Rhodes University: Colonial legacies shape urban nature: why this should change

Being in nature has benefits for people, as studies have shown. There’s ample evidence that experiences of nature have positive physical and psychological outcomes. But these insights have largely come from the Global North. There’s very little research on how urban communities in the Global South experience or view urban nature.

A recently published book we co-edited, Urban Nature Enriching Belonging, Wellbeing and Bioculture, fills this gap. It highlights the diversity of experiences that people may have when interacting with nature in urban areas.

The book contains many personal narratives about activities and practices that produce emotions like pride, belonging and joy. The reverse is also true, when people’s access or ability to do things associated with nature is constrained or impossible. Many spoke of deep heartache and loss.

Take Kwanele, a young urban resident from Sweet Waters Township in Qonce (formerly King Williams Town) in South Africa, described feeling a great sense of pride when he was able to carry out his cultural practices on the local commonage and grow amayeza (medicinal plants) in his garden.

Many young men from his community, as part of their customary initiation, are expected to stay in a temporary shelter (ibhoma) in a forested area. During this time elders shared teachings about adulthood. Kwanele explained that taking part in these practices evoked a strong sense of connectedness to his roots, his ancestors and nature.

In contrast to Kwanele’s positive experience, some personal accounts in the book provide evidence of colonial imprints and mindsets in many cities and towns around the world today. They show up in the way urban planners provide parks and green spaces, the species that are planted or maintained, and the types of nature experiences that are allowed.

If cities did more to decolonise nature and its associated experiences, it could improve marginalised communities’ sense of wellbeing and belonging in urban environments.

Urban planning and design
There’s a growing body of literature that exposes the inequities in the provision of urban green spaces or trees between different parts of a city. Some communities tend to have much less access to nature than social, political and economic elites do.

Worldwide, many of the parks originally designed and planted during the colonial period were populated with species from around the world. This was a mix of the familiar species from the colonising country or “motherland”, and those swapped between colonies subjugated and administered by the same colonial power. This legacy remains evident for green spaces with long-lived tree species. Also, the older parts of former colonial cities are still dominated by non-native trees.

While non-native species provide benefits or ecosystem services, many fail to meet some local cultural needs. They also contribute to the erosion of local knowledge and identity related to the natural heritage and biodiversity of a particular region or country. And they may support less indigenous biodiversity such as birds and other plants.

This colonial legacy also shows up in places like street names. For instance, in South Africa, there are more streets named after non-native plant species than native plant species. And there are more non-native plant species represented in street names than native ones.

Colonial legacies
Colonial legacies have also shaped the formal or informal “rules” of what types of behaviour are socially “acceptable” in public green spaces. More passive pursuits, such as art displays, sculptures or musical concerts, all of colonial origin, have been elevated above other indigenous cultural or spiritual activities such as, for example, the use and collection of natural resources for religious and customary rituals.

This colonial disenfranchisement of certain uses of or activities in nature lives on in formal and informal policies, by-laws and socially prescribed behaviours.

In many cities the gathering of resources such as flowers, mushrooms and edible plants is expressly disallowed. Yet the collection and use of such resources is often a very intimate interaction with nature. Engagements in such also assists in retaining local ecological knowledge as citizens remain aware of which species are useful, where they can be found, in which seasons they are available, and how to harvest sustainable.

In some localities, people may revere particular green spaces or species or a specific tree, and wish to undertake religious or other ceremonies in these spaces. But they’re often barred from doing so, or constrained by others.

Way forward
As our book illustrates, in some parts of the world attempts have been made to facilitate and accommodate ways of being that aren’t Eurocentric. For example, members of the Squamish Nation planted cedar tree saplings in Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, Canada. The cedar tree is considered to be the “Tree of Life” by the Squamish people as it provided them with everything they needed for centuries. It was used to build canoes and houses, make clothes, tools and for fuel. The tree has also played a major role in the spiritual lives of the Squamish people.

In Hawai’i, the Hālau ʻŌhiʻa programme seeks to restore and enhance First Nations worldviews of and relationships with nature. The program embraces notions of Native Hawaiian stewardship which emphases a sacred relationship with the natural world. Such understandings have been embraced to “transform the way we view and steward our lands and seas” and contribute to more sustainable relationship with the natural world. These principles of stewardship are also being transferred to other cities, such as New York.

The first step in decolonising urban nature would be to recognise that urban residents have diverse needs relating to it. A variety of stakeholders should be consulted to determine what these needs are. Municipal authorities need to work towards providing spaces and places within nature that residents from a diversity of cultural backgrounds can feel familiar with and enjoy being in. Such attempts will assist in ensuring that the benefits derived form nature are felt by many more urban residents.

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