Why cities are key to the future

A thriving city street-scape (even better if you imagine away the parked cars!)

[This article was first published on https://www.catherineknight.nz/]

I believe cities are the key to the future. A bit controversial maybe – and no doubt many will disagree with me – but let me tell you about our experience and what has led me to this conclusion.

In 2017, my family and I moved to a lifestyle block in the country, about 30 km out from the nearest city and 15 km from the nearest shops. It seemed like a great opportunity to live close to the land, especially for our two kids, who were pre-school and primary school aged at the time.

We had the obligatory chickens, a flock of black and white Wiltshire sheep and for a while some gentle-natured lowline Angus cattle. We had a vegetable garden and a couple of fruit trees (though I did find out the hard way that sheep like to eat feijoa trees and walnuts don’t like clay soils).

Our sheep came to the rattle of sheep nuts
Chickens make good pets but can be quite bossy (like someone else I know!)

Every winter we planted a trailer-load of eco-sourced native trees, and a once bare field is now bordered by a thick ribbon of vegetation – or as a neighbouring farmer observed, ‘You have blocked out the view!’ (note to readers: trees are not ‘a view’). We also worked on restoring the gully stream ecosystem from its weed-infested state.

The house we built was small, barely over 100 square metres, thermally efficient and made from no-fuss, long-lasting materials.

Little house in the valley

We sought a community-oriented life. Our children went to the local country school, just half a kilometre down the road.

But of course, like many ‘lifestylers’ we also maintained our jobs, which in my husband’s case involved a 60 km commute every day. I was working as a policy and communications consultant which meant that I did not need to commute daily – a no-commute lifestyle had been a bottom-line for me before we made the shift to the country.

Topping the grass with a neigbour’s vintage tractor

But for all our living ‘from the land’, light-footprint aspirations, I became increasingly uncomfortable that this was a bit of a fraud. Running livestock for example, irrespective of how few, requires all the same nutritional, water-provisioning, fencing and animal welfare requirements as an actual farming operation (but without the efficiency of scale) – involving the purchasing of all kinds of paraphernalia that needed to be stored in a shipping container, along with other belongings we had accumulated along the way. We used to joke too that, with all the investment in our chickens – a premium quality henhouse, fencing, bedding material, feeding equipment and mollasses-fortified feed – the chooks really should have been producing golden eggs!

And of course, every time we needed something – milk or bread, for example – it was at least a 30 km round trip to get it.

And as the time came for our son to move on to high school, which would require a 60 km round-trip on a number of buses, it was time to re-evaluate. Not only were we concerned about our expanding carbon footprint but also the inability of our son to be independent or spontaneous – every after-school activity would require us to ferry him around.

A year ago we moved to the Kapiti Coast, to the town of Waikanae – sometimes known as God’s waiting room, because of the comparatively large proportion of older people. I was really sad about seeing our sheep go (to a new home, not to a freezer – I can happily reassure you, readers) but also felt like a bit of a hypocrite because it was my husband who had done all the work caring for them. Happily, we were able to find our chooks a new home just around the corner from our new place in Waikanae – and even get to eat their freshly laid eggs.

But apart from the sheepish regrets (bad pun alert), there has been no looking back. We now live a 5–15 minute cycle ride from both kids’ schools, a 5-minute cycle to the public swimming pool, a 10-minute cycle from two supermarkets, two farmers’ markets, our GP, our dentist, the chemist, the library and pretty much every other service we need on a daily basis.

Cycling is safe and pleasurable in Waikanae – including for Archie, who has become a bit of a local celebrity

And of course, there is the all-important green- and nature space. We live a 2-minute walk from the best football fields on the Coast (fortunate, because everyone in the family is football mad), minute from a beautiful swimming spot and 1 minute from a network of nature-rich walk- and cycle-ways along the river to the sea.

Social connection is so much easier and spontaneous here too. We are forever meeting new and interesting people out on our walks or as we go about everyday life.

Going for a cycle along the river pathway, with Gracie the dog and Mia the lamb

Because I am fortunate enough to be able to work from home at least part of my working week, I can go for days on end without using the car.

In short, whether it is that way by accident or design, we live in a 15-minute neighbourhood. In other words, we have everything we need for a good life within 15 minutes walk or cycle of our home.

But I am acutely conscious how fortunate we are – we had the means to purchase here and to the make the choices we have to be in this position.

Being able to live with a light footprint, within 15-20 minutes safe and pleasurable walk, mobility-scooter, cycle or bus-ride from most of the things you need in life should not be the preserve of the well-off. It should be everyone’s right in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Already 86% of New Zealanders live in our towns and cities. I emphatically believe that our towns and cities are going to be pivotal to a low-emissions, low-energy future. We therefore need them to be places people want to live – places people will not just survive, but thrive. Places where people feel connected – to place, people and nature. As we grapple with the challenges of the transition to a low-carbon future, now is the time to reshape our towns and cities so that they are fit for the future.

Dr Catherine Knight is author of ‘Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand‘ (Totara Press, 2020) and ‘Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand‘ (Canterbury University Press, 2018). To view her other publications see her website http://www.catherineknight.nz.

New book urges for more nature in our cities

The author’s daughter at a grove of kohekohe trees on the Kapiti Coast. Catherine Knight

In her new book examining the link between nature and wellbeing, environmental historian Dr Catherine Knight explores the benefits of nature experienced by everyday New Zealanders, and argues for more nature in the places where most New Zealanders live – our towns and cities. 

In New Zealand, we think of ourselves as a country rich with nature, but the fact is that most of our surviving forest and pristine waterways are concentrated in the most mountainous parts of the country. They’re preserved not as a result of careful stewardship, but rather an accident of history: it was just too hard to develop and economically exploit these rugged, inaccessible places. Our lowland landscapes are largely bereft of any forests, wetlands or any nature in its original form.

Read more of this article on The Spinoff.

New book exploring nature and wellbeing in New Zealand

I am very excited to announce the emergence into the world of my latest book Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand: Exploring the connection (Totara Press).

This comes as the culmination of three years of research, interviews and writing, but in many ways, could not be more timely. The experience of many New Zealanders during this year’s Covid lockdown has only served to underscore how important access to natural spaces are – for both body and mind.

To find out more about the book, visit the Totara Press webpage.

Details on launch coming soon!

Bush kindy: getting kids into nature

Last week, I had the privilege of visiting a forest school session in Waituna West (not far from the Manawatu town of Feilding). This is part of my research for my latest book, exploring nature and wellbeing in New Zealand (see also: The connection between nature & wellbeing).

Children from Waituna West and Hunterville kindergartens participated in the session. For many of them this was a new experience, and it was a joy to watch them slowly ‘acclimatise’ to the new, and rather unfamiliar, bush environment, becoming more exploratory and experimental as the session progressed.

In the photos, they can be seen washing their hands at the bush ablution facility, listening intently to Lucy’s reading of ‘Room on the broom’ by Julia Donaldson (which was followed by a practical exercise of making a witches’ broom from forest materials), doing some bush ‘wood work’, and taking a walk.

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Seeking quiet inspiration in the forest

On another of these sweltering hot days, what better thing to do than seek respite in the coolness of the forest. (Well, apart from finding a shady spot beside a large body of water, that is.) Caitlyn and I chose to go for a forest wander this afternoon, followed – it has to be said – by a river dip.

We enjoyed looking at the natural mosaics on the forest floor, and while we were examining one, Caitlyn spotted this tail-less skink! On our way back from the walk the skink was still there, so we sat down on a rock nearby and ‘watched his stillness’, as Caitlyn put it. He didn’t seem to mind our company, either.

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Can you help? The connection between nature & wellbeing

woman in forest

I see that a focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week was ‘Letting nature in’, encouraging New Zealanders to get out and connect with nature, in light of its proven benefits for mental and spiritual wellbeing. (A survey undertaken by the Mental Health Foundation last year found that 95 per cent of New Zealanders reported a lift in mood after spending time in nature.) Continue reading

Treasuring our gully ecosystems

gullyDo other countries have ‘gullies’? – I am not sure. The dictionary tells me they are also known as ‘small valleys’ and ‘ravines’. ‘Valley’, even of the diminutive kind, seems a bit too bucoIic to me, while ‘ravine’ sounds way too treacherous (though in fairness, some gullies are pretty precipitous). Continue reading

The meaning of rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand

Whanganui RiverA paper exploring how the perception of rivers has changed over time has just been published in a special issue of the international journal River Research Applications, entitled The meaning of rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand – Past and present”.

This paper examines how attitudes towards rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand have
evolved since the country’s settlement by Europeans, two centuries ago. For most
of our postcolonial history, rivers have been viewed as something to be controlled
and managedeven improved. But today, rivers are increasingly being recognized
as embodying a broad range of values from the ecological to the spiritualnot simply
as a channel of water that can be exploited for human ends. Although much of this
evolving understanding stems from the advance in scientific knowledge, much too has
its roots in our collective past.

The paper can be viewed here: River Research Applications

Landscape transformation in New Zealand

Pawson NZ landscape transformation.pngI was recently alerted to this interesting graph showing the various drivers in landscape transformation in Aotearoa New Zealand over the past two centuries. The graph appears in Eric Pawson’s chapter ‘Sustainability and management of the environment’ in The physical environment: A New Zealand perspective, edited by A. Sturman and R. Spronken-Smith (Oxford University Press, 2001). It would be an intriguing to see how the graph looks beyond 2000.