I grew up in a family that celebrated being in the great outdoors – we would travel to the Boundary Waters and our national parks. I was fortunate to spend that time in the wilderness, but that wasn’t my only, or even most common, experience in nature. Most of my time outdoors was spent in the woods behind my house. “Nearby nature” experiences like this taught me how to be curious, resilient and self-reliant.
And while scientists are learning more about the importance for children of exposure to nature, kids are spending an average of more than 7½ hours every day in front of a screen and less than 7 minutes in unstructured outdoor play time. Besides providing children the time and space to develop social and emotional skills, access to nature is also related to lower obesity rates, greater overall mental health and better cognitive functioning.
Connecting children to nature isn’t just important for children’s health and development; it is beneficial to our environment and economy as well. In Minnesota, outdoor recreation generates over $11 billion in consumer spending, and $815 million in tax revenue annually.
During my time as Mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota, I’ve learned a lot about the children and nature movement, and the role cities have in connecting children to nature.
Cities are the leaders and innovators.
More than 80 percent of people in the United States live in urban areas, making cities natural incubators for progressive change. Cities are leading on climate change. We are leading on racial equity. And we have the opportunity to lead on re-connecting kids to nature.
Good things happen when you put children at the center of policy.
A child’s education isn’t just about reading or math, it’s about the development of the whole child. In Saint Paul, we have an out-of-school time network made up of high-quality programming for kids. Programs like Urban Roots give children a better understanding of how the natural world works and helps them to develop social and emotional skills.
All city departments can play a role in getting kids into nature.
The natural world can play a role in programming for every city department. Events we host to create a sense of community can serve a dual purpose of generating enthusiasm for connecting kids with nature. Saint Paul libraries are leading the way with experiential learning. With the help of the Children and Nature Network, we’ve developed backpacks that families can check out to help them discover the nature in their own neighborhoods. It’s important to have stepping stones for engaging in nature, and our nature backpacks are a great first step.
Public input is important to success.
By listening to the communities that make up the City of Saint Paul, we are able to address barriers to nature. We heard from many of our communities of color that more outdoor events should be designed for multigenerational families, not just for children. We now host free intergenerational “try-it” events where we provide equipment and experts to teach everything from fishing to how to build snow caves.
Partners are crucial to sustaining our commitment and increasing our impact.
We would not be able to connect as many children to nature as we do without the help of partners like Big River Journey. Big River Journey is a National Park Service experience that connects students to the science and heritage of the Mississippi River. Over 70,000 students have been on a Big River Journey field trip over the last 20 years.
Working with all levels of government is key to advancing this work.
Saint Paul is home to city and regional parks as well as a state park and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. It’s therefore essential that we continue to have strong relationships will our regional, state and federal partners to ensure that together we offer comprehensive and complementary programming.
Equity, sustainability and green space have a place in development and design.
Including green space in development and design makes cities more equitable and more sustainable. We recently completed the Green Line, a regional transit line in that travels through areas of the city previously lacking sufficient parks and green space. To help rectify that inequity, we planted 1,200 trees along the Green Line that not only provide shade, but treat runoff from nearby impervious areas. We are in the process of developing more parks along the Green Line, which will play a vital role in the health and economic development of the surrounding community.
Create vibrant places and spaces for people of all ages.
Wherever possible, cities should incorporate nature and green space into planning. Saint Paul recently broke ground on a major new segment of a 27-mile scenic parkway that will connect people of all ages to parks, nature, neighborhoods and businesses.
We want Saint Paul to be the most livable city in America for all of our residents. Making sure everyone has safe and equitable access to parks and green spaces – and further, making sure everyone feels like that space has been designed with their community in mind – are critical strategies in achieving that goal.
Where do we go from here?
Connecting Saint Paul to nature isn’t a goal for the future – it’s something we’re doing right now. Thousands of kids are growing up in Saint Paul understanding that they have access to the great outdoors right here at home. The work we have accomplished and the work yet to do would not be possible with the support and technical assistance of the CCCN initiative of NLC and C&NN. I look forward to working with all of our partners as the next generation of Saint Paul’s kids grow up in the nature of Saint Paul.
About the Author: Mayor Chris Coleman attended the University of Minnesota and worked as a lawyer and public defender for 8 years in Hennepin County. He became Mayor of Saint Paul in 2006 after several years as a city councilmember, winning reelection in 2009 and 2013. His priorities include improving education outcomes and decreasing inequity, creating sustainable and responsible budgets, and investing in the infrastructure of Saint Paul. Mayor Coleman and his wife, Connie, live in Saint Paul’s West Side.