Cities around the world are usually dominated by towering buildings and huge expanses of housing spreading out from its centre caused by a growing global population and the migration of those living in rural into urban areas. Cities seek economic development for growth which can often come at the expense of the environment and society. Urban green space can restore that balance and create much more sustainable cities.
An urban green space can include any of the following:
- Parks and Reserves
- Sporting Areas
- Riparian Areas
- Greenways and Trails
- Community Gardens
- Street Trees
- Nature Conservation Areas
Green spaces in urban areas have a great number of environmental and social benefits for residents. The ‘heat island effect’ that is common in cities around the world, particularly those in warmer climates, and can often make urban areas a lot warmer than just outside of the urban area. Increasing the amount of green space in a city can lower the air temperature by a few degrees which, with the impacts of climate change, will make cities much more habitable as average temperatures rise.
Increasing the amount of green space in cities can also clean up the environment. Most of our urban areas are polluted due to industry or the number of vehicles driving up and down city streets. The planting of trees and development of urban green spaces can create much healthier environments and cleaner air for urban residents.
Socially, green spaces provide the opportunity for improved mental and physical health and a natural environment for people to exercise. They’re places that make people happier and healthier, and they’re becoming increasingly necessary in our ever-urbanising world. Research by Zhou and Parves Rana (2012) outlined a number of the social benefits of urban green space, including the promotion of physical health, the enhancement of social ties and interconnectedness and providing educational opportunities.
Living near to green space encourages residents to engage in a more active lifestyle. Residents are able to use urban green space for exercise and other activities that can get them increasingly active. For the elderly, it can have a number of positive health impacts including reduced blood pressure and improving the length of their lives.
Making Urban Areas ‘Just Green Enough’
But, what if the development of these green spaces creates issues in achieving social sustainability?
Social sustainability is about equity. Equal rights, equal access to public land, etc… But there is a danger that developing green space in urban areas can force the displacement of low-income residents. Studies show that the addition of green space into an urban area can encourage the development of social infrastructure and raise house prices that force people out of their homes. After the development of the Lene-Voigt Park in Leipzig, the low-income residents that lived there were forced out as they couldn’t afford to live in the apartments surrounding the new park, no longer benefitting those that the park was built for. This is the ‘Green Space Paradox’.
The Green Space Paradox is defined by Wolch et al. (2014) is as follows:
“Whilst the creation of new green space to address environmental justice problems can make neighbourhoods healthier and more aesthetically attractive, it can also increase housing costs and property values.”
In making urban green space accessible to all and avoid the green space paradox, urban green spaces must be designed to be ‘just green enough’. Urban planners and developers must work with local communities and work out what the community needs from its green space. Working a ‘bottom-up’ approach that begins with the needs of the local community rather than a vision by local or city councils will benefit low-income families and avoid pushing them out of the areas they’re living in. Also, by scattering and keeping urban green space small reduces the opportunities for the development of infrastructure like shops and cafes that increase the cost of living for local residents.
Wrapping Things Up
Green space in our cities and urban areas is vitally important to help achieve sustainability. The expansion of cities and economic growth often happens at the expense of the urban environment and societies needs. There are a huge number of environmental and social benefits of making our cities greener and it is something that more cities need to consider in their development. However, in making our cities greener, we must consider the needs of low-income residents and families and what they require from green space. Creating large open areas that are enticing for retail and cafes will force out low-income residents. The social equity that is created by doing this will better the lives of all residents in urban areas.
Wolch, J.R., J. Byrne, and J.P. Newell. 2014. “Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’.” Landscape and Urban Planning 125: 234–244.
Zhou, X., & Parves Rana, M. 2012. “Social benefits of urban green space: A conceptual framework of valuation and accessibility measurements.” Management of Environmental Quality: An International Journal, 23(2), 173–189.
Originally published at thinksustainabilityblog.com on April 21, 2018.