A few years ago, as part of the a project in Perth with the City of Canning, I had the good fortune to meet with members of the Canning River Regional Park volunteers group, who were working to clean up and de-weed a site in Ferndale, just south east of Perth central. I always find it refreshing and stimulating to talk to people whose primary focus in working for their community involves submerging their hands into soil and connecting, in practical ways, with Nature.

Being involved in this work seems to give people such an expansive view of the world and an interesting ability to connect seemingly unrelated elements of society into a cohesive, understandable picture. Jo has 12 years of being actively involved in regeneration along the banks of the Canning River. What stuck in my mind about our conversation was the constant delving into the underlying links, or lack of, between us humans and our natural environment, particularly at a values level. The burning questions were preoccupied with how real and meaningful changes in peoples values relating to Nature could be facilitated, so that planning and conservation were able to focus on coordinating resources and actions rather than needing to develop strategies to prevent the worst of human behaviour, whether that be conscious or subconscious.

For instance, how do we shift people’s understanding of Nature beyond its role as a utility to appropriate as a means of creating lifestyle? How do we incorporate environmental impacts into our economic systems? How do we value natural bushland which has no greater purpose than its existence; creating habitat for wildlife and being an integral part of both local and regional ecosystems?

The ‘U’ word, in this case is about use. Talking about how to ‘use’ nature, to an environmentalist, is tantamount to suggesting to a capitalist that money is just a social construct.

For Jo, the answer consisted of three equally important parts. First, there needs to be management approaches that clearly established the way natural spaces could be interacted with and conserved. Associated with these approaches are the usual guidelines, restrictions and infringement penalties that enable the day to day caretaking of these spaces to continue. Management also acknowledges that the lack of value that people can have for natural spaces is a result of other conditions that, while interrelated, are part of the overall or big picture equation. This might include beliefs about the inevitability of progress and limited thinking about housing development and what constitutes the character of an area related to this development.

Second, education is needed to help people understand the nuts and bolts of nature, so to speak. Jo sees that gaining a clearer insight into the connectedness of living systems and their relationship to our own survival, let alone lifestyles, is a vital step to move beyond the management approach to a more value-based approach to living in Nature, particularly within our cities.

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Last, and certainly not least, providing the means for people to become immersed in natural spaces is an important step in helping people to connect with their environment, particularly on an energetic or feeling level. People should of course connect with Nature in ways that minimises damage to an area but which can allow people to be surrounded by the stillness and complexity of even small pockets of green space. Boardwalks, guided tours, exposure through pathways that act as buffers to urban development, these are all opportunities as far as Jo is concerned for us to become ‘naturalised’ in our environment.

While these approaches are all being facilitated in many communities already, the way in which they are coordinated and the level of understanding of those facilitating them is a vital ingredient to how we transform and grow our cities into places intimately connected to Nature. In finishing up our conversation, we agreed that there needs to be more priority given to those charged with local governance and those who manage influential organisations in communities to experience and understand what an integrated approach to natural ecosystems looks and, more importantly, feels like.