Living in today’s fast-paced, competitive world produces various powerful stressors on people’s health and wellbeing. And it does not stop there.
This constant strive and engineering toward faster (and faster) development, urbanization and globalization are also taking its toll on the land and Earth.
In the last few decades, this bleak reality is being realized more and more.
As such, more and more cities are taking the step towards green and sustainable ways of living and development, starting with urban green spaces and infrastructures.
First, let’s define what green spaces are.
Green spaces literally means spaces that are ‘green’. In urban areas, these refer to any land that is partly or completely covered in greenery or plants, some may even include water features like streams or fountains. Other natural environments are also sometimes called ‘blue spaces’ – which in turn, refers to being near water like the coast or the beach.
Urban green spaces vary in scale and form – from highly maintained or developed pieces of land with manicured lawns or untouched, rough natural landscapes. Most of these areas are open to the public with common examples being parks, school yards, playgrounds, public seating areas, playing fields, etc.
Well then, why and how are these green spaces so beneficial to the environment and to people?
Cities are experiencing increasing signs of environmental stress brought about by rapid urbanization – poor air quality, noise pollution, rise in air pollutants, congestion, traffic and excessive heat. Consequently, these adverse effects trickle down to negatively affect the people living in and around these spaces.
Through cost-effective solutions, the presence of urban green spaces can mitigate this current harmful direction and improve overall quality of life of city dwellers. The continuous increase in appreciation and support for green spaces show its wide reaching positive impacts on cities and the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities near it.
Photo source: Scandinavian Traveler
Now, when it comes to cities, the benefits of urban green spaces are:
1. Improved environmental conditions
As a start, basic benefits of green spaces regulate extreme temperatures, freshens air, reduces runoff and improves water quality because it helps reduce the following situations:
- According to the urban heat island, the temperature in cities is warmer compared to its nearby rural surroundings. Concrete building materials cannot absorb the sun’s heat like plants and grass can.
- Due to vehicle and industrial emissions and constant construction, there are more harmful tiny particles and gases in urban air pollution because of reduce vegetation that naturally absorbs these from the air
- With the impermeable materials used for infrastructures and roads, water remains unabsorbed which may lead to flooding during heavy rainfall because of congested drainages. Further, this surface water accumulates pollutants that transport it to water courses like rivers and lakes.
Urban greening, or the creation of more green infrastructure, is being implemented and practiced by more cities, architects and designers around the world. It has gone beyond simple parks and trees to vertical gardens, green roofs and all-around greener and sustainable buildings.
A quick example is Singapore. Its vision and strive towards becoming a ‘City in a Garden’ garnered it the title of most livable city for expatriates and one of the reasons is its excellent infrastructure and amenities.
Another is China. Its main cities are headlined for having one of the most harmful smog and pollution in the world, just look at Beijing. Therefore, this led the administration to move towards creating more ecological spaces and sustainable architectures.
2. Sustainable development and economic impacts
Generally, it may be cheaper to buy or make something that negatively impacts the environment; but today, we see the need for more sustainable business practices. Healthy ecosystems are recognized to directly affect the stability of societies and businesses.
One such way to go is: creating green infrastructure as the first step to sustainable development without urbanization taking a back seat.
Although impacts vary widely for different spaces and are not easily quantified, greener cities with sustainable infrastructures are said to contribute the following benefits to the economy:
- reduce energy costs and consumption, decrease flooding treatment cost and pressure on drainage defenses
- increase property values – according to case studies in the UK, residential and commercial properties are priced higher by around 5-7% when in close proximity or when overlooking green spaces
- increase tourism expenditures and attracts investment opportunities by uplifting the city’s image and livability
- give way for employment opportunities in terms of maintenance of the land area and agricultural sector opportunities in terms of regaining interest and use of local produce and encouraging the development of new crops and products
3. Aesthetic appeal and biodiversity
When a city looks pleasing and gives off a positive feel, the perception of living in that space also changes. Balancing nature with urban infrastructures, following the concept of biophilic design, increases our perception of quality of life and standards.
It enriches the architectural design and elevates the psychological benefits for people spending time in that space. Not stopping there, green spaces in urban areas can attract a diverse range of wildlife – plants, animals and birds – that may usually stop at the rural surroundings.
For urban dwellers like us, green spaces serve as our link to nature and wildlife, especially in areas that provide a high level of biodiversity.
Photo source: Medical News Today
Next, how do these urban green spaces benefit the people living in and around it?
For people, the benefits of urban green spaces go deeper a level and are the following:
1. Psychological relaxation and stress alleviation
Experiments consistently show that seeing nature or being in nature have an almost immediate restorative effect and stress relief. We can recover from stressful events, get some good vibes and calm down.
Also, we have always been told that exercise and getting active is good for mental health, but did you know that ‘green exercise’ is even better? Green exercise is physical exercise done in a natural environment and has the ability to improve body and mind, not only of adults, but short-term improvement in children’s ability to focus is also seen.
You might ask, immediate wellbeing improves but what about long-term psychological benefits?
One study that observed almost a million children growing up in Denmark showed that children who grew up in low green space density areas were more likely to develop an array of psychiatric disorders. Other large scale studies in the UK, US and South Korea show that living near green spaces can reduce the risk of depression.
These studies seem to suggest that urban green spaces are a lifeline – a positive, relaxing distraction that gives a natural high. They indirectly act like protective barriers for us against the harmful effects of too much concrete and the grueling hustle of everyday life.
Photo source: Oakville News
2. Offices with greenery increases productivity
Apart from making an office look more pleasant and creative, greenery and biophilic colors have a soothing effect on employees making them more emotionally and cognitively engaged.
With our innate biological need to be connected to nature, the presence of green spaces and plants in the office have the unconscious ability to positively impact our well-being and social interaction. Therefore, this wide-reaching effect of design is now gaining bigger attention from employers and companies.
People crave for this basic need. A study shows that introducing plants into an office increases employee engagement and concentration levels, in turn making them more productive. Or, if you take a micro break and look at greenery – be it trees outside the office window or an open deck garden – it will help you reduce and recover from stress and achieve better work.
Basically, seeing and being around some greenery makes us feel happier and less stressed as we breathe in better air.
Photo source: workthere
3. Stimulates social cohesion and interaction
Urban green spaces are usually public spaces like parks, playgrounds and public seating areas, where we gather for recreational activities with friends and family. As such, these green spaces have the ability to create and promote social interactions and a sense of community.
At a time when social disconnection is on the rise, aggravated much further by the pandemic, an important antidote may lie in where we choose to spend time outside of home and work.
Similar to how people look for that connection to nature, we always search for connections with other people. And what better space to encourage and start that than out in the natural world. Green spaces invite people to go out, explore, and undertake social activities, thereby leading to social cohesion which, in turn, positively impacts health and wellbeing.
4. Supports physical fitness and activities
When green spaces invite people, this consequently leads to green exercise and an overall improvement of body and mind. It promotes physical activities by offering a safe, relaxing and attractive place to move and just spending time outdoors.
Some studies have shown a direct correlation between spending time in green spaces to reduce risks of a number of chronic illnesses, stroke, asthma, diabetes, lower blood pressure, and levels of obesity.
Recreating green spaces into parks or enhancing underused recreational areas can entice the communities living around it to engage in more leisure time physical activities or moderate exercise. Children, adolescents and adults can all enjoy that space and create a more pleasant and enjoyable community together.
5. Healthier, more relaxing outdoor living spaces
Urban green spaces reduce the environmental health risks of living in densely populated (with people and concrete) urban cities. They give us improved air and water quality, lower noise levels and temperature regulation.
Following the natural cycle, plants absorb harmful, gaseous pollutants, reduce photochemical ozone in the air (which contributes to air pollution) and then release oxygen into the atmosphere. Hence, these urban green spaces provide higher quality air while also serving as a space to enjoy a vast array of activities and conversations.
So, find a pocket of green in your urban jungle. Sit and relax under the shade of that big oak tree. Feel the light breeze caressing your skin as nature helps you momentarily forget your woes and breathe more freely.