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Green time versus screen time: Bring nature back to the city

In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, US author Richard Louv argues that kids today suffer from a nature deficit. Parents who in previous generations might have told their rambunctious offspring to go outside and play will now lean on TV, computers, videogames and phones as tools for getting their children to settle down. Kids get much more screen time than green time.
In a public discussion with David Suzuki last week—presented by the David Suzuki Foundation and hosted at the Art Gallery of Ontario—Louv talked about how he's persuaded some doctors to "prescribe nature" for adults and children suffering from psychological and behavioural problems. Though there's been little research, there's a growing feeling that spending time away from concrete and microprocessors has real health benefits. But there's another side to the equation: Where can urban people get access to nature?
Faisal Moola, the Toronto-based program director of terrestrial conservation and science for the David Suzuki Foundation and the moderator of the evening, suggested that the GTA is getting better at offering a refuge. Moola grew up in Markham after Moola's family moved to Canada from South Africa in the 1960s. Unlike some of his Canadian-born friends, he didn't participate in that Upper Canada tradition of heading to cottage country up north for the weekend. What he did do was take walks in what has come to be known as the Ontario Greenbelt.
"The bits and bobs of nature in and around the city are important for the sustainability of our cities," Moola told the packed house.
The foundation recently praised the Ontario Greenbelt for its economic benefits. "The Greenbelt's precious watersheds naturally filter pollution from our waterways and drinking water, saving us from having to spend hundreds of millions on water infrastructure and treatment facilities," states a May media release. But the Greenbelt also provides value that's much harder to put a price tag on: It's a place to walk, hike, bike and observe flora and fauna rather than media content.
Suzuki said we've typically done a poor job of designing our cities to include nature. One major recent exception in the GTA is the effort to create a national park in the Rouge Valley, what will become Canada's first urban national park. The existing park encompasses 47 square kilometres along the Rouge River watershed. But it could get much bigger. This spring the federal government released a study area extending from Lake Ontario in the south to the Oak Ridges Moraine in the north, including lands within the existing Rouge Park and additional federal lands west of the York-Durham town-line. The nationalization of the park will likely increase access and improve interpretative services to help people get the most out of their visits.
So that's government and community working to bring more nature into our lives. Meanwhile, the Toronto District School Board is piloting the foundation's education guide, Connecting With Nature, full of exercises that requires kids to get out and observe plants and animals, in some elementary school classrooms.

A broader nature movement, argued Louv, can include not only environmentalists but also people advocating for health and wellness.
"We need a new kind of city where people's lives are as immersed in nature as they are in technology," said Louv, whose newest book is The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. "The more high tech the world becomes, the more nature we need."
Suzuki suggested our society has become too focussed on efficiency—packing as much activity into the available time. Nature can help us slow down.
"We leave no time for contemplation," he said. "But nature needs time to reveal her secrets."
Paul Gallant is Yonge Street's managing editor.
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