Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Urban Outdoors

G is currently on a business trip in Paris and, sadly, I'm not. But I did live in the City of Lights for about five months, shortly after I finished university. While this was before I became an 'outdoorsy' person, I vividly remember the overwhelming grayness of Paris. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful city, but there just isn't much green there. The few inner-city green spaces feature signs asking you not to walk on the grass! Even the Seine, the river that runs through the heart of the city, has become urbanised with concrete banks to prevent flooding.

Cities are generally designed to overcome or eliminate natural features, rather than preserve them. Trees are cleared, hills are levelled, and waterfronts become ports. But the best cities hold onto a bit of their original environment, and make a place where residents can forget, if only for a moment or two, that they are surrounded by a metropolis.

Toronto Islands - an urban escape

In my home city of Toronto, a network of ravines and river valleys has been preserved as parkland. The paths running through this network are used by cyclists, joggers, urban hikers, and over the winter I've even done a bit of cross-country skiing down there. And a group of islands in the harbour, Toronto Islands (creative name!) is mostly set aside as parkland too. It's a great spot for cycling, picnicking, roller blading, fishing and just generally escaping the city.

Here in Wellington, a green belt hugs the city centre in an arc of bush-covered hills. Walking and mountain biking trails criss-cross the hills and offer a wonderful retreat from the city without actually leaving it at all.

Wellington's green belt surrounds the city.

This kind of urban wilderness is getting more and more important, I believe, as urban sprawl pushes the real wilderness further and further away. In many cities, it can take hours of driving to leave the suburbs behind completely. So having somewhere within the city where you can 'escape' into nature is essential - at least for people like me - to maintaining your sanity.

It's a difficult decision for city planners to maintain natural areas when developers are competing for the last plots of land. But I doff my cap to those who say - no, it's more important to have a park here than to build a hundred townhouses.

1 comment:

Determinist said...

Amen to that.

A spot that you can walk to to "get out of the city" is an absolute must!
I think all cities need places where you are still in the city but it doesn't feel like you are.