Urban nature and releasing perfectionism

Written By: Deborah M Buehler


Fall on the Highland Creek

I’ve been thinking a lot about perfection lately.

My children’s faces still have traces of breakfast on them when I drop them at school, my last work email had a typo, and I haven’t had time to fix my mother’s printer. I tell myself that I am OK with this. At least the kids have had breakfast. At least the email was sent and its message was clear. At least my mom’s computer still works. But try as I might to fend them off, demands for perfection – both internal and external – creep into my head and berate me for not being the perfect mother, the perfect worker, the perfect daughter.

I have even scolded myself for the imperfection of trying to be perfect!

Escaping to the natural world helps. There, the rustling of leaves and the smell of wild flowers silence the perfection police in my head. I live in the heart of Canada’s largest city, yet it is a city filled with wild spaces – parks and ravines abound. In the past year I’ve spent a lot of time exploring my wild city and I’ve learned that I need nature – urban nature in particular – to combat my perfectionist demons.

The reason is simple – urban nature is not perfect – yet I love it.

When I walk in a city park, or even some of the wilder areas like Toronto’s many ravines, I find litter, I find exotic and invasive species, and I often find an abundance of other humans. Yet, the same attributes that make urban wild spaces imperfect make them all the more significant.

Urban green spaces are imperfect because they are affected by the built-up landscape that surrounds them. Yet it is this proximity that gives urban nature one of its most important qualities. It is accessible – not only to those who have cars to drive out of the city – for everyone.


Perfect kids enjoying imperfect urban nature – because it is there just outside their door.

The benefits of this accessibility are enormous. The Cities Biodiversity Outlook Project and the Convention on Biological Diversity have summarized a wealth of research on the topic. For example, access to green space decreases stress, and physical activity in green spaces actually inspires people to exercise more!

With more than half of the world’s humans now living in urban areas, natural areas within our cities often provide the only link to the natural world. These green spaces remind us that humans depend on ecosystems to meet our basic needs. Surrounded by built environments this is all too easy to forget.

But let’s not be selfish, the benefits are not just for humans. Green spaces provide important habitat for wildlife within the urban ecosystem. For example, urban and suburban areas support a variety of bees and can providing a richer and healthier diet than intensively managed farmland. This is in part because of human intervention. Backyard gardens harbour astonishing plant and insect biodiversity (though do try to plant native and non-invasive species that are adapted to your area). City trees are important too. Urban forests provide resting habitats for migrating birds and even small fragments of green space in very urbanized areas make a difference. These green spaces are islands in a sea of concrete and therefore havens in the built environment.

Sumacs ablaze at Tommy Thompson Park

Sumacs ablaze at Tommy Thompson Park

Take Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto for instance. The park epitomizes the restorative and even resurrective power of urban nature. It is also the epitome of imperfection – literally a dump – an urban wasteland colonized by weedy species, which were the only things that could survive the hostile environment. These pioneer plants generated soil that now sustains a variety of wild flowers, shrubs, and trees. Today, the park’s meadows contain native and exotic wild flower species that support pollinators like bees and butterflies, and its forest is home to many nesting birds. The peninsula is also a refueling site for thousands of migrant birds as they cross the lake. More than 300 bird species have been recorded in this green space, right in the middle of Toronto.

So when my children’s eyes alight at watching a great blue heron flying over a wetland in Tommy Thompson Park, it doesn’t matter that we can see a smoke stack rising just above the trees. In fact, the sight of nature thriving amid our city brings a calm acceptance that helps me to embrace my own imperfections.

Urban green spaces are inspiring, whether remnants of intact forest, restored areas built by volunteers, or wild areas that rose from the dust of an urban wasteland. Urban wild spaces, just like the people who need them, are not perfect. Their beauty and functionality – in spite of imperfection – remind us that the mistakes we make give us depth and wisdom.

Deborah Buehler has PhD in Animal Ecology, a love of writing (see her Wild City column), and a flair for university administration (understanding the inner workings of higher ed is much like understanding an ecosystem). She is passionate about research, education and the application of scientific knowledge to the problems of our time.