What are green spaces?
Green spaces, according to the World Health Organization, are ‘all urban land-covered by vegetation of any kind’. This includes street trees, gardens, parks, landscaping around buildings, sports fields, flowerbeds, ponds, green entryways, green roofs, individual plants, and more. Green spaces provide long-term financial benefits as well as social and environmental gains.
Green spaces can positively affect humans’ physical health. Vegetation removes chemicals and filters particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide from the air. Noise pollution, which can harm peoples’ general well-being by causing stress, is reduced through green spaces. Plants deflect sound, which may promote relaxation for nearby residents. Other benefits to physical health can be created by viewing nature, being in it, or being nearby it. In a 2017 study measuring the correlation between happiness and interactions with nature, results showed that people interacting with nature reported feeling more energetic. In a study of hospital patients, those assigned to a window with a view of trees needed less pain medication, healed faster, and were discharged more quickly than those without windows or only had a view of a brick wall. Healing gardens are on the rise in major medical campuses around the world.
Besides physical health, mental health can be improved by the addition of green spaces as well. Mental health issues can result in loss of employment, loss of connections with peers, friends, and family, residential instability, and law enforcement issues. These negative situations can be prevented by protecting mental health through green spaces. Green spaces positively affect mental health by allowing for socialization, community cohesion, relationship-building, and providing respite for those going through stress. The spaces also encourage people to walk, jog, or ride their bikes, which helps decrease stress and depression.
Being exposed to greenery can increase creativity, productivity, and performance. Universities are investing in landscape architects to add greenery to encourage new students to attend by improving the quality of the campus’s appearance, as well as improving the mental health of students already in attendance. They are also being added to workplaces: Google recently invested over $2 billion into adding biophilic design to their Manhattan office. This includes increasing the amount of indigenous fauna inside and outside of the building, and more outdoor open spaces that provide animals with safe sanctuary.
Green spaces help combat urban heat, an issue that is growing through growing urbanization and the removal of natural land cover. Heat issues plague communities, leading to other problems, such as increased air pollutants, risk of illness or fatalities in susceptible populations, and increased hospital visits during times of extreme heat. Green spaces can provide shade, deflect the sun’s radiation, and add moisture to the atmosphere.
People of color tend to be the most heat vulnerable. Heat vulnerability is how likely a person is to be harmed during periods of hot weather. In the United States, mortality rates during heat waves tend to be higher in minority communities. Between 2005 and 2015, heat-related illnesses increased by 67% for African Americans, 63% for Hispanics, and 27% for white people. This issue is not specific to the United States. In Australia, 37% of people who were hospitalized with heat-related illnesses during a heatwave were not born in Australia, even though only 25% of the city’s population was born outside of the country. In the United Kingdom, minority communities were four times more likely to live in a heat-vulnerable area.
Besides the social benefits, green spaces benefit the environment. They allow animals to move through urban environments safely, as well as provide shelter. This benefits biodiversity by allowing species to thrive in areas they otherwise wouldn’t. Plants grow food that animals and humans alike can eat. Greenery also helps to sequester carbon with one tree absorbing 25 kilograms of CO2 each year. During times of heavy rainfall, green spaces can also soak up water to feed plants and help to decrease stormwater runoff. Outside of urban environments, this is seen with mangroves which slow down water flows and protect shorelines during hurricanes.
Where are the most and least green spaces around the world?
Trends in unequal distribution of urban tree cover has been correlated with income level have been recognized in a number of cities around the world. In Mexico City, wealthy people have six times more opportunities than poor people to access one square meter of public space, including green spaces. Past research has also shown that low-income and minority neighborhoods have increased air pollution compared to wealthier neighborhoods. Although individual income level plays a part in green space access, the city’s GDP does not seem to correlate with how much or little green space is present.
One city with notable green spaces is Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. Reykjavík has 410 square meters of green space per resident, though the city is only home to 120,000 people. There are botanical gardens, farms, and parks. Nature reserves make up 10% of the city! The abundance of green spaces in Reykjavík is particularly noteworthy given Iceland’s relatively low GDP. According to World Bank data, Iceland is ranked 109th in terms of nominal GDP, which makes it one of the lower-income countries in the world. Despite this, the city has made a significant investment in green spaces, which demonstrates a commitment to providing residents with access to nature and all the benefits that come with it.
Another city that is successful in providing green spaces for its residents is Oslo, the capital of Norway. Oslo has 700,000 inhabitants in 175.3 mi² of space. Green space makes up 72% of Oslo’s land, the highest percentage of all European countries. 95% of the residents live within 300 meters of open green space, and there is such a significant amount that each resident would get around 39 square meters of space. Take a look at this interactive map to see how green spaces are dispersed in countries throughout Europe.
On the other hand, there are cities struggling to provide green spaces for their residents. Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is one such city. They have an average of 6.3 square meters of green space per person, and this figure includes even small patches of grass on pavement and streets. When broken down into specific districts, the unequal distribution of greenery is clear. In densely populated districts with high buildings and habitational units for multiple families, the amount of green space is minimal, with one district even having just 0.2 square meters of green space per person. In exclusive districts where people of high socio-economic status live, the amount of space per person jumps to 22.9 square meters. Although the average amount of green space per person is low, there are beautiful parks including 400-hectare Bosques de Palermo, the oldest park in the city.
Another city with a notably low green space count is Mumbai, India. The city has experienced a 42.5% decrease in urban green cover within the last 30 years. They currently stand at 1.24 square meters of green space per person with over 12 million residents. In 2020, there were 1044 plots of greenery, 254 gardens, and 432 recreation grounds in the city, but not all of these spaces are openly accessible.
One considerably wealthy city with low counts of green spaces is Tokyo, Japan. Only 7.5% of the city is green space, and with almost 14 million residents, each person gets 4.35 square meters of park space.
What can we do about it?
Addressing long-standing issues of unequal access to green spaces is difficult and requires systemic change. Byron Sampson, an Associate Landscape Architect at Arizona State University, says about the matter: “At the onset of the development of urban and or suburban spaces, the planning and design team need to be in accord as to what is the highest value to come from the project.” Those responsible for constructing spaces for the community, whether they are building housing, industry, retail, or recreation, have choices regarding how much green space they want to include. If the team places high value on community health and well-being as well as general aesthetics, they may be inclined to add purposeful green spaces. It is crucial to encourage prioritizing the community over maximizing land yield or economic output.
Green spaces can be created in different types of spaces, including vacant land plots that are underutilized or completely unused. The government, nonprofit organizations, or private entities can buy these pieces of land and convert them into green spaces as long as zoning laws permit it. Garnering community support for new green space projects can encourage local officials to champion these projects. This can be done through the circulation of campaigns and petitions, education programs and public events, building partnerships with organizations, and getting media coverage.
Advocate for the creation of green spaces in the areas that lack them. Websites like Treepedia have interactive maps to show you where green canopy exists and where it’s lacking. If you want to get involved in improving green spaces in your community, organizations like Neighbor 2 Neighbor provide information about volunteer and donation opportunities.
Green spaces can be added to your own home to improve indoor air quality and bolster mental health. Simply choose plants that match your level of gardening experience and keep them wherever you deem fit. If you have space outside, you could make your front or backyard into a greenspace by adding plants native to where you live. In areas experiencing water shortages, consider utilizing xeriscaping techniques. This type of gardening doesn’t require irrigation. Play around with different formats and plant types to make the best arrangements for your space. Making adjustments within the place you live is a perfect option for those who work at home or do not have close access to outdoor parks.
If you work at an office, you can also create green spaces there. Plants can sit on your desk or open workspaces so fellow employees can enjoy them. You may also encourage your workplace to invest in a green roof or rooftop garden. Green roofs can result in decreased use in heating and cooling, ventilation, and HVAC systems, effectively prolonging their lifespan.
Community gardens can be created on underutilized land. This can beautify areas that were previously occupied by trash or were just barren. Local citizens can help grow plants, fruits, and vegetables to bring home, encouraging people to eat fresh, healthy food. Gardens can also foster a sense of community by bringing people with similar interests together. Those with little knowledge about gardening, from youth to adults, can learn more about it through hands-on work.
In a time of increasing urbanization, the consideration of green spaces grows in importance. Green spaces provide numerous benefits such as improved air quality, reduced heat island effect, improved mental and physical health, and increased biodiversity. However, these benefits are not always evenly distributed, particularly in areas where green spaces are scarce. By prioritizing the creation of green spaces in these areas, we can ensure that more people have access to these benefits. Overall, by prioritizing the creation of green spaces in areas that currently lack them, we can work towards a more equitable distribution of their benefits and create more livable and sustainable cities for all.