along the shore of Lake Michigan, Illinois.
The Chicago skyline along the shore of Lake Michigan, Illinois. © Arkadiusz Ziomek

Stories in Illinois

Nature: A Valuable Solution in the Fight For Urban Health

Research shows that nature can benefit human health in cities.

Michelle Carr is the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Illinois.
Michelle Carr State Director, Illinois

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Human health depends on nature—from the food we eat to the air we breathe.  Nature is not an abstract notion, or a luxury item only to be enjoyed by a few.  And as city dwellers, urban nature is more important to us now than ever before.

Cities like Chicago are at a crossroads. The infrastructure we rely on to keep us safe is aging. The water we drink is threatened by storm water runoff and contaminants like lead. The air we breathe is, at times, too hot and too polluted to be safe. These conditions present very real threats to human health. And as our urban areas grow—by 2050, it is estimated that 3 out of 4 people will live in cities—and the climate changes, they are only going to get worse.

Unless, that is, we come together to find solutions—and at The Nature Conservancy, we know that one solution is nature. Research shows that nature has a clear public health benefit, from green infrastructure that cleans and cools the air we breathe and filters and stores the water we use, to the crucial role biodiversity plays in the food chain, to parks and natural areas that help combat obesity and improve mental health. Yet despite mounting evidence, we don’t yet know what the right “dose” of nature is that will help address the many serious health threats to urban residents.

That’s why opportunities that bring together local and global urban experts across disciplines are becoming ever more important. Recently, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted the Pritzker Forum on Global Cities, an event that convened thought leaders on the subject of healthy cities. I was proud to serve on a panel alongside Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, the Senior Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago; Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar, the Smith and Lucille Gibson Professor of Medicine at the University of Louisville; Dr. Cathy Dimou, the Midwest Market Medical Executive for Cigna Healthcare; Fernando Medina, Mayor of Lisbon; and moderator Karen Weigert, a non-resident Fellow of the Council and Vice President at Slipstream. We, along with more than 30 individuals from different universities, the city’s health department, Cook County Forest Preserve, Chicago Park District, and other institutions, talked about the health issues cities are facing, and how there’s an inexpensive, yet neglected, solution with huge potential: nature.

During our discussion, Rev. Dr. Moss discussed a healing garden being developed at Imani Village to help patients at Imani’s health center, as studies show these green spaces help people heal faster. (TNC is thrilled to be assisting with the development of this garden.) Dr. Bhatnagar explained his work with our Kentucky chapter to understand how urban trees reduce the incidence of heart disease. Mayor Medina described how the City of Lisbon took measures to become the European Green Capital for 2020. And Dr. Dimou delved into macro-level challenges like climate change.

Understanding how nature can improve human health is a huge undertaking, and while none of us yet have the full picture, each of us has a piece of the puzzle. Next, we need community organizers, doctors, urban planners, faith leaders, policy makers, elected officials, business owners, professors, and so many others to gather to share experience, knowledge, and lessons learned, so that we can start creating the body of knowledge and evidence that our cities need to thrive. Events such as the Pritzker Forum and the Mayors Training Program, which I participated in last year, are great opportunities to foster this exchange of knowledge at both a local and global scale.  At TNC, we might be new to the conversation, but we’re working hard to dial it up. I hope you’ll join us.

Michelle Carr is the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Illinois.

Michelle Carr, State Director

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