According to the United Nations, over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and by 2030 this number will swell to 5 billion people. With so many children and families living in cities, urban parks and nature centers are more important than ever.
What exactly is an urban park or nature center? Although various definitions exist, we generally refer to any large natural spaces that occur in or nearby major metropolitan areas as falling into this category. Not included are rural sites or areas too small to welcome a substantial number of public visitors. Most importantly, when thinking qualitatively, we classify urban parks and nature centers as ones which serve an urban audience that far too often sees more skyscrapers and concrete than trees and grass! Furthermore, they are often designed with both recreation and education in mind, along with a conscious effort to put visitors in touch with nature.
More and more cities are expanding their efforts to provide areas for parks and nature-based exploration. The city of Austin, Texas, for example, has pursued aggressive plans over the past decade to connect more area children with the outdoors. The reason? Research has shown that children who learn and play in nature are happier, healthier, and perform better in school. The concrete jungles of modern cities is known to cause increased stress, and some researchers even ponder whether it leads to a lack of appreciation for environmental causes – thus, they claim, not only might urban parks and nature centers lead to less stress, but also to an increased awareness of and activism for environmental issues. For these and many other reasons, urban parks and nature centers are becoming more important and more prominent.
Although countless examples exist and more are popping up every year, below are three sites that already provide nature-based learning and recreation to city dwellers:
At Beaver Lake Nature Center outside of Syracuse, NY, visitors can escape the urban bustle and hike over 9 miles of trails. Brand new exhibits will grace their renowned visitor center, offering immersive hands-on displays that engage visitors of all ages. During all four seasons of the year, local families can learn about the diverse mix of habitat types present at Beaver Lake, embarking from the dynamic indoor exhibits out onto the trails themselves. The nature center is a leader in preservation and environmental stewardship, educating the local Syracuse community about the importance of the natural world.
Further east in New York, the Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center engages the local urban population through creative, immersive, and artistic exhibits that tell the story of one of the world’s largest remaining pine barrens. An old credit union building has been transformed into a LEED-certified interpretive center full of state-of-the-art exhibit experiences. Through hands-on interactives, realistic animal and plant models, a dynamic theater experience, and numerous artifact cases, visitors engage with the area’s unique natural world.
In the Tri-Cities hub of Central Michigan, Chippewa Nature Center gets local children and families out on the trails and engaged in the discovery of nature. At the visitor center, guests are immersed within numerous “closer-look” dioramas that replicate various habitat types found throughout the area. The life-like dioramas utilize realistic and captivating plant, animal, and insect models alongside a simulated riverbank and river bottom. Visitors might still be near the city, but in a sense, they could not be further away.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, with nature centers and parks sprouting up in urban areas throughout the country. As many of today’s cities understand, growth and wellness depend, not only on more skyscrapers and structures but also on preserving nature. Through the hard work of the Children & Nature Network and others – large and small – we together can reconnect all of our citizens to the great outdoors.