What Nature is telling us… and what we can do for Nature

By Chantal van Ham

EU Programme Manager for Nature Based Solutions






This is shortened version of an article which first appeared on the Nature of Cities website. It is published here with permission from the author. 

One of my favourite bedtime stories when I was little was about two field mice, Millie and Tom. The poppy flower in the cornfield overheard Tom whispering a secret in Millie’s ear that the day after full moon, at 2 p.m. they would get married. The poppy flower told the little secret to the corn, the bellflowers, the wind and the sparrows, who said we will make the bells sound and sing for them on that day. And so it was, when the clock struck two, the breeze was blowing confetti of grass, the sparrows were singing and the bellflowers were ringing. At the end of the day Millie said to Tom: “it was a wonderful wedding, but I wonder who has told our secret?” Tom said: “it is not possible to keep secrets here, the flowers and the corn have ears.” And so many times I looked at the cornfields, the flowers and birds with a sense of admiration for their ability to hear our stories.

However, in today’s highly urbanised world very often the voice of nature is not heard or not listened to…

From book: “Verhaaltjes voor het slapen gaan, De Trouwpartij”

Protecting biodiversity should not only focus on pristine habitats in remote areas, but on creating space for nature in the places where we live. If we bring this thinking into our increasingly urban world and the growing momentum for greening and reforesting, it is important to consider for which animal, plant and tree species we create a home in our city streets, roofs, parks and backyards. Cities do not only harbour a significant fraction of the world’s biodiversity, but can also be made more liveable and resilient for all living creatures, through nature-friendly urban design, learning from nature.

Throughout the world, natural ecosystems in and around cities

From book: “Verhaaltjes voor het slapen gaan, De Trouwpartij”

continue to be fragmented or disappear as a result of urban expansion and development, with only modest regard for their function and contribution to the regional community and economy. Natural infrastructure and integration of biodiversity in urban planning, such as pocket parks, urban farming, green walls, tree planting and daylighting of rivers, offer innovative and cost-effective solutions that improve quality of life and climate resilience.

The deep connections between nature and human health have been demonstrated extensively in research. Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore has applied this knowledge by integrating plants and nature in its design, on the basis of the belief that people relax and heal faster with views of trees and plants, and when hearing birdsong (L. Jones, 2020). The hospital has balconies, planters, waterfalls, green walls, roof gardens and an organic food garden with over 100 fruit trees where local volunteers grow food for the kitchens. This creates the feeling that the hospital is in a forest and provides natural ventilation and has its own microclimate.

Poppy flowers. Photo: Chantal van Ham

Nadezhda Kiyatkina, a researcher and activist and writer for The Nature of Cities, shared a story about the Cherished Meadow project in Moscow, describing her experiences with the development of a park on a three-hectare plot of land that housed car sheds previously called “barren land”. What is unique about the project is the interdisciplinary cooperation between biologists, architects, landscape architects, and the involvement of residents and local authorities. Residents were asked about their wishes for the landscape near their home, and the three main reasons they gave in response to the question “Why do you go to parks?” were walking with children; meeting other people; and having the possibility to admire and watch nature. 40% of respondents come specifically to listen to the birds sing. As a result, in the design of the park, lawns were ruled out, only native plants were used, bushes were selected based on their quality to provide nesting space for birds, and paths were made convenient not only for the pedestrians, but also for the insects. It became a success story for people and nature, winning the support of over 3,000 residents, receiving two architecture awards, and gaining the support of the local authorities.

Let’s ask ourselves what we can we do for nature

From book by Beth Moon: Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time, 2014

Beth Moon has made remarkable photos of the world’s oldest trees, which give us the power to connect with time and nature, in ways so much greater than ourselves. In 2018, the New York Times dedicated an article to the ancient cedar trees of Lebanon, some of the oldest trees have survived for more than 1,000 years and are World Heritage. They flourish on moisture and cool temperatures, an ecosystem unusual in the Middle East. Climate change is bringing critical challenges to this part of the world, impacting agriculture, water and food supplies and livelihoods. If climate change continues, in the future, cedars will be able to thrive only at the northern tip of the country, where the mountains are higher. The trees that are so symbolic for the country that they are in the center of the Lebanese flag, and existed for thousands of years, are highly threatened. Some years ago, Lebanon’s Agriculture Ministry started, with support of German, Korean and Swedish environmental and development funds, a landscape restoration project to plant 40 million trees, including cedars, aiming at increasing forest cover from 13% to 20% till 2022. Growing cedars back is not an easy task, as they grow slowly, bearing no cones until they are 40 or 50 years old, hopefully these restoration efforts will help to win the race against the climate change clock.

The world’s economic wealth and profits have been created at the cost of the natural world and indigenous and marginalised communities who have always been the stewards of these natural systems. If we go back to the roots of the word corporation, we will see that companies initially developed with environmental and social aspirations at an equal footing with economic gain. It is time for business to go back to its founding principles and make our natural world truly part of the equation by developing regenerative business models and by making natural and social capital part of our economic system.

Listening to the words of living legend Sir David Attenborough, humans are the mayflies of evolution, in comparison to the complex life forms that first appeared in the oceans around 540 million years ago. But we have evolved into the planet’s most dangerous predator. Considering our dependence on nature as our life support system, it is high time that we listen to the stories nature is telling us, to learn from its millions years of wisdom and to give a voice to the voiceless.

The wisdom of nature is the lifeline for our future and our most important ally in finding the pathways to transform the harmful exploitation of natural resources into a regenerative system that balances human aspirations with a healthy planet. In addition, it is time to ask ourselves, what can we do for nature?


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