A senior undergraduate student, Samphe Ballamingie is completing a directed studies credit in Sociology, working with Dr. Tonya Davidson. After each Healthy Cities panel, she will produce summaries of the panelists' contributions, including select supplementary readings.
Ballamingie's recent accomplishments include winning the Extra Court Award at the Mobile Film Festival in Paris for her short film ACT NOW on CLIMATE CHANGE and completing a 2019 Summer Research Internship studying the role of public libraries and innovative practices at libraries in northern European cities.
On January 14, 2020, Carleton’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences hosted its second Healthy Cities panel on Nature in the City at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre. Moderator Dr. Patricia Ballamingie was joined by expert panelists, Drs. Joanna Dean, Paul Villeneuve, and John Zelenski to discuss our entanglements with trees, and the myriad benefits of exposure to nature. Dr. Ballamingie framed the discussion by posing three critical questions: (1) “How can we make our patterns of urban development more conducive to the protection of wildlife and biodiversity? (2) How can we build cities that both mitigate and adapt to climate change, and what role does nature play in this regard? (3) How can we ensure that access to nature and greenspace is accessible to all, including marginalized populations?”
The first panelist, Dr. Joanna Dean, an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carleton University, explored the history of our relationship with the more-than-human world. Her book, tentatively titled The Trouble with Trees, uses historical anecdotes to tease apart the myriad pitfalls that come with incorporating trees into the urban landscape through outdoor parks, arboretums, and street planters.
Dean relayed three historical Ottawa-based stories to trouble our relationship with trees. First, she told the story of the American Elms that lined the streets of Guigues and King Edward Avenues in Ottawa’s Lowertown in 1938. As the trees grew, it became obvious they had been planted too closely together. The natural environment was encroaching on the built environment, and so the horticultural society lobbied for the city to prune and cut down the American Elms. Next, Dean described how Manitoba Maples were planted in Lowertown throughout the 1940s - 60s. She argued that while these trees were “visually attractive”, they proved “ecologically unsound”, “untidy”, “short lived”, and were ultimately deemed “weed-trees”. When Ottawa lost a swatch of elm trees in Lowertown, the Manitoba Maples sprung up. In her final story, Dean described how the Centennial Crabapple trees were planted in 1967 in a “war on ugliness.” While the trees in full blossom were beautiful in the spring, people loathed the crabapple fruits that dropped to the ground in the fall. The trees also proved susceptible to disease. In the end, in spite of their beauty, they were perceived as more of a nuisance than an ornamental joy.
In planning a sustainable, healthy city, Dean asserted how important it is to understand the trouble that trees can cause. For those living in metropolitan areas, our knowledge of trees is based on the urban trees that we interact with in city centres (Dean, 2005, p. 46). In her book, Dean (2005) writes: “We understand the boreal forest through the trees in our backyard” (p. 46). Planners of a healthy city must understand both the benefits and potential disruptions associated with urban trees, and integrate trees strategically into the cityscape in ways that allow them to coexist with the built environment.
The next panelist, Dr. Paul Villeneuve, Professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Carleton University, discussed the health benefits of urban greenery and exposure to nature. Villeneuve cited a healthcare study by Ulrich (1984) called “Room with a View”, which looked at two sets of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery: one set of patients was given a room with a view of trees, and the other was given a room with a view of bricks. The study found that the patients who had rooms with views of trees reported faster recovery times than those who did not.
In fact, Villeneuve argued, nature provides a myriad of health benefits. Trees, shrubs, and bushes reduce air pollution; provide cooling and shelter from UV rays; absorb noise; counter stress; enhance social networks; and increase opportunities for physical activity. Researchers can measure greenness in health studies by surveying satellite imagery or exploring Google street view. Villeneuve explained that through these methods, researchers can measure the amount of exposure to greenness a person experiences throughout their day. He also described a study that mapped environmental exposures (such as noise, nitrogen dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and black, carbon ultrafine particles) around the Central Experimental Farm, noting that the areas closest to the farm had both lower particulate exposure and lower temperatures than other areas around Ottawa’s downtown core.
The final panelist, Dr. John Zelenski, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Carleton University Happiness Laboratory, proposed a sentiment that will surely resonate for many: nature makes us happy. Zelenski described how humans evolved to coexist with nature, and so, it makes sense that living amongst greenery, or even in view of greenery, would improve our quality of life. He cited prominent American biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s (1986) biophilia hypothesis that we all desire innately to connect to other living things. According to Zelenski, our connection to nature is subject to individual differences, as each person’s perception of nature is unique; however, he argued that across every perspective, spending time in nature is linked to improved wellbeing and happiness.
Zelenski also described the psychological benefits that playing in nature has for children. He described a study that included two sets of children: one set spent time at the Aviation Museum, while the other set attended a forest school. The children who were immersed in nature played cooperatively, proved more generous with their peers, showed a greater appreciation for nature, and expressed the desire to protect the environment (Dopko et al., 2019, p. 137). This study offers strong evidence to support the value of incorporating forest schools (and other forms of outdoor education) into every school’s curriculum to ensure equitable access to greenery for children regardless of socio-economic background.
I left the panel with a desire to go for a walk through the Arboretum – to contemplate the need to think deeply and carefully about trees, and ponder the benefits of thoughtfully planning green space and nature in the urban environment.
Dean, J. (2005). "Said tree is a veritable nuisance": Ottawa's street trees 1869-1939. Urban History Review, 34(1), 46+.
Dean, J., Ingram, D. & Sethna, C. (Eds.) (2017). Animal metropolis: Histories of human-animal relations in urban Canada. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press.
Dopko, R. L., Capaldi, C., & Zelenski, J. M. (2019). The psychological and social benefits of a nature experience for children: A preliminary investigation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 63, 134 - 138.
Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224(4647), 420–421. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.6143402
Wilson, E.O. (1986). Biophilia. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
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