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The Nature Pyramid: A Defense of Local Access to Nature

By Michael Halicki, Executive Director of Park Pride

To state that you value the positive relationship between access to nature and health is not, on its surface, a controversial statement. However, when access to nature has a cost, there is a tendency to undervalue the public’s need for it—and its associated health benefits—in relation to other competing priorities.

This happens, for example, when we prioritize other budgetary needs over neighborhood parks, especially in communities that are disproportionately burdened with health disparities that could be alleviated by nature parks. It also occurs when we value development over residents who will experience negative impacts on their quality of life by the wholesale removal of trees that shade their neighborhoods and provide numerous health-related benefits.   

As we attempt to increase our access to nature in our city (most recently through the efforts to strengthen the Tree Protection Ordinance), a framework is needed that puts “local” nature within a larger context of issues, policies, and health implications. I have come across such a framework, known as the nature pyramid, that could be helpful.

Source: Tim Beatley, Exploring the Nature Pyramid

The nature pyramid—a term attributed to Tanya Denckla-Cobb—is a framework for thinking about the diversity of nature experiences and how those experiences are vital for a healthy lifestyle. Tim Beatley, who runs the Biophilic Cities Project at the University of Virginia, has written extensively about the nature pyramid. I have found his breakdown particularly approachable and applicable to Atlanta as we assess and work to increase our access to nature:

  • The base of the pyramid is composed of local nature experiences that are to be experienced hourly. These experiences are arguably the most important as they should be encountered on the most frequent basis. Your personal garden, the street trees you pass on your way to work, the neighborhood park where you walk your dog, and many others, are examples of ways to get your “daily dose of nature.”  
  • The next level of the nature pyramid represents the experiences that might be experienced weekly. These could be thought of as local destination parks, like Blue Heron or Cascade Springs Nature Preserve in the City of Atlanta, or Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area in DeKalb County, for example.  
  • Weekly is followed by monthly natural outings. These might include trips to the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area and nearby state parks like Sweetwater Creek, or longer jaunts to the mountains or the coast. 
  • At the top of the pyramid, we have yearly or bi-yearly excursions that are of a longer duration and are more intense and transformational. These could include National Parks like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, or international trips to Costa Rica or other eco-tourism destinations.

While the bottom of the nature pyramid represents daily experiences that might be viewed as “ordinary” because of our frequent exposure to them, their importance—especially in an urban context—cannot be understated. “The types of nature found in cities,” Thomas Beatley says, “are more fragmented, smaller, and generally allow less and shorter kinds of immersion than, say, camping in a remote wilderness area. But as the planet continues to become more urban, the challenge of providing the essential minimum dosage of nature becomes an increasingly important challenge everywhere.” 

Right now, advocates in Atlanta are addressing this challenge head on. As a member of the Atlanta Canopy Alliance, Park Pride encourages you to attend the Tree Protection Ordinance Work Session with Atlanta City Council this Thursday, August 22 from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. at Atlanta City Hall. A stronger tree ordinance is a cornerstone of the Urban Ecology Framework and a test of our capacity to implement the vision of the Atlanta City Design. 

This is an opportunity to ensure our city remains the “City in the Forest” and that all residents continue to have access to an essential component of our daily dose of nature: a healthy tree canopy. Plan to be there. Wear a green shirt. Tell a neighbor. Bring a friend. I will see you there.  

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