Posted by: theoriginalmiss | April 16, 2013

Humans in the Urban Environment: Our Denatured Lives

Humans in the Urban Environment: Our Denatured Lives

The title above displays something that, as a city dweller with a love of nature, I think about often.  As demonstrated by a quick scan through my Instagram gallery, unless I am actually IN the natural world, “nature” does not appear much in my work, and nature is definitely out there in the city of Sydney.  I am not alone in this apparent disconnection.

A 2002 UK study undertaken by Andrew Balmford et al. in the Zoology Department of the University of Cambridge found that children between the ages of 4 and 11 were unable to identify nearly as many British fauna and flora species as they could Pokémon characters[1]. Their conclusion:

“ During their primary school years, children apparently learn far more about Pokémon than about their native wildlife and enter secondary school being able to name less than 50% of common wildlife types.” (Balmford et al, 2002, p. 2367)

A more recent Nature and Children’s Health Survey, undertaken by Planet Ark, corroborates these observations.  It paints a similar picture here in Australia, with “76% of respondents agreeing that most kids are unable to identify common native trees” (Planet Ark, 2012, p. 17). This report further added that: “The challenge for carers is that Pokemon are much easier to find than parakeets.” (Planet Ark, 2012, p. 17)

So we see that in spite of a huge increase in awareness of environmental issues the world over, most people, certainly the younger generations, remain quite disconnected from the species around them.  Moverover, the general public appears unaware of the “extinction spasm” (Myers, 2002, p. 48) occurring around them, the loss of biodiversity that is unfolding all over the living world.

You might ask why this is important to city dwellers, after all our connection to nature is rather limited so surely issues of ecosystem and biodiversity loss are a matter for our ex-urban compatriots?

Well, today over half the world’s population lives in cities and this is projected to increase by 2.6 billion people, from 3.6 billion in 2011 to 6.3 billion by 2050 (UN ESA, 2012) out of a predicted total world population of 9.3 billion (United Nations, 2011; UN ESA, 2012).  Seen in this light, cities, with their burgeoning populations, really do have a role to play in addressing environmental issues as much as the lesser populated rural areas.

Andrew Light, environmental philosopher and academic, claims that dense living is the sustainable way to go and suggests that large, densely populated cities like New York are inherently more sustainable than their spread out, suburban counterparts such as Los Angeles.  He puts this down to their “wall sharing” reducing heating costs and the fact that most New Yorkers either don’t own a car, relying purely on public transport, or if they do, don’t drive it as much as other suburban or exurbanites do (Light, 2003; Light, 2006).

Furthermore, I’m partial to Light’s belief that you can be an ‘environmentalist’ in the city: an “urban environmentalist”.  He shuns the traditional western caricature of environmentalists in hiking boots, spending half their lives in the wilderness, opting instead for a more urban, and frankly realistic approach to ecological awareness.  It makes sense to promote this view in light of the fact that the percentage of the world’s population living in cities is above 50% and rising, maybe even more so here in Australia.  Why?  Many are unaware that Australia is not only the world’s most urbanised country with 69% of the population residing in urban areas (Baxter et al, 2011), but also possesses the world’s worse mammalian extinction rate record to boot, having lost some 27 species since European settlement (AWC, 2013).

So how to convey, through art, the crucial message about the need for the human race to take immediate action to try and halt this sad, irreversible demise?  Neither the message, nor the conveying of such, is an easy task.  At present my work on humans in the urban environment strives to focus on scale: by dwarfing the human in denatured settings, can I assist people to imagine what our urban sprawl and development does for nature in general? Or individual species in particular?  Maybe not, but this is just the beginning…


Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) website, available at: (accessed 14 April, 2013)

Balmford A, Clegg L, Coulson T and Taylor J, Science, New Series, Vol. 295, No. 5564 (Mar 29, 2002, p. 2367)

Baxter J, Hayes A and Gray M, Families in regional, rural and remote Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies, available as fact sheets at: (accessed April 15, 2013)

Light A, 2003, “Urban Ecological Citizenship”, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 34, No 1, pp. 44-63

Light A, 2006, “Ecological Citizenship: the democratic promise of restoration”, in Platt R H (ed), The humane metropolis: people and nature in the 21st-Century city, Amherst; Boston, Mass, University of Massachusetts Press pp 170-181

Myers N, 2002, ‘Biodiversity and biodepletion: the need for a paradigm shift’, in O’Riordan T and Stoll-Kleemann S (eds), Biodiversity, Sustainablity and Human Communities: Protecting beyond the Protected, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, ch. 3, pp. 46-60

Novacek M J, 2008, ‘Engaging the public in biodiversity issues’, PNAS, Vol. 105, suppl. 1. Pp. 11571-11578

Planet Ark Research Report: Planting Trees: Just What the Doctor Ordered, 2012, available from Planet Ark National Tree Day website, at: (accessed 15 April, 2013)

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN ESA), 2012, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision Population Database, available at: (accessed 18 February 2013)

[1] Pokémon is a card trading game, developed by Satoshi Tajiri, in which children can collect and trade cards depicting this synthetic species called “pokémon”



  1. Good points. I spend more time in the rural than the urban and when writing about environment it is always a challenge knowing that many of my readers are city dwellers. Your last paragraph mentions Art. I think this is certainly a good approach. I use art. music and story telling to raise awareness. I’d love to be doing more working with youth…but there is only so much time in a day.

    • I agree – working with urbanites, youth, the disenfranchised… the list goes on, but it’s good to have an artistic tool or two to use in environmental communication. Thanks for your input.

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