our financial and physical well-being. They will be deeply emotional, as well.

White Pines  at Pioneer Park in Peterborough - Peter Beales

White Pines at Pioneer Park in Peterborough – Peter Beales

A part of our identity and sense of well-being merges with the places we call home, spend our summers, our visit regularly. We feel an emotional connection to the landscapes that surround us, the plants and animals that are our neighbours and the rhythm of the seasons. For those of us of a certain age, we hold fond memories shaped by myriad springs, summers, falls and winters. We have a strong sense of “how this time of year ought to be.” The memory of what the weather was once like is intimately linked to events in our lives. This, in turn, provides a sense of how things are changing. Rather than picking strawberries in early July, we now pick them in June; a birthday which used to coincide with blooming lilacs now lines up with the first primrose; a backyard rink which was once a rite of December is now relegated to mid-winter – or not possible at all.

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome - Wikimedia

Little Brown Bat with White Nose Syndrome – Wikimedia

I frequently hear stories about the sadness brought on by the decline of much-loved species or the degradation of cherished habitats that had become part of people’s lives. When this happens, there is often a deep sense of loss, whether it is the result of climate change, urban development, invasive species or any number of other causes. This emotional impact of a degraded natural world goes under-reported but is very real. Here are just a few stories I have heard personally. I would be interested in hearing yours, too.

·         The cottager on Salmon Lake who, for 50 years, enjoyed a daily ritual of sitting on the dock in the evening, a coffee in hand, watching the bats twist and turn as they hunted insects over the lake. The bats are no more, replaced by nostalgia and sadness.

·         The farmer in Ennismore who, since childhood, was kept company every spring and summer by the chatter and coming and going of dozens of swallows nesting in the barn. The barn has turned eerily silent in recent years.

·         The angler who laments the drastic decline in brook trout in local creeks, and how trout fishing in the spring was once such a part of his life.

·         The golfer who mourns the passing of the towering, graceful American elms that were once the signature tree of the Peterborough Golf and Country Club.

·         The Stony Lake cottager who still carries the emotional pain of seeing her giant white pines blown down in a single storm.

·         The Trent student who did intensive research on local bumblebees in the 1980s. When he returned to the same research sites in 2013, he was unable to find any of the bumblebee species that had once been so common. In a letter to the editor of this paper, he wrote, “To me, the woods and glades of beautiful places like Jackson Park now fill me with an aching sense of loss and despair. Little did I know that my thesis studies would be more epitaph than ecology. What have we done?”

Common Eastern Bumble Bee nectaring - by Margot Hughes

Common Eastern Bumble Bee nectaring –  Margot Hughes

These feelings now have a name – solastalgia. It is the pain or anguish caused by the loss of solace from a loved environment because of its degradation. It is being felt all over the world, especially among indigenous peoples. Researchers interviewed 120 native people in Labrador in what is called the Inuit Mental Health Adaptation to Climate Change project. The North Labrador Coast is one of the fastest-warming areas in the world. Wildlife and vegetation patterns have changed, and sea ice  forms later in the fall and breaks up earlier in the spring. People reported sadness and even depression about not being able to travel on the ice to reach hunting grounds as early or late in the year as they used to.

How are scientists feeling?

It is revealing to hear the emotional reaction of climate scientists themselves to a warming world. These people aren’t robots in white lab coats. They are mothers, fathers and grandparents who see the impacts and feel the emotional effects of climate change first-hand. Here are some testimonies taken from a website called

·         “I feel frustrated that I cannot even convince those closest to me that we, as a society, are being irresponsible, and that our children and grandchildren will pay the price. Don’t we feel compassion for the life we are signing them up for?” Anna Harper, Research Fellow, University of Exeter

·         “I am a scientist mostly focussed on studying how human activities are destroying coral reefs. On coral reefs, climate change effects are hugely obvious and very depressing. Huge swaths of coral have died due to heat stress, and it will continue unless drastic changes occur.” Dr. Jessica Carilli, UMass, Boston.

·         “How do I feel about climate change? I feel afraid for my grand children and for my family. It  keeps me awake at night. I am frustrated with complacency. Parents who would leap between a bear and a child live in ignorance, confusion, or at best, fear. Leap into the climate debate, mom and dad. Still, I feel excitement that we can fix this. We have the plans, policies and technology. We can have great lives with clean, safe, renewable energy. Please help! Get involved. Demand action on climate at all political levels.” Dr. James Byrne, University of Lethbridge

·         “My overwhelming emotion is anger; anger that is fuelled not so much by ignorance, but by greed and profiteering at the expense of future generations… I am speaking as a father of a seven year-old girl who loves animals and nature in general. As a biologist, I see irrefutable evidence every day that human-driven climate disruption will turn out to be one of the main drivers of the Anthropocene mass extinction event now well under way.” Professor Corey Bradshaw, University of Adelaide

·         “I’m lucky to have been a marine biologist for the last 20 years. I look at my underwater photos of amazing coral reefs, diverse fish and baby turtles hatching and I feel very sad that my son, his friends and their children may never see the amazing things I have seen.” Dr. Jennie Mallela, Australian National University

·         “I will keep doing my work. I will keep shouting in my own little way. I will be optimistic that we will do something about this, collectively. I live in hope that the climate changes on the graphs that I stare into every day won’t be as bad as my data tells me, because we worked together to find a solution. All I can hope is that people share my optimism and convert it into action.” Dr Ailie Gallant, Monash University.

Barn Swallow - Karl Egressy

Barn Swallow – Karl Egressy

Everywhere we look, climate change predictions are being confirmed. If you believe in science – humankind’s best way of discovering what’s true – you have to believe that forecasts for the coming years will prove true, as well. Yes, it’s difficult to think beyond the present moment  and the many worries and stresses of everyday life. However, we can’t put our heads in the sand. Even meeting Canada’s timid commitments under Stephen Harper to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030  will be difficult to achieve. The bottom line is that we will have to accept paying a great deal more for fossil fuels, if we are to usher in an age of renewable energy. At this late date, it’s the only way forward. Let’s encourage our politicians to adopt an aggressive and quickly increasing price on carbon.


Sep 172015

As we approach the autumn, change is in the air.  The nights are cooler and we’re starting to see some colours appear (and I don’t mean the plethora of political campaign signs). During the fall season, most of the attention is focussed on the sights vs. sounds of nature.  The fall folliage is a visual treat, but the sounds of our natural (and built) world also have a significant influence on our quality of life.  The crunch of leaves underfoot and migrating geese overhead are pleasant sounds, but nature’s ‘music’ is often drowned out by non-natural noises that detract from relaxation, restoration, and our enjoyment of leisure activities.  In some cases, the noise we take for granted has a harmful effect on our health.

As city dwellers, we have adapted to and tolerate a lot of noise that is outside of our control.  Cell phones, email alerts, car horns, sirens, and traffic noises are all part of modern life.  However, noise (unwanted sound) can have a negative impact on our heart, immune system, memory, and learning abilities.  Noise doesn’t have to be loud to cause problems (anyone trying to concentrate on a task knows how distracting certain ringtones can be) The insidious creep of unwanted sound into our lives is something relatively new and potentially outside our awareness.  Humans are hard-wired to notice sudden and immediate threats vs. those that slowly encroach upon our well-being (e.g., the sudden sound of breaking glass vs. the drone of a lawmower).  Unfortunately, our increasingly noisy world is making it harder to escape this type of environmental stressor.  The very places we seek peace and quiet, rest and relaxation – parks and greenspace – are also infiltrated with noise, usually from transportation (traffic and airplanes).  It is a challenge to avoid the effects of noise pollution, even in nature.

There are times when a lot of noise is tolerable or even welcome ( who hasn’t cranked up the volume when listening to their favourite music).  I enjoy the happy chatter around Trent university at this time of year and teaching large classes of students, I am used to working in an often-noisy environment.  But as much as I love my job, I sometimes need a break, and so seek quiet in the lakes and portages of northern Algonquin park.

Travelling on foot and by canoe, I am instantly aware of the diversity of sounds around me – the hum of the late-summer insects whizzing by, and the peeps, chirps, and whistles of innumerable bird species.  Red squirrels chatter disapprovingly at the interruption of their foraging, usually followed by the crash of a pinecone, launched from high above, soon to be retrieved and cached for winter.  In the forest, even the tiniest creatures are audible amidst the quiet.  On rare occasions, I’ve heard the distant and faint sounds of adult wolves ‘singing’ to pups left at a rendez vous site, and the enchanting yips and yelps of pups howling back in response.

On this year’s canoe trip, almost every hour, the sound of water trickling off my paddle or the soulful wail of loons was interrupted by overhead aircraft noise.  Twenty kilometers of portaging is clearly not enough to escape ‘city’ noise.  The annoyance I felt when helicopters or planes buzzed over the lakes we temporarily called home made me ponder why this was so unsettling.  Airplane noise is a fact of life and these were not emergency flights (it’s understandable when aircraft are needed for search and rescue or forest fire missions).  There was something disquieting (pun intended), however, about the juxtaposition of natural sounds from birds, frogs, chipmunks, and crickets with combustion engine noise.

Maybe it’s because it reminds me that we are losing a precious commodity – silence.  The relatively new field of soundscape ecology examines the acoustic features of ecosystems and so far the news is not good.  Over a six year period, equipment set up in one of the most remote (and one would think quiet) places in North America (Denali National Park, Alaska) recorded only 36 complete days without some sort of combustion engine noise.  During one 24-hour period, traffic or engine sounds occurred every 17 minutes.  That’s not much peace and quiet!  The lack of uninterrupted and undisturbed natural sound is taking a toll on our wild places, the wildlife dependent on those landscapes, as well as human health.

In natural settings, mechanical noise detracts from recreational experiences.  Surveys of over 15,000 visitors to 39 U.S National Parks concluded that people place considerable value on natural quiet (second only to clean air).  Follow-up reports a month later suggest there were negative lasting effects on park enjoyment and mood after exposure to aircraft noise. Unwanted or excessive noise affects us in ways we may not be aware of.  Noise contributes to hearing loss, increased blood pressure, and changes in our circulation and hormone levels.  Transportation-related noise is linked with cardiovascular problems like hypertension and myocardial infarction.  Noise affects our performance on tasks, our well-being, and our sleep.

Children exposed to aircraft noise in California had poorer reading comprehension and memory, as well as more negative moods (maybe you can relate if your office or school is under the Pearson flight path).  Similar research showed students at schools near airports had higher grades and dropout rates declined when the aircraft noise stopped.  Even within a school noise differences affect learning.  Students whose New York city classroom was near a train track had poorer reading abilities than students on the other side of the building (reading abilities no longer differed after soundproofing work was done).  Children attending school near airports have lower academic achievement, impaired hearing and reading skills, and higher resting blood pressure levels (compared to children schooled in quieter areas).  Noise exposure has a negative impact on our attention, memory, performance, and well-being, as well as delayed effects such as motivation deficits.

Having some control (either real or perceived) over this type of environmental stress can reduce the short and long-term effects on our performance and health.  In other words, noise has a great impact on our quality of life but we also have some control in how we shape our environments.  Because traffic noise has particularly hazardous consequences for memory and attention, we can design our communities with this in mind, creating nature refuges to buffer some of the unavoidable noise in urban centres. Residential surveys indicate that people seek out and prefer dwellings that are quiet.  Access to nearby greenspace decreases the annoyance people feel about traffic noise.  In the Netherlands, adults in neighbouroods with high levels of traffic-related noise were less likely to walk or cycle to work or for leisure.  Thus, noise may indirectly affect health if it makes outdoor activity unappealing.

Speaking of noise, we can and should be asking our local political candidates how they will ensure our natural spaces are incorporated into long-term planning and health policy.   In addition to the many health benefits associated with tree density, our urban green spaces are a valuable health resource, providing relief from noise, heat, and other environmental stressors, as well as opportunities for psychological and physical restoration.  Let’s ask our candidates about their understanding of the future health challenges facing Canadians and the importance of our natural environment in promoting physical and mental well-being.  On this issue, we should definitely not keep quiet.

Jul 232015

I noticed a wide variety of people at the provincial park I recently visited: families with young children, older adults, groups of twenty-something friends, as well as international tourists clearly in awe at their first glimpse of Canada’s spectacular wilderness.  As I pondered the potential motives all these people might have for spending time in a park, I wondered what they were hoping to experience and why people enjoy parks.

The appeal of parks and green space may be a remnant of our evolutionary past.  Early humans were immersed in and dependent on the natural environment.  Knowledge of plants and animals would have been essential for survival.  Our interest in hiking, camping, or watching wildlife may fulfill a need to reconnect with nature, particularly when we spend most of our time indoors.  This innate need shows up in our desire to incorporate nature into our built environment.  For example, office workers in cubicles bring more plants into their workspace than workers with windows.

Until recently, there was not much research devoted to park users’ motivations and experiences.  Dr. Chris Lemieux, a geographer at Wilfrid Laurier University, led a large-scale study in 2012-13 to determine why people visit parks.  His team did their research in Alberta, gathering responses from both day use and overnight park visitors.  It may come as a surprise to learn that physical well-being was not the only motive for park visits.  Rather, the majority of visitors sought out parks for the potential mental health benefits.  Parents indicated that parks provided learning and developmental opportunities for children.  Visitors reported improvements in their psychological and emotional well-being after spending time in the parks, and this was more pronounced for women.

This research suggests that people see parks as more than just recreational.  Parks may be a health and well-being resource – a way to cope with stress, to manage moods, and increase energy.  This perspective is incorporated in the growing Healthy Parks, Healthy People (HPHP) movement, based on evidence of nature’s benefits and the philosophy that conservation should be a public health strategy.  HPHP organizations exist in Australia, the U.S., the U.K., South Africa, and Canada, striving to better understand the relationship between the natural environment and human health.

Last Friday, July 17th, was Healthy Parks, Healthy People day in Ontario.  Day use in all Ontario Parks was free, to highlight the physical and mental health benefits of getting outdoors and to kickoff the August HPHP 30×30 Nature Challenge (a great way to motivate yourself to get some regular outdoor time, if you missed the May 30×30 Nature Challenge).

The HPHP philosophy is relevant to local parks.  As our communities become more dense and the population more urban (by 2030 it is predicted that 3 out of 5 people will live in cities) we will need strategies to ensure citizens have a high quality of life while adapting to a changing urban environment and changing climate.  This has important consequences for the way we design our communities, including our urban parks and protected areas.  Although the mere presence of parks may not guarantee a healthy population, new research emphasizes a key feature of most parks – trees – and their effects on human health.

A recently published study in the journal Nature matched tree density in Toronto with self-reported health information and public health records.  The researchers examined the impact of street trees, controlling for socioeconomic and demographic factors that impact health.  Twenty or more trees in a block reduces the risk for cardio-metabolic conditions comparable to being 1.4 years younger or having $20,000 more of annual income (living on a street with 10 or more trees has a health impact comparable to having $10,000 more income).

One might say that tree research seems to be taking root.  In another study, in Boston, people living in areas with little green space had higher mortality rates following a stroke, compared to people with more green space.  The findings have clear implications for urban planning.  Trees are an integral part of a city, for ecosystem, aesthetic, and health reasons.

These findings, along with the growing evidence of nature’s effect on immune functioning and stress reduction, underscore the necessity of maintaining national, provincial, and city parks. Without access to a provincial park, there are still ways to get a little green into our routine.  The last time I rode my bike through Jackson Park, my overwhelming impression was of the spectacular and diverse trees (long before reading the latest tree-health research).  A variety of people were enjoying that marvelous park we have tucked into the middle of our city – each person with their own motive for being there.  No knowledge of how the trees were influencing our physical health was necessary for a restorative experience.

In Peterborough, we have so many wonderful parks and green spaces we may underestimate the value of individual trees.  The dictionary defines a tree hugger as ‘someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats’.  The good folks at Merriam-Webster will probably want to update their definition, replacing ‘foolish or annoying’ with ‘savy and health conscious’.

Next time we are passing through Jackson park, or even walking by one of the trees along the street, perhaps we should consider stopping and taking a moment to express our appreciation and say thank you.  Reduced risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, improved immune functioning, not to mention air quality, air conditioning, and beauty – all very good reasons to hug a tree.



Jun 192015

source: The Guardian 

The pope links the destruction of the environment with the exploitation
of the poor. The world should pay attention

Last modified on Friday 19 June 2015 00.00 BST

Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’, is the most
astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past
100 years, since it is addressed not just to Catholics, or Christians,
but to everyone on earth. It sets out a programme for change that is
rooted in human needs but it makes the radical claim that these needs
are not primarily greedy and selfish ones.

We need nature, he says, and we need each other. Our need for
mutuality, and for giving, is just as real as the selfish aspects of
our characters; the need for awe and stillness in front of nature is
just as profound as any other human need. The care of nature and the
care of the poor are aspects of the same ethical commandment, and if we
neglect either one we cannot find peace. The environment, in the pope’s
use of the word, is not something out there: nature as opposed to the
human world. The term describes the relationship between nature and
humans, who are inextricably linked and part of each other. It is that
relationship that must be set right.

Starting from that premise, he launches a ferocious attack on what he
sees as the false and treacherous appetites of capitalism and on the
consumerist view of human nature. For Francis, there is a vital
distinction between human needs, which are limited but non-negotiable,
and appetites, which are potentially unlimited, and which can always be
traded for other satisfactions without ever quite giving us what we
most deeply want. The poor, he says, have their needs denied, while the
rich have their appetites indulged. The environmental crisis links
these two aspects of the problem.

This criticism attacks both kinds of defenders of the present world
order: the deniers and the optimists. The document is absolutely
unequivocal in backing the overwhelming scientific consensus that
anthropogenic global warming is a clear and present danger. It blasts
the use of fossil fuels and demands that these be phased out in favour
of renewable energy. But it is also explicitly opposed to the idea that
we can rely on purely technological solutions to ecological problems.
This may be the most explicit break with the liberal and broadly
optimistic consensus of the consuming world. There will never be a
technological fix for the problem of unrestrained appetite, the pope
claims, because this is a moral problem, which demands a moral
solution, a turn towards sobriety and self-restraint and away from the
intoxications of consumerism.

In this he is drawing partly on the tradition of Catholic social
teaching, and partly on moral thinking popular in the 1960s, when moral
philosophers were first grappling with the implications of nuclear
weapons and the sense that humankind had not grown up but reached its
toddler stage, where the capacity for destruction far outweighed our
capacity for judgment.

Once again we find that we possess the power to destroy the planet and
most of the multicellular life on it, but this time there is no
argument from enlightened self-interest that is as clear as the
argument against nuclear warfare was in the days of the cold war. The
balance of terror no longer exists in the same form as it did when the
use of nuclear weapons would be punished by nuclear retaliation: the
poor world will now pay for the crimes of the rich, and our children
and grandchildren must pay for their parents’ self-indulgence. This is
what he means by an “ecological debt”. The sometimes apocalyptic tone,
with the threats of resource wars as well as the more obvious forms of
ecological catastrophe, arises from the sense that this debt must at
some time be terribly repaid.

Will anyone listen? The pope is scathing, and rightly so, about the
lack of action that has followed high-minded declarations in the past.
Why should this time be different? The answer, not entirely reassuring,
is that we cannot go on as we are. Self-interest alone will not avert
the catastrophe. Without a moral and imaginative structure that links
our wellbeing to that of others, so that their suffering feels as
urgent as ours, or is at least measured on the same scales, we will
render our planet uninhabitable. The pope is trying to change our
understanding of human nature. Many people will disagree with his
understanding. But he is right that no smaller change will do.

Jun 112015

Watching wildlife can be entertaining, relaxing, exciting, confusing, stressful, or all of the above.  Many people are fascinated by the stories going on in their gardens, urban greenspaces, conservation areas, and parks.  The backyard squirrels leaping from one precarious branch to another, as they race through the treetops at top speed, is heart stopping.  The struggle of fledgling birds, as they tentatively wobble out of the nest, can have you on the edge of your seat.  Maybe you are following the triumphs and tragedies of Ozzie and Harriet (ospreys) playing out on the Audubon’s osprey-cam streaming live from Maine over the web 24/7.  Around the world, people are rivetted by these unscripted ‘reality’ shows, a variety of new nature ‘apps’, and citizen science websites that are now accessible from anywhere.

This curiosity about the world around us helps us to better understand the plants and animals we share our local ecosystems with.  E. O. Wilson believes this type of learning makes us value all life more.  Contemplating our place in a complex ecosystem like the Kawarthas, for example, can make us feel alive and part of something bigger than ourselves.  This can be a good thing when we’re feeling stressed or having a bad day.  Learning about natural history may even enhance our personal happiness (there is research linking environmental education and well-being).

It’s impossible not to root for our local turtles and their painstakingly slow and deliberate efforts to cross our region’s roads and highways.  It seems equally impossible not to celebrate their successes when they make it across unharmed (my husband unabashedly does what he calls his ‘turtle dance’ – a spontaneous and rather amusing expression of joy at seeing the turtles succeed).

Personal observations are becoming increasingly useful – even essential – for tracking events like the spread of invasive species, seasonal changes in migration patterns, loss of wildlife habitat, and the survival of at-risk species.  The volume of information needed to monitor the health of our natural world is beyond the ability of researchers, but average citizens are making substantial contributions and collaborating in this endeavour.  Commonly referred to as citizen science, the information gathered by bird counters, water sample collectors, turtle and frog watchers, just to name a few, helps experts to learn about these happenings in places they can’t easily get to.  Citizens like you and I can collect information and send it to far-off researchers compiling information from across the globe.

This is a win-win situation for us, for the researchers, and for nature.  Average citizens contribute to scientific knowledge as well as learn more about their local environment.  Have you ever wondered why the turtles cross the road?  Or exactly what kind of turtle you just avoided?  Where do turtles go in the winter?  What are the most dangerous roads for our local turtles?  Our very own Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre (KTTC) has excellent advice, information (Turtles 101), and guidance on how to best help these fascinating critters, many of which are at risk (  Personal encounters with nature frequently trigger our fascination, inspiring us to learn more.  Until I transported an injured turtle to the KWTC, I didn’t know about Blanding’s and their threatened status.

The curiosity, interest, and other emotions we feel about nature can motivate us to preserve our cherished places.  I challenge you to watch a group of tiny rescued turtles learning to swim and not feel protective and hopeful.  My turtle experiences in the first few years of living in Peterborough gave me a new appreciation for the challenges faced by local wildlife and also a sense of pride in local education initiatives.

Citizen science projects are as diverse as species on our planet (or maybe even off it!).  Zooniverse is a collection of such projects, the earliest and most notable being Galaxy Zoo where millions of volunteers help to categorize images and thus contribute to actual science.

A bit closer to home, literally, my colleague, Dr. Scott Smedley at Trinity College in Connecticut, is investigating animals’ scavenging behaviour.  Many people compost kitchen scraps in a pile on their property and Dr. Smedley is interested in how this practice influences scavenging wildlife.  Not unlike Galaxy Zoo, the Wildlife CSI (Compost Scene Investigation) tool allows volunteers to categorize the thousands of camera trap images from animals visiting the experimental compost piles.  This allows researchers to answer questions about human-influenced environments.  Who scavenges with who? At what time of day, night, and year? Does the content of compost influence animal behaviour?

Some citizen projects are hands-on, providing science skills to volunteers.  Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (and other similar organizations) train average citizens in non-invasive tracking and data collection techniques.  Over a weekend, citizens might gather hair collected from fenceposts, take measurements of grizzly bear footprints, and learn about how researchers will use this valueable ecological data on wildlife corridors.  ASC teaches middle school children from California how to look for signs of pika (the smallest member of the rabbit family) and how this species is struggling to survive.  The potato-sized furry creatures are alpine specialists, unable to adapt to temperature changes, and thus considered a climate indicator species.  The effects of climate change may be subtle or imperceptible to humans so a citizen science approach gives these students real and tangible examples of adaptation (or imminent extinction).

Citizen science is flourishing, and this detective work we do – counting birds, butterflies, or turtles – is good for our own well-being, as well as the critters we are learning about.  At the end of their expeditions, ASC citizen scientists report more vitality, positive emotions, and a greater sense of connection with nature.  Taking time to get outdoors and explore is important for our physical health, but also to foster a sense of connection with our surroundings.  We benefit from cultivating a sense of wonder and awe, from discovering new features of our environment, and from learning new skills.  Not only is citizen science an efficient way to share information among researchers and community members, but honing our citizen science skills may be the most important contribution we make to improving human and environmental health.  So, unlike the frightened turtles we see crossing the road, let’s try to get out of our shells more, to look around, and discover everything we possibly can about our wonderful world.


Apr 162015

The snow has finally gone, the days are noticeably longer, and spring is finally in the air.  At this time of year, there’s an urge to organize and clean house.  Maybe the snow melt has revealed a pile of unsightly garbage around the yard.  Perhaps there’s a frenzied effort to remember where things were left last fall.  Is it better to spruce the place up and fix that leaky roof, or is it worth pondering a move to a bigger or better place?

This is what I imagine as a day in the life of a squirrel, in spring, in Peterborough.  I realize I am anthropomorphizing (attributing human characteristics to the non-human) with my speculation on what a squirrel to-do list might look like, but we humans have a greater connection with our non-human neighbours than we realize.

Humans evolved living in close proximity to other animals and, as a result, we appear to have developped a bond with other living things (E. O. Wilson refers to this innate connection with all life as biophilia).  Regardless of whether our fascination is a remnant of evolution, animals play a significant role in our spiritual and cultural lives, in art and entertainment.  In the U.S., more people visit zoos and aquariums each year than all major sporting events combined.  Millions of people around the world participate in bird counts and birdwatching, observing or photographing animals, and half of all Canadian households have at least one pet.  We use animal metaphors to describe ourselves and others (my students are smart as foxes, wise as owls and, right now, during exam time, busy as beavers).  With so much interest in animals, we know surprisingly little about how their presence influences our health and well-being.  Some of the human-animal bond research suggests that animals provide more than just a connection to the natural world around us.

The health research has focussed mostly on companion animals, and dogs, in particular.  Our pets provide more than just companionship and comfort.  Oxytocin, a hormone involved with human bonding and stress reduction, is released in both owners and their dogs, after an interaction.  Several studies have shown improvements in blood pressure and heart rate for dog owners, as well as reduced loneliness.  Animal-assisted therapy programs for military veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder employ specially trained dogs to help buffer the difficulties of adjusting to civilian life.  Animal assisted therapy is used to help people coping with anxiety, stress, depression, and physical pain.  Because companion animals provide a type of social support, it is difficult to identify the specific mechanisms responsible for these beneficial effects, but interest in the topic is growing.  New studies are investigating how songbirds influence well-being and the positive mood effects of wildlife viewing.

The energy of Peterborough’s urban wildlife is palpable at this time of year.  The hills really are alive with the sound of bird song and frog music.  It seems like yesterday that we (and I mean both humans and squirrels) were frantically scurrying about to get ready for winter.  Squirrels are on my mind these days because they are so much a part of our urban existence.  Even in the busiest parts of our cities, if there are trees, there are squirrels.  As Drew Monkman’s excellent November 13, 2014 column described, eastern grey squirrels are fascinating animals with incredible spatial memory capabilities.  Researchers are still untangling the mysteries of their behaviour.  I highly recommend CBC’s The Nature of Things episode “Nuts about squirrels” for the latest in squirrel science (spoiler alert: Motley the robo-squirrel helps researchers study the role of ‘tail flagging’ behaviour).

As I walk to work each day, I notice changes in nature nearby.  Before the leaves fill in the tree canopy and forest understory, we are allowed a glimpse of the squirrel world.  I imagine what it’s like to leap from tree to tree, to sway at the top of a high branch in a wind storm, and to brave spring’s erratic temperature changes.  As the melting snow revealed more and more windblown litter and deliberately dumped garbage this year, I thought about what it’s like for the wildlife who might encounter, chew on, ingest, or be injured by this.

We may not always be able to channel our inner squirrel (or turtle, or heron), but taking on the perspective of other creatures can help us understand the health and vibrancy of our land, air, and water.  You don’t have to be a squirrel to realize illegal dumping is nuts (pun intended), but seeing the world through animal eyes can strengthen our connection with nature and foster conservation behaviour.  Research participants who did a perspective taking exercise with animal images (e.g., imagine you are that otter in the picture, covered in oil) felt more concern for all living things (not just humans), unlike participants who looked at the same images objectively.  Maybe the next time someone is about to dump trash out the car window they’ll catch the scowl of a local squirrel, and think twice.

Animals connect us to the natural world, but also to each other.  Not only do animals trigger our interest, fascination, and awe, but the presence of animals can invite social exchanges.  Research on zoo visitors and dog walkers shows that animals facilitate human social interactions.  People with a new puppy often have a hard time walking down the street due to strangers initiating conversation.  Wildlife in our community seems to trigger a similar response.  Around the Kawarthas, I hear people discussing recent turtle, loon, heron, and deer sightings, often with shared concern for the future of those animals.  The wildlife in our region are a barometer for the health of our ecosystem (and that ecosystem includes us).  There is growing evidence of nature’s health benefits and children’s connection with the natural world may be even more important than for adults.  Nature contact is important for children’s cognitive development, for example. Children also learn empathy from watching animals and early life experiences shape attitudes and values about the natural environment.

Wildlife can enrich and enhance our lives in ways we are still learning about.  It’s not unrealistic to think of future researchers uncovering a link between bird watching and lowered stress levels, for example, given all the immune system benefits of time spent in forests.  In the meantime, let’s keep things in good shape, so future generations of humans can marvel at the industrious springtime squirrels and other wonderful wildlife.

A special thanks to Jessica Pasinetti, my graduate student, who provided some of the background research referred to above.


Feb 052015


I haven’t always been able to snowshoe to work. In fact, I didn’t own snowshoes until moving here just over two years ago. For me, one of the big attractions of Peterborough was the easy access to natural areas – parks, forests, lakes, hills, and the beautiful Otonabee river. And all this is close by, with services, restaurants, and live music only a short bike ride away. Peterborough’s bike paths are a joy in the summer, but more on that in a future column, perhaps. When the temperature dips and the snow falls, the fields and woods reveal a different and secret world. Places that were swampy, wet, and inaccessible become fantastic new frozen walkways. Animal tracks reveal a story of recent rabbit, fox, and deer ‘traffic’ through the hills I hike over on my way to and from work. One of the best things about Peterborough is what I like to call “nearby nature” – flora and fauna that’s close to home and easily accessible every day. We have this in Millenium Park, in Beavermead Park, the Trent nature areas, and many other spots in between. The more remote wilderness areas in the Kawarthas or Algonquin Park are also within a relatively short drive, but it’s the daily nature contact that provides my stress relief and keeps me happy. And the research on nature indicates I may not be alone in this.

Intuitively, we are drawn to nature as a place to relax and unwind. When thinking about an ideal vacation spot, people often mention beaches and sun, or mountains and skiing. Despite our spectacular and varied natural geography, most Canadians don’t get outdoors very often. On average, we spend 90% of our time inside. We may not think of nature contact as a health practice, but in other parts of the world scientists have been studying nature’s benefits for several decades. Forest medicine researchers in Japan, Korea, and Finland are untangling the nature-specific mechanisms responsible for stress reduction. Our built environments are often full of traffic, technology, and noise. This detracts from the limited attentional resources we have, making us tired and unable to concentrate. Natural environments seem to replenish these resources as well as improve our mood. Medical researchers and environmental psychologists have been testing how nature contact can improve human physical and mental health, to buffer the stress of modern living.

In Japan, people visit designated “forest bathing” sites – natural areas with walking paths and programs that encourage close contact with nature. Loosely translated, the Japanese term shinrin-yoku means taking in the forest air. Researchers have discovered that spending time walking in the forest lowers blood pressure and benefits immune system functioning, whereas walking in a hectic city scape does not. The benefits of these forest bathing experiences can last for up to a month following a weekend nature excursion. In Korea, the Forest Ministry encourages citizens to have regular nature contact as part of the nation’s health promotion strategy. Growing interest in this topic stems from evidence of the hazards of stress, indoor ‘screen time’, and the consequences of a potential disconnect from our natural world.

Even though nature contact is good for us, our lifestyles mean we may be missing out on some of the potential health advantages nature offers. One reason for this may be that we underestimate how enjoyable nature will be. In research my colleagues and I conducted in Ottawa, people were randomly assigned to walk either indoors (through the campus tunnel system) or outdoors (along a river, not unlike our Otonabee). In a series of experiments, people were asked to make predictions for how the walk would feel. Some people also reported on their happiness after the walk. Outdoor walkers anticipated a pleasant experience, but it was significantly better than expected (indoor walkers were less happy than they expected). In other words, people underestimated the personal happiness benefits of nearby nature.

My work in this line of research has not made me immune to this error. There are many days where I dread bundling up and heading out for a cold, windy, or rainy commute to work, or anticipate a dreary walk with the dog. But no matter the conditions, I always feel better having braved the elements and to-date I have never regretted being outside. Having good footwear and clothing helps, and time enough to travel by foot or bike may be a luxury, depending on where one lives. But often my time spent commuting up and over the snowy hills is not much different to what it would be in a car, when factoring in traffic, parking, and other hassles like scraping off snow and ice.

My enjoyment is partly based on my personal preference, familiarity, and comfort with my nearby Peterborough surroundings. There may be some historical reasons for our general fascination with the outdoors, however. Noted sociobiologist E. O. Wilson proposed the concept of biophilia, to explain humans’ innate need to connect with nature. The biophilia hypothesis is based on the fact that our ancestors evolved in natural environments and only began living in cities, separate from nature, relatively recently. Our fondness for nature photographs, our love of pets, gardening, and birdwatching, for example, are suggestive evidence of biophilia (evolutionary theories are difficult to test but the health research above is supportive, along with a growing body of empirical work on nature connection). Our lack of nature contact points to a possible nature deficit, however. We may not be benefiting from nature contact as much as we could be.

For some people, nature may seem scary, uncomfortable, or even disgusting (U.S. researchers studied just this type of perception in school children; it predicted interest in future outdoor careers). Indeed people do differ in their connection with nature and how much they enjoy the outdoors. As scientists, psychologists measure this sense of connection, similar to how we measure personality traits like hostility, and investigate links with other important individual differences in physical health and well-being. It turns out that connecting with nature regularly and a strong sense of connectedness are good for us. Living near greenspace reduces some of the health risks associated with income inequality. Neighbourhoods with more greenery have greater community cohesion and lower crime rates. And people who report more connection with nature are generally happier. In experiments using images of nature, people are more caring, generous, and cooperative, compared to when viewing images of the built environment.

Increasingly, we are encouraged to be proactive in managing our own health. Wise use of our tax dollars and high quality health care is a priority for most Canadians. By not taking advantage of nature, we may be missing out on opportunities to reduce stress, increase our energy, and boost our personal happiness. Some wellness programs are drawing on nature’s benefits, such as the Mood Walks program for older adults, in conjunction with the Canadian Mental Health Association and Hike Ontario. In addition, each year several thousand Canadians sign up for the May 30×30 nature challenge, and pledge to spend 30 minutes outdoor for a month. The research from the first two years of study indicates that the more people increase their nature time, the larger the increases in personal happiness. Finding time to connect with nature may not always be easy, but a daily dose of nature contact – going for a walk, toboganning, skating, or skiing – could be the ideal prescription to chase away any late winter blues.

Oct 162014


It’s mid-May 2035, and I’ve just boarded a bus outside the new downtown condominium complex where my wife and I now live. It’s never more than a 10-minute wait for comfortable, clean and convenient public transit. On this particular morning, I’m heading up to Jackson Park, which is always a good birding location in spring when warblers are migrating north. Looking out the bus window, I can’t help but notice the many ways in which Peterborough has changed in the past two decades. The city now has a fully integrated transport system comprised of walkways, cycle paths, bus lanes and car lanes. There is even talk of a possible light-rail corridor to link Peterborough to Lakefield and Bridgenorth. In fact, train travel in general has become extremely popular in recent years, mostly because it’s far less expensive than driving. Thanks to big changes in the way Peterborough has developed, car ownership is no longer the necessity it once was. In fact, most families now only own one car or simply use the local car-sharing program when other means of transportation are not an option.
Talking about cars, I’m still amazed by the number of electric and hybrid vehicles on the road. For many years now, consumers have been demanding much greater fuel efficiency, given the huge rise in the cost of gasoline because of the federal carbon tax. This has led to the popularity of smaller and lighter vehicles. Putting a price on carbon was and still is a key tool in Canada’s on-going commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eight to ten percent a year. Canadians are keeping their fingers crossed but it now seems likely that the aggressive, worldwide action on climate change that began with the Paris Protocol of December 2015 will indeed limit the warming of the planet to under 2 C. Yes, intense storms are much more frequent than 20 or 30 years ago, but scientists are confident that the worse case scenario has been avoided.
It still seems miraculous but people all over the world finally woke up to the fact that an economy powered by fossil fuels and driven by free market ideology was leading the planet to climate chaos and suffocating any potential for climate action. A key result of this realization was a much greater willingness to accept government intervention and regulation of the economy and to support huge reinvestment in the public sphere – especially in new and updated infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events. No longer was “tax” a bad word, since well-funded government action was seen as the only way to respond to the climate threat. In Peterborough, there was also the recognition that the last thing our city should be doing in a time of climate disruption was to invest at great cost in even more roads – remember the Parkway debate way back in 2014? This, of course, would only have encouraged people to drive and pollute more with very little net gain in travelling time.

Trans-Canada Trail near Jackson Park - Drew Monkman

Trans-Canada Trail near Jackson Park – Drew Monkman

As the bus travels north on Charlotte Street, I can’t help but notice how so many of the commercial buildings and houses have changed, as well. One thing that stands out is the number of solar energy panels on the roofs. Along with wind turbines and hydroelectric power, solar provides a much greater percentage of the province’s energy needs than ever before. Although the population of Peterborough has continued to grow, all of the new housing has been provided within the existing city boundaries through intensification and redevelopment, namely rebuilding or restoring areas in a state of decline. Residential neighbourhoods are now mixed use and much higher density, thanks in part to renovations in single-family homes to create rental units and even small stores and businesses. These neighbourhoods now offer shopping, recreation opportunities and public services, all within walking distance. One housing option that’s particularly popular with Baby Boomers and Generation Xers is the large number of multi-story condominium complexes close to the Otonabee River and Little Lake. Easy access to the waterfront and to the downtown makes these condos a huge hit. People are justifiably proud that there have been no large housing developments on the city’s perimeter for over 20 years. Now, when you exit Peterborough, you immediately notice how urban development abruptly stops and farmland and natural areas begin. If there’s one word to describe the new Peterborough, it is “compact”.
Another feature that I love is that most of the new buildings, as well as the fourth and fifth floor additions on existing buildings in the downtown, are of an architectural and landscape style that respects local history, cultural heritage and even local geology and ecology. The upshot is that a sense of place permeates Peterborough. You know that you are in the Kawarthas. For people who remember how a sense of place was being lost in so much of the development in decades past, this has been a huge step forward. And nowhere is the sense of place stronger than in city’s public square, which doubles as a farmers’ market. Buying my fruit and vegetables here, I get a real sense of the wide range of cultural groups and ethnic mixes that now call our city home.
If the weather stays nice tomorrow and my aging knees and hips cooperate, I plan to ride my bike along the new greenway trails that run along both banks of the Otonabee River from the southern edge of the city up to Trent University. New side-branches link up with the Parkway Greenway in the north and Harper Park in the south. Kids love to play along the greenways, climbing trees or catching frogs in the ponds. These ribbons of green also provide migration corridors that allow birds and other wildlife to criss-cross the city safely, thereby increasing biodiversity. People are always so pleased to see wild animals close to their homes.

Parkway Trail between Hilliard Street and Cumberland Drive  - Drew Monkman

Parkway Trail between Hilliard Street and Cumberland Drive – Drew Monkman

Jackson Park
As I get off the bus at Jackson Park and walk down the hill towards the recently refurbished pagoda, I stop for a moment to watch a small flock of warblers feeding in the trees. A Red-tailed Hawk also catches my attention as it brings food to its nest in the Park’s iconic White Pines. Further ahead by the pond, a group of high school students is absorbed in a sketching activity, while seniors stroll in the warm spring sunshine. Despite its urban location, Jackson Park still provides a welcome element of solitude. It’s a place where one can escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy relative peace and quiet. People shake their heads when they think of how close we came to seeing a noisy, polluting multi-lane bridge built over the park. However, at that time it was common to underestimate the value of nature. Little did we know that even a short walk in a neighbourhood green space could make us feel so much better. Just like exercise, sleep and a proper diet, it is now common knowledge that regular exposure to nature plays a key role in our mental, spiritual and physical health. It even improves our immune system and reduces heart rate and blood pressure. In a nutshell, it enhances our sense of well-being and therefore makes us happier. We’ve also learned that idle thought – especially in conjunction with walking in a natural setting – greatly enhances creativity and problem solving. Gone is the old attitude that the destruction of green space is justified as long as it results in material benefit or economic progress and that our cities can continue to grow forever until there’s nothing of the natural world left.
Pause for thought

This foray into the future – yes, it may be naive – should at least give us pause for thought. When you mark your ballot in the municipal election on October 27, please think about how your choices fit with the values expressed in this essay. Who we choose as our municipal leaders for the next four years will have a huge impact on the kind of development Peterborough can expect. More than anything, we need more politicians who will really listen to the public, a large part of which feels ignored by the present council and let down by the democratic process. This has been a council where willingness to compromise has been largely absent, where it’s often winner take all.
Although business and administrative skills maybe useful in the politicians we elect, they are not what’s most important. We need people with vision, who are fully aware that “business as usual” is no longer an option, especially with the reality of climate change looming over our heads. We also need men and women who understand the vital importance of green space and of a development model that no longer puts the private automobile front and centre. Many such people have their names on the ballot this year. Let’s hope we elect as many of them as possible.


Nov 072013

Note: In the original version of this article, as published in the Examiner on Nov. 7, several large blocks of text were accidentally omitted. The article is to be reprinted in the next day or two.


“Jackson Park…Amazing, Fun…Listening, Discovering, Watching… Bike Rides, Water Falls…Running, Sitting, Staring…Peaceful, Colourful…Nature”

 Catherine and Isabel, grade 4, Roger Neilson Public School


Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a day in Jackson Park with Helen Bested’s grade four class from Roger Neilson Public School. From the moment they stormed off the bus until their reluctant departure, the students had the time of their lives. The innate love of nature that all children possess immediately kicked into gear and they clearly couldn’t get enough of the place. Seeing their unbridled energy and enthusiasm for all that Jackson Park has to offer, I couldn’t help but think how sad it is that so many kids these days are missing out on the pure joy of connection with the natural world.

Isabel Hicks (left) and Megan Rivet make the acquaintance of a tree in Jackson Park

Isabel Hicks (left) and Megan Rivet make the acquaintance of a tree in Jackson Park

Within minutes of arriving, the children stood in rapt attention as they observed a Great Blue Heron catching and eventually swallowing a large fish. They also watched and listened with keen amusement as I was able to use pishing (a bird attraction technique) to bring several chickadees, jays and nuthatches to within several metres of the group. Over the course of the day, they tested seed dispersal by launching maple keys into the air off the old concrete bridge; learned how to identify the Park’s iconic trees such as the White Pine; wore blindfolds to explore trees simply through their sense of touch; held handfuls of fallen leaves to their noses to fully appreciate the spicy fragrance; and used their wonderfully-sensitive ears to hear the gentle calls of tree-top birds and the murmuring of the creek – the buffer zone of trees surrounding the park reducing traffic noises to a far-off hum.  As we walked along, the  kids led me to what they were sure was a fox den, pointed out squirrels high in the trees and, when they stopped long enough to catch their breath, asked me why in the world adults would want to put a bridge through this wonderful place.

Their enthusiasm shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. Think about the impact that playing in woods, fields and other natural areas had in your own life. I would be willing to guess that they are among your strongest childhood memories. They are certainly are for me. These experiences allowed all of us to develop independence and confidence in an environment away from adult supervision, to solve problems on our own, but yet usually be close enough to home to feel safe. We built forts, caught frogs and turtles, got “soakers” but usually came home with the sense of having lived an adventure. Today, childhood play and exercise is all about highly structured and adult-supervised activities in gyms, arenas, swimming pools, play parks and on sports fields. In the process, nature is becoming increasingly alien and our children’s physical and mental health are paying the price.

When Helen’s students returned to class, she asked them to write about their day at Jackson Park and to reflect on the impact of a possible bridge and extended Parkway. Here are some excerpts of letters they wrote to Mayor Bennett. “Our class spent a full day at Jackson Park and we had a blast! We played helicopter with the maple seeds and learned how to pish to attract birds. We love Jackson Park so please don’t take away everyone’s joy and laughter. It is a place that is peaceful and quiet. Please keep Jackson Park as it is for kids like me to enjoy and for future generations.” (Elaina)

Students from a grade 4 class at Roger Neilson Public School form a line to demonstrate the width and location of a proposed bridge across Jackson Park.

Students from a grade 4 class at Roger Neilson Public School form a line to demonstrate the width and location of a proposed bridge across Jackson Park.

“If the bridge goes in, the people won’t come a lot. It would be much noisier because of all the cars. I need a place to relax and listen to birds. I go there a lot with my family. We don’t need a Parkway because we already have lots of roads. We only have one Jackson Park. It was given to the city to be maintained as a park and never use it for anything else.” (Nolan and Cameron)

“We love Jackson Park. We need a quiet place to run, climb, listen and watch. We like to run around the forest, playing, watching birds, learning the types of leaves, lying on our backs and looking up at the trees like worms. We are really glad to have Jackson Park…” (Hailee and Megan)


Medical Drive – already lost

Clearly, we should be taking the needs of children into account as we move forward with transportation planning in Peterborough.  Their needs should receive as much priority as the needs of people of other ages and the requirements of business.  In a recent document entitled “Child and Youth-friendly Land-use and Transport Planning Guidelines for Ontario” by Richard Gilbert and Catherine O’Brien, the authors explain that the needs of children and youth require the implementation of  “softer,” less intrusive and more inclusive transport systems. Paving over kid-friendly green space to put in a disruptive, noisy and polluting new road that runs close to five schools is the opposite of the direction we should be moving in.

A day at Jackson Park with Examiner columnist Drew Monkman was more interesting than sitting behind their classroom desks for this grade 4 class from Roger Neilson Public School (Helen Bested photo)

A day at Jackson Park with Examiner columnist Drew Monkman was more interesting than sitting behind their classroom desks for this grade 4 class from Roger Neilson Public School (Helen Bested photo)

Children growing up in the vicinity of Medical Drive between Parkhill and Sherbrooke have already lost their green space. What was once a beautiful green corridor is now an ugly walled road. When we lived on Westbrook Drive, our kids could literally step out the backdoor, cross the fence, enter the green space and feel – at least in their eight-year-old minds – as if they were in the country. This is where they played, and they still talk about it. This kind of opportunity is still possible for children living close to Jackson Park or along the Parkway Trail. As Peterborough resident Colleen Whitehouse said in a presentation to Council, “is it not the height of irresponsibility to destroy green space and with it take all the rich experiences it has to offer so freely to our children? Is this really how you want to be remembered?”


Health-giving benefits

Over the past 9 months, a Canadian team of social and natural scientists has conducted a literature review that looked at the benefits of nature to our health and well-being. The document “Connecting Canadians with Nature: An investment in the health and well being of our citizens” will published in early 2014.

The findings, all of which are grounded in evidence, are clear – nature is good for us. It is good for our economy, our health our spirit and identity, our personal development and our environment. A preview of the report states that “contact with nature has been found to lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, help mitigate disease, and reduce stress levels… nature plays a pivotal role in nurturing relationships by bringing people together. Many studies have demonstrated that nature makes us happy and more generous. Urban residents living near natural environments tend to know more neighbours and feel a stronger sense of belonging to the community … nature provides an escape – a nurturing therapeutic environment. Contact with nature is essential for the development of positive environmental attitudes and values and a lifelong relationship with the natural world.” Peterborough’s abundant, easy-to-access green space and trails is clearly one of the main reasons people choose to move, work, raise families and even come to retire here.  “We chose Peterborough, not Ajax,” is something I hear time and time again.

As responsible, informed citizens, we need to ask Council to direct staff to pursue non-Parkway options. There are alternatives that compare well for transportation, won’t create massive debt and taxes, and will save our valued green space and trails. At the very least – and especially in light of the referendum results from 2003 -Council should follow democracy and fair process. This means not making a Parkway decision until all studies are released, the public’s views on the city’s future (Official Plan Review) are implemented, and priority transportation improvements are completed. We want a future that is unique to Peterborough – not cookie-cutter, non-innovative versions of what has always been done everywhere else.