Study finds urban life separates us from nature

What if hyper urban life keeps us away from environmental issues? Highly immobile urban structures, occasionally associated with living organisms, cities tend to limit our knowledge and imagination about the dynamics of ecosystems. Even worse, this adverse effect may contribute to limiting the adoption of good practices for the benefit of the environment. We explain this new link revealed in a study by researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

What is our relationship to nature, the environment and ecosystems? How do we understand natural phenomena and what lessons can we learn from them? Those questions moved a team of researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), who found in a study published in the journal urban sustainability npj City dwellers were less aware of environmental issues than those who lived in the countryside.

A discovery called by scientists urban knowledge syndrome (UKS), or Urban Thinking Syndrome. “We assume that urbanization has not only environmental but also social repercussionsnotes in a statement Payam Aminpour, a postdoctoral researcher at NIST and lead author of the study, This can drive individuals away from environmental issues and prevent them from adopting virtuous behavior in favor of protecting nature.”

The concrete view draws city dwellers away from nature

To better understand the interpersonal dynamics that lead to behavior change in favor of the environment, researchers analyzed data from a survey sent to 1,400 residents of the northeastern United States. The questions were related to the interviewee’s way of life, his political beliefs, but also his technical knowledge of the functioning of coastal ecosystems, for example about the consequences of industrialization.

Thus the researchers observed that urban dwellers, who were much more confronted with the unifying view of urban areas, inert concrete and limited biodiversity than the countryside, understood environmental phenomena less well. For example, they have a very superficial perception of the links that exist between ecosystems and their natural resources on the one hand, and the stages in the manufacture of the products or services they consume. Therefore, they do not clearly see the links between human activities and environmental degradation. They evaluate the boundaries of the planetary system less well.

On the contrary, rural people tend to suggest more methodological implications, and they are able to describe ecosystems more realistically. ” Do we have a natural attraction to the environment? What drives us to live in the countryside. Or does living in less sprawling places lead us to be more interested in nature?Payam Aminpour asks, In the current state of research, it is impossible to answer at the moment ».

nature consciousness

From these answers, the study authors were able to produce mental models — highly schematic reproductions of the respondents’ thoughts. This way of organizing the data makes it possible to calculate what the authors call him Systemic thinking, or systematic thinking Our ability to concretely analyze the functioning of the system and the cause-and-effect relationships within it. This can relate to the functioning of an ecosystem, a human body, an object (car, radio, etc.) or an organization.

An example of a mental model.

This way of thinking is constantly being activated to understand these complex systems that make up our environment. The more an individual is able to make cause-and-effect links on a particular topic, the more he will be able to produce realistic thinking about the performance of the latter.

It turns out that city dwellers are, on average, more inclined to develop “linear” thinking, in other words, simplified explanations with less precise cause-and-effect links. For example, dams are used to protect cities from flood risks. On the contrary, the rural population is able to develop more complex causes: in addition to protecting against inundation, the construction of new dams reduces soil erosion locally, but contributes to the destruction of biodiversity …

Education on environmental issues

The researchers’ findings call into question the concepts of training and education in environmental issues.

The urban population is expected to double by 2050, rising from 4.2 billion to 8.4 billion… In these cities, the population faces many social and economic challenges, which sometimes make them more vulnerable to future climatic events and environmental disasters. It therefore seems necessary that these populations regain some knowledge of environmental issues. It is a question of their ability to better show resilience in the face of these crises, as well as facilitate the deployment of public policies compatible with future extreme weather events that the population will suffer: heat waves, droughts, floods …

For example, according to a 2021 study published in connection type, marine flood risks have increased by nearly 50% globally in just two decades. A bleak outcome when an estimated 758 million people will be exposed to floods by 2030. To counteract the increase in these phenomena, residents, decision-makers and managers will have to learn how to look at this issue systematically.

The researchers therefore recommend careful thought in the development of new, more ecological urban projects, in order to re-mix neighborhoods with humans. For them, this should be achieved by decentralizing adaptation and mitigation policies in favor of regions, which are better able to understand local needs.

We have evidence that infrastructure plays an important role in people’s cognition. It can have many direct consequences for societies, for example the ability to have a diverse view of environmental issues, Jennifer Helgson, co-author of the study confirmsbut we are still only at the beginning of research on this topic.”

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