Chiang Mai, Thailand – Escaping to Nature: Rekindling the Relationship Between City and Nature

March 2012 – Some of the most beautiful and enlightening moments in life occur when we find ourselves immersed in nature yet life upon the urban playground holds a magic of it’s own as well. In our ever urbanizing world, the task of striking a balance between nature and urban is becoming increasingly more relevant. As our human civilization expands outward across the globe, it’s important that our sprawled urban settlements rekindle their romance with nature and reconnect us with the inner relationship we share with the earth.

One of my favorite aspects of living in Chiang Mai is the ability to escape to nature on a whim whenever I choose. Chiang Mai is surrounded by the rolling jungle mountains of Northern Thailand and is neighbors to an extensive national park system that stretches across the Chiang Mai Province and the nearby provinces. Roads leading outwards from the city center slowly make the transformation from high speed expressway to scenic mountain passageway and ultimately into the deep depths of the jungle. Urban hangouts like cafes, restaurants and bars make way for waterfalls, hot springs and mountaintop vistas. The transformation from urban to nature isn’t always gradual; just a few minutes west of my apartment near Chiang Mai University is Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park.

My neighborhood is full of the wonderful things that are commonly found in university neighborhoods such as a splendid endowment of cafes and little eateries, a bustling commercial district and a well attended bar scene. However, Chiang Mai University has something that most universities don’t; a national park as a neighbor.

Across campus, Haew Kaew waterfall towers down from about 15 meters before smoothing out among a scenic collection of rocks where students casually study and picnic. Just up the road is the Huay Tung Tao lake where small thatched huts hover over the lake’s edge. If you continue on the road in front of the university entrance, you’ll find yourself barreling upwards along the curvy road that leads to the 1,700m summit of Doi Suthep. For post-work therapeutic reasons, I make this relaxing ride up Doi Suthep once a week. Further up the mountain, the road becomes one lane as it wraps around the peak of the mountain until it reaches a wonderful sunset spot where the sun drops behind the cascading mountains of Northern Thailand. On the other side of the Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park is region called Mae Rim which is home to a medley of waterfalls, hot springs and outdoor adventure activities. Even just down the block from my apartment, the beautiful Wat Umong temple is intimately integrated with the lush jungle foliage along the foothills of Doi Suthep.

Chiang Mai does a good job reminding its residents that nature is at their finger tips whenever they choose to reach out for it. This is something that I’m personally reminded of every time I step onto my balcony where Doi Suthep and a choir of birds are always waiting to greet me.

Nature can be a bit more elusive for most city dwellers around the world.

For most urban residents, it’s easy to get caught up in the adventures, habits and routines of day-to-day life. City life can be so incredibly stimulating that even daily tasks such as eating, moving about the city, dealing with work and meeting up friends require such an intense level of engagement that we end up limiting our vision to the events of our daily lives. In the world’s bustling megacities, people find they simply don’t have the energy to even exchange eye contact and a smile with fellow residents. Instead, people close off to their chaotic urban surroundings and surrender to the inward thoughts and emotions of their daily trails.

This limited, zoomed in phenomenon doesn’t just take place on a personal level; this narrowed scope happens to societies and civilizations over lifetimes – we become so engaged with the rules and structures of our built worlds that we become tangled in the web of its constructs and we lose sight of the larger pictures in life.

In the deeply detailed societies that we have built in our cities, it’s easy to forget about the beautiful relationship we share with nature. Detachment from nature shouldn’t be an accepted outcome of urbanization – a healthy relationship with nature should be an assumed expectation of the urban experience in well designed cities.

I think the idea of sprinkling bits and pieces of nature upon the surface of our cities provides a quick fix for the environmentally deprived, but it doesn’t address the greater problems created by an unhealthy urban relationship to nature. An eight foot street tree along the sidewalk doesn’t quite connect me with the harmony of nature. This is why I call for “escape routes” that quickly lead us outward from the city and into the richness of nature.

When nature calls and we have the desire to spend a weekend among the trees, the rivers, the lakes, the desserts, the beaches and the mountains, will our sprawling cities allow us to easily reach these destinations?

The polarizing division between city and nature isn’t one that we have to accept. We can design our cities to reach greater levels of harmony with the earth so that our built environments don’t exist apart from nature, but rather, they’re a healthy extension of it.

The idea of biomimicry is that we can learn from nature by mimicking and modifying some of its inherit wisdom and integrate it into our own human systems. Nature has already done our homework for us – we just have to figure out how to integrate its creativity and brilliance into our own human systems. We haven’t even begun to dive into the wondrous depths of biomimicry and truly explore the potential it has to offer us, particularly within the realm of urban design.

As our globe becomes increasingly urbanized, biomimicry holds the promise of playing a larger role in how we expand and develop our cities. Biomimicry could provide large scale solutions to some of the globes most pressing issues but biomimicry can also help us on local levels as well. Biomimicry doesn’t have to be a complicated scientific concept – simply planting a rooftop garden on top of your house is a natural solution to host of different problems. The possibilities for an innovative relationship between biomimicry and urban planning are seemingly endless.

The destructive behavior humans have towards the earth stems from the disconnected relationship we share with nature. Our distorted and detached relationship with nature creates an unhealthy justification for our desecration of the earth’s beauty.

Escape routes to nature have the potential to rekindle our relationship with nature and can help us rediscover nature’s magic. Healing our relationship with nature will take time but I think it’s crucial that we begin exploring biomimicry and start integrating natural systems into our human metropolises. In this way, we can expand our cities to find greater harmony with nature and build the foundation for a healthier global consciousness.

Additional Material:

Here are links to a pair of TED talks by Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson that discuss the power of biomimicry within our built environments.

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