AS A BOY, I PULLED OUT DOZENS — perhaps hundreds — of survey stakes in a vain effort to slow the bulldozers that were taking out my woods to make way for a new subdivision. Had I known then what I've since learned from a developer, that I should have simply moved the stakes around to be more effective, I would surely have done that too. So you might imagine my dubiousness when, a few weeks after the publication of my 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, I received an e-mail from Derek Thomas, who introduced himself as vice chairman and chief investment officer of Newland Communities, one of the nation’s largest privately owned residential development companies. “I have been reading your new book,” he wrote, “and am profoundly disturbed by some of the information you present.”
Thomas said he wanted to do something positive. He invited me to an envisioning session in Phoenix to “explore how Newland can improve or redefine our approach to open space preservation and the interaction between our homebuyers and nature.” A few weeks later, in a conference room filled with about eighty developers, builders, and real estate marketers, I offered my sermonette. The folks in the crowd were partially responsible for the problem, I suggested, because they destroy natural habitat, design communities in ways that discourage any real contact with nature, and include covenants that virtually criminalize outdoor play — outlawing tree-climbing, fort-building, even chalk-drawing on sidewalks.
I was ready to make a fast exit when Thomas, a bearded man with an avuncular demeanor, stood up and said, “I want you all to go into small groups and solve the problem: how are we going to build communities in the future that actually connect kids with nature?” The room filled with noise and excitement. By the time the groups reassembled to report the ideas they had generated, I had glimpsed the primal power of connecting children and nature: it can inspire unexpected advocates and lure unlikely allies to enter an entirely new place. Call it the doorway effect. Once through the door, they can revisualize seemingly intractable problems and produce solutions they might otherwise never have imagined.
A half hour after Thomas’s challenge, the groups reported their ideas. Among them: leave some land and native habitat in place (that’s a good start); employ green design principles; incorporate nature trails and natural waterways; throw out the conventional covenants and restrictions that discourage or prohibit natural play and rewrite the rules to encourage it; allow kids to build forts and tree houses or plant gardens; and create small, on-site nature centers.
“Kids could become guides, using cell phones, along nature trails that lead to schools at the edge of the development,” someone suggested. Were the men and women in this room just blowing smoke? Maybe. Developers exploiting our hunger for nature, I thought, just as they market their subdivisions by naming their streets after the trees and streams that they destroy. But the fact that developers, builders, and real estate marketers would approach Derek Thomas’s question with such apparently heartfelt enthusiasm was revealing. The quality of their ideas mattered less than the fact that they had them. While they may not get there themselves, the people in this room were visualizing a very different future. They were undergoing a process of discovery that has proliferated around the country in the past two years, and not only among developers.