When I was a child, I sometimes had trouble falling asleep at night. So I would lie in bed for a while with my eyes closed, just imagining things, stories of sorts, or scenarios. One of them went like this. I would imagine all of the streets around our house turning into rivers, the parking lots into lakes. The houses would turn into hills, and the people in them into animals of various sorts. I would imagine what sorts of animals they would turn into, based on their personalities. All around me would be a natural landscape. I would be the only human being left in the wide world, able to wander around this reconstituted garden of Eden. I don’t think I ever thought about the practicalities — what I would eat, for instance. By that time I was already asleep.
We lived in a standard American subdivision that might have come out of a teen movie from the 1980s or 90s. It was arranged around a long, circular road, with smaller streets running off it. On those smaller streets were detached houses in the middle of green lawns, except for one small area of attached houses and even apartments. We lived in one of the attached houses, without a lawn but with a small garden in the back. It was one of the newest subdivision spreading out from Washington, D.C., and there was still a lot of green space that has since disappeared. Back then, the subdivision was surrounded by forest, and the kids could still go play in the forest, as kids did at the end of the last century. We were perpetually on our bikes, riding around the streets, or walking to one another’s houses. There were two schools in the subdivision, an elementary school and a middle school — we were bussed to the high school, which was in the middle of farmland. Beyond the subdivision spread more farmland — we were at the edge of suburban America, back then. Still, I longed for more green space.
Since then, I have lived in many places, many of them quite urban. But I’ve always tried to live somewhere I could see trees out the window, or hear birdsong. I’ve always tried to have a little pocket of nature nearby, for my mental health. It means a lot to me that my Boston apartment is on a quiet street with ancient linden trees that drop their yellow leaves all over the road in autumn, and that I have a little garden, just a strip along the side of the house but I’ve put so many plants into it and over the seasons I can watch them grow, bloom, die back and sleep under the snow. And in my Budapest apartment, I see the trees in the park of the Nemzeti Múzeum. I love that view, and I think I need it as well.
I think most of us need much more nature than we get.
I love teaching, but when I go to teach in the morning, I pass one of my least favorite views in the world. First I walk through the tree-lined streets of Brookline, where the sidewalks are built the old-fashioned way: between strips of green, usually on one side a little garden by the house or apartment building, and on the other side the strip of green between the sidewalk and the road, with grass and tall trees. It’s like a sidewalk sandwich: green, concrete, green. The trees tower above me, and I can hear birds, see a glimpse of the blue sky. Then I emerge onto Commonwealth Avenue, and the view changes. Either way I look, it’s concrete concrete concrete. The long river of concrete that is the avenue, with a tram line going down the middle, broad sidewalks on either side, and very little green. Commonwealth Avenue has gotten better in the last few years — it had to, since it had a reputation as one of the most dangerous streets in Boston, the site of numerous accidents. In places, trees were planted. Right now they look like sticks sticking (stickily) up from small square patches of brown dirt. And there is a protected bike path. But either way I look, I see so much concrete, and in the distance a mountain range of office buildings, glass glass glass, glittering in the sun.
Why are trees put in those little square spaces? Why are the squares either left as dirt or covered with metal grates, as though the trees might escape — or, I’ve seen more recently, a sort of spongy asphalt that I assume is a new technology, the latest in street tree design, because it must let the rain through or the tree would die. But it looks so strange to see trees growing out of what looks like playground plastic asphalt. I feel sorry for the trees — they look lonely, all by themselves, with no birds to sit on their branches (birds stay where there are more trees, more cover), no squirrels to climb up them, not even grass to talk to. I wonder where their roots go, under the streets? Is there room for them to stretch and grow? There are places on Commonwealth Avenue where the trees have better accommodations. They are in long raised planters, fancily edged in stone, with other plants. Those appear in front of important buildings like the business school and the gym, but ordinary classroom buildings get sticks in grates.
We know this isn’t good for either trees or people. We need nature — our souls need it, our lungs need it. Concrete and asphalt lead to flooding when it rains, overheating when the sun shines on the streets in summer. But everywhere I go, on those city streets, I see places where we could put little pockets of green — places where no one walks, empty useless concrete corners that could be something else. There could be plants, there could be green to rest and refresh our eyes, to cool the air and do all the other good things plants do. We could, if we wanted to, have little parks everywhere. What I’m saying here is that we should have those little parks, that our cities could be very different than they are now, that they could be gardens as well as cities — and they should. This would of course be more expensive, because people would need to create and take care of those little gardens. We could think of a word for that — I don’t know, something like “jobs.” It would create more jobs.
I dream of a world where cities have little green pockets everywhere we can put them, like a great dress with little pockets sewn all over it, holding plants. I dream of a city with birds and insects, a city that is slower, more human. I can imagine a hundred arguments against this, all having to do with economics, with practicality, and I will say: human ingenuity has done a lot more than this. Putting little parks in cities is one of the easier things we have done. Look at those glittering skyscrapers — you’re going to tell me my plan is harder than that?
I want little green pockets everywhere, to carry our hopes and dreams.
(The image is Avenue of Schloss Kammer Park by Gustav Klimt.)