The shallow sound of my breathing echoed through the tube, my only connection to the oxygen above. I gazed in wonder at the pristine marine ecosystem around me. Only three feet away was an enormous sea turtle, its eyes sweeping the scene with wisdom and authority. It seemed as though there were only two living beings in the entire world: this magnificent, ancient creature and me. I relaxed, content to stay right where I was, surrounded by nearly untouched coral reef on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.

I have been having transformative experiences in nature since I was a little girl, and I’ve been lucky to live in foreign countries and travel throughout my life. Experiencing nature in this way has definitely shaped who I am and who I want to be, and has greatly influenced my decision to dedicate my life to protecting the environment. When I encountered the sea turtle in the Galapagos, I decided to pursue environmental science and learn how to protect creatures like him, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now as a college student.

But it wasn’t just these big international trips that inspired me. It was also the small pockets of everyday nature that I encountered at home growing up – the day the azaleas in my yard started to bloom, the family hikes we took on the weekends, the bamboo forest next to my house. I’m fairly certain that without this everyday interaction with nature growing up, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. Being in nature has all sorts of side benefits to a community – it improves health and well being, facilitates an aesthetic cityscape, creates flexibility in urban planning, and provides opportunities for recreation. But today, I’d like to explore the fundamental role that nature plays in raising children to be global citizens and active members of their community.

Unfortunately, my experiences in nature as a child were extremely unusual. According to a nationwide poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy, only 10% of American kids play outside every day. 61% of the children surveyed said that they did not have nature near their homes, and 62% said they could not find transportation to nature. Today’s children spend less time in nature, exploring the world around them and learning about their relationship to other forms of life, and more time inside watching TV, on the computer, or playing video games.

But why? An estimated 80% of today’s youth live in urban areas, and most of our urban areas are seriously lacking in natural spaces. And yet, many of the conservation leaders of tomorrow must come from urban areas. How are we going to inspire the next generation if they are growing up in a concrete jungle?

That’s where the WILD Cities mission comes in. We know that immersing oneself in nature is both humbling and eye opening, and it can teach us things we might not have learned otherwise. It gives us moments to stop and breathe, reflect, forgive, cultivate new ideas and gain perspective. For kids, who are trying to get a sense for their place in the world, being in nature can help them feel that they are connected to something bigger than themselves, to a larger fabric of global wilderness, simply because they are human.

Families that live in the city, but can afford to escape the stifling urban jungle every weekend and retreat to nature, have found a way to give their kids some of the benefits of nature. But this brings up a huge environmental justice problem. Families that can’t afford to escape the city, which are often families of color and/or lower socioeconomic families, don’t get to enjoy the benefits of being in nature. Unless the city in which they live has done a good job of integrating wild nature with the urban environment. Having nature intermixed in the city gives everyone a sense for what’s out there beyond the brick walls, and allows every child to play, learn, discover, and feel connected with the global web of nature.

This map demonstrates the racial segregation in many of America’s cities. Blue indicates a white population, green indicates African-American, and red indicates Asia. Racial and economic segregation in cities has now manifested into environmental justice and nature accessibility concerns.

Increasing wild nature in urban areas can not only inspire the next generation; it can give them opportunities to pursue their interests. Millenials have been called the “Greenest Generation”, and many young people are already aware of many environmental and social issues due to improved school curriculums and various media outlets. That’s certainly evident in the projects showcased by CoalitionWILD, a campaign under the WILD Foundation to support rising leaders working on conservation and environmental projects. CoalitionWILD was started in 2013 to respond to the exclusion of young people from the global conservation discussion, and to inspire more youth to make a difference in their communities.

Crista Valentino, director of CoalitionWILD, says that “Young people are more than ever aware of what’s happening. What’s sometimes mistaken as apathy is actually a lack of support or opportunities to get involved.” This resonates with the fact that Millenials earn less income than their parents, even with the same or higher education level, due to the recent recession. CoalitionWILD provides resources and opportunities for young conservationists to put their ideas to work, and become part of a global community of rising leaders for a better world.

Just under 50% of CoalitionWILD’s projects focus on urban areas. Young people are learning about environmental issues now more than ever, and have been waiting for a chance to make a difference in their communities. Implementing wild nature in urban areas will give children everywhere an opportunity to be enchanted and curious about how they relate to a global wilderness. Making this change will inspire the next generation to become tomorrow’s conservationists and environmental leaders, and will give them an opportunity to tap into their already-active social conscience and create a better future, starting right at home.

Learn more about CoalitionWILD.

Writer: Emma Hutchinson is a communications specialist for the WILD Cities Project and a Stanford University student.

Image: courtesy of Herbanisation and Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation. Andrew Reid leads a project supported by CoalitionWILD to build a medicinal street garden in Cape Town, South Africa.

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