Into the Great Outdoors: A Nature-ful City Vision

By Erin Marteal

Erin Marteal

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” I was in grad school at the time and he was visiting Cornell as part of Cornell Botanic Gardens’ Fall Lecture series. As a fellow in the Cornell Public Garden Leadership program, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting each speaker over a meal and tour of the Gardens.

Richard’s book – fairly new at the time – had quickly become a tipping point for mainstream awareness in our increasing alienation toward nature, and a well-researched outline of benefits our children miss out on as a result. He had distilled the research that many of us in the field were intimately familiar with and communicated it to the public in a way that was not only insightful and clear but compelling to a broader, cross-sector readership. His seminal book led to the No Child Left Inside movement, galvanized environmental education legislation, and generally reinstated nature back onto the list of what kids need to thrive in a time when parents were fearful of letting kids play outside. It shined a light on what our children risk losing when we don’t protect their access and connection to nature.

Photo provided by the Ithaca Children’s Garden
A parent and child explore the rice paddy pond at the Ithaca Children’s garden. Biophilic cities prioritize rich nature exposure like this throughout urbanscapes through policy and planning.

Richard Louv was a celebrity in my eyes. I didn’t soon forget the question he challenged me with; in fact, it has stuck with me ever since. While Richard Louv was knowledgeable about many aspects of nature access and environmental education, he was not an expert in public gardens. He asked a litany of questions about public gardens, their purpose, and the public garden field’s vision for the future. After a bit of conversation, he asked earnestly, “What would happen if the entire city was a public garden?”

As a student, I had a responsibility to represent the misunderstood public garden field effectively, and upon hearing his question, felt I hadn’t fully explained public gardens. So I elaborated. But as his question sank in, a light bulb turned on.

He was describing a vision where the biodiversity, beauty, plant collections, research, conservation, and environmental education that occur in public gardens would occur throughout an entire city. He was describing a vision of no longer needing distinct and separate public gardens because their elements would be integrated into our everyday lives, outside every person’s doorstep, connecting all parts of the city. Plants blooming on every street corner, collections curated throughout an entire urbanscape. No field trip necessary, just step outside.

Richard Louv was describing a scenario for public gardens for which all non-profits ultimately aspire- to become obsolete. To so thoroughly meet the mission that the service is no longer required. Wouldn’t it be a success to close homeless shelters because every person has a roof and a bed to call home? What if public gardens were so integrated into the lives of residents that the city landscape itself could robustly display and protect plant biodiversity, educate children about plant history, plant life, insects, pollination, and ecosystem interactions?

In fact, a group of environmental leaders has been organizing and gaining momentum over the past six months to form a city-wide movement – under the umbrella of Biophilia: ITHACA. The purpose of this chapter is to strengthen human connections to nature across Ithaca, and to advocate for policies and practices that benefit the local natural environment.

Currently, there are 12 cities designated as “Biophilic Cities” worldwide. According to the Biophilic Cities project, they are “cities of abundant nature in close proximity to large numbers of urbanites. Biophilic cities value residents’ innate connection and access to nature through abundant opportunities to be outside and to enjoy the multisensory aspects of nature by protecting and promoting nature within the city.” Singapore, one of the designated biophilic cities, has a motto of “City in a Garden,” a physical expression of what Richard suggested so wildly during his visit to Ithaca.

I love that expansive visions like this don’t seem impossible in Ithaca. We have two renowned public gardens – Cornell Botanic Gardens and Ithaca Children’s Garden – bookending the east and west hills, a burgeoning trail system connecting urbanites to the green waterfront district and Taughannock Park, impressive canopy coverage throughout the city, along with numerous pocket parks. We have progressive city leaders who understand what’s at stake in an age of environmental uncertainty.

What if the City of Ithaca decided to become a Biophilic City?
Imagine what it would be like to live or raise children in a city where nature is on every doorstep, where public spaces are intentionally designed to bring nature into the city and people into contact with nature. Imagine where every child has personal contact with plants and animals every day. It’s not exactly a public garden but close: it’s a living urban ecosystem with potential benefits we haven’t even imagined.

To learn more about a Nature-ful Ithaca, consider attending the upcoming Biophilia: ITHACA public forum on October 10, 5-6:30pm at Just Be Cause Center. City Forester Jeanne Grace will be giving a talk on the state of Ithaca’s trees and discussion will follow.

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Erin Marteal has served Ithaca Children’s Garden as its executive director since 2011. She can be reached at