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10 reasons urban green spaces are now more crucial than ever

Created by Laura Scott, M.A. |

There is an undeniable allure when it comes to natural green spaces, and it’s been shown that simply viewing vegetation positively effect mental and physical responses. Urban green spaces are a hot topic in city planning and we gathered evidence to show how extremely relevant this is today, and how these spaces can transform city centers to benefit the environment, human mental health and social health.

There is an undeniable allure when it comes to natural green spaces, and it’s been shown that simply viewing vegetation can produce beneficial psychological and physiological effects on people. The relevance has never been more important as it is estimated nearly 70% of the world’s population will be urban dwellers by 2050. 

Historically, green spaces have been identified as a component of public health and a refuge from overcrowding and the proliferation of disease. Jones (2018) extracted an example from French history in which Henry IV “established the Place Royale (now Vosges) in 1605 out of concern that the people of Paris needed a place to promenade as they were closely pressed together in their houses” exemplifying the view of green spaces as healthy and restorative (p.44). This sentiment is extremely relevant by virtue of climate change, increasing urban density, and rising mental health concerns. 

Green infrastructure cools cities, manages water, reduces heat stress, noise and more.

Green infrastructures such as green roofs, vertical greening, city parks, and urban gardens are an approach to help mitigate urban heat island effects (UHI) in the summer. UHI is a microclimate, which explains the temperature in cities being hotter than the surrounding regions, due to lack of green space, dark and impermeable materials, and the infrastructure of the city; energy consumption from fossil fuels, roads, parking lots, sidewalks, buildings, and rooftop materials. An enormous amount of urban landscapes consist of impermeable and dark materials which absorb energy from the sun and create heat, which contributes to higher heat stress among urban dwellers compared to rural dwellers (Aram et al., 2019). 

In contrast to UHI, other microclimates such as Green Space Cool Island (GCI) and Pocket Space Island (PGS) have been identified as possible strategies to mitigate urban heating. These refer to the ability of large green spaces with trees, grass, shrubs, and water bodies (GCI) and small pocket spaces, such as a small city park (PGS) to create a cooling dome cooler than the surrounding areas. Studies have shown reductions in air temperature in these green microclimates compared to the surrounding city temperatures (Aram et al., 2019, Wu et al., 2021). 

Urban greening offers shade for residents and workers to retreat and cool down. Think of how people flock to the shade of a tree or to lay on the grass in a city park-it’s a resource in combating the heat. Green infrastructure also provides rainwater runoff management. Soil is permeable and helps filter water, allowing plant roots to absorb water through evapotranspiration, and then releasing water back up through vapor which cools the surface and air temperature. 

There’s even more benefits-urban greening can produce and protect biodiversity, air purification, and provides a habitat for wildlife, birds, insects, butterflies, and bees. And vegetation, such as trees and shrubs provides noise reduction

 

Urban green space supports social and mental health. 

Connection with nature is an important aspect of our health and well-being. Nature connectedness means the relationship we have to the natural environment, and this can be increased by our positive experiences with nature, and the more positive nature connectedness one has, the more likely they will make pro-environmental decisions. 

We are very much a part of nature and not distinctly separate, however, our increasing urbanization and degradation of natural environments are cutting generations apart from a relationship and appreciation for the natural world. An increasing number of studies have found that people associate mental health and their general health with nature connectedness, and identified associations with mental distress decreasing with increased visits to green and blue spaces. 

White et al. (2021) found that “greater nature connectedness was positively associated with positive well-being and negatively associated with both mental distress and depression medication use” (p. 7). Nesbit et al. (2020) found that respondents who lived near high-density tree canopies reported more vitality and reported less mental distress. Research from Mittermüller et al. (2021) recommended cities to implement “visual green elements at eye level (e.g., green facades, shrubs, or planters) to increase the “naturalness” of stressful urban settings, since our results showed positive psychological benefits achieved by urban greenery” (p.49). 

One can always refer to the landmark research from Ulrich (1984) that found patients recovered from surgery faster and used less pain medication when their hospital room had a window with a natural landscape view, compared to those who had a window view of a brick wall.

The disconnect to nature is more prominent for urban dwellers where accessibility to green spaces may be low, and urban stressors such as noise, pollution, traffic, high temperatures, and social density stress. There is promising research demonstrating how beneficial urban green spaces are for mental and social health. The WHO report on urban green spaces and health included the positive association of quality green spaces and social connection in the community. Urban green spaces can be potential grounds for developing social cohesion, such as civic engagement such as volunteer opportunities, citizen-initiated projects such as the local, free and open to all exercise and healthy cooking program Fürth Bewegt, citizen science projects, and community gardening.

Think of how often safe, visually appealing, and properly maintained parks are the hub for social activity and recreation-from family picnics, to the stage for local plays and performances, the location for festivals and dance classes, a go-to for walks with friends, a spot for walking and socializing at the dog park, and a popular choice for physical activity, group exercise classes, and playground ventures for the kids. Inclusive access to safe and appealing green spaces is critical for urban residents, as it is uncommon they have access to a private garden, thus relying on city green spaces for recreation, leisure, and shade during hot days. 

Green urban space examples-Tempelhof and rewilding projects in German cities.  

Urban spaces can be transformed into inclusive public green spaces for activity and leisure. A perfect example of this comes from Berlin, where the decommissioned Tempelhof Airport consisting of 358 hectares was transformed in 2010 into a public open green space Tempelhofer Feld. Rather than selling the massive vacant space to developers, it was transformed into a sprawling public space for leisure and sport, including gardening projects, miniature golf, walking paths, sports designated areas, and protected wildlife areas for the endangered species, such as the skylark. 

Städte Wagen Wildnis is a government-funded project with local university partners dedicated to rewilding empty spaces in the German cities of Dessau-Roßlau, Frankfurt am Main, and Hannover. The rewilding projects have transformed deserted lots into thriving wildflower meadows rich in biodiversity. The care of these spaces has a more hands-off approach because organizers decided not to impede the reclamation of nature, thus seeking the opportunity to learn more about rewilding processes.

 

Interested in learning more about urban green spaces and recommended approaches for integration of urban green spaces? Read the German Federal Government 2017 White Paper: Green Spaces in the City-for a more liveable city' from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building, and Nuclear Safety

References


Aram, F, García E, H, Solgi, E, Mansournia, S. (2017). Urban green space cooling effect in cities, Heliyon, Volume 5, Issue 4, e01339, ISSN 2405-8440, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e01339.

Jones, Karen. (2018) 'The Lungs of the City': Green Space, Public Health and Bodily Metaphor in the Landscape of Urban Park History. Environment and History. 24. 39-58. 10.3197/096734018X15137949591837.

Mittermüller, J., Erlwein, S., Bauer, A., Trokai, T., Duschinger, S., & Schönemann, M. (2021). Context-specific, user-centred: Designing Urban Green Infrastructure to effectively mitigate urban density and heat stress. Urban Planning, 6(4), 40–53. https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v6i4.4393

Nisbet EK, Shaw DW and Lachance DG. (2020). Connectedness With Nearby Nature and Well-Being. Front. Sustain. Cities 2:18. doi: 10.3389/frsc.2020.00018

Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224(4647), 420–421. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.6143402

White, M.P., Elliott, L.R., Grellier, J. et al. Associations between green/blue spaces and mental health across 18 countries. Sci Rep 11, 8903 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-87675-0

Wu C, Li J, Wang C, Song C, Haase D, Breuste J and Finka M. (2021). Estimating the Cooling Effect of Pocket Green Space in High Density Urban Areas in Shanghai, China. Front. Environ. Sci. 9:657969. doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2021.657969

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