- Urban green spaces provide mental health, recreational, and environmental benefits.
- Inequities in green space access can exacerbate health disparities.
- Innovative urban planning strategies can address land constraints.
Urban green spaces (UGS) have been in vogue in recent years, with much attention paid to the potential quality of life and well-being improvements they provide. Broadly speaking, they refer to an urban area covered with plant life, including parks, gardens, yards, urban forests, and urban farms.
Breathing life into our cities
Considered a customisable, cost-effective solution to improving the built environment, UGS offers many benefits like improved air quality, recreational activities, aesthetic appeal and temperature reduction.
University of Edinburgh research associate and green space expert, Dr Carolina Mayen Huerta, told The Property Tribune there are innumerable long and short-term benefits of green spaces to their surrounding communities.
“Integrating or enhancing green spaces can bring new life into neighbourhoods, increasing their appeal and encouraging physical activity.”
Dr Carolina Mayen Huerta, University of Edinburgh Researcher
“Access to these green areas also promptly improves reported stress levels and overall quality of life,” she said
Indeed, during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, UGS played a vital role in helping people manage their mental health.
“Green spaces assist in moderating temperatures, counteracting the urban heat island effect and creating a more pleasant living environment.
“This, in turn, mitigates the adverse health effects of heatwaves, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, heightened hospital admissions, psychological stress, aggressive behaviour, and excess mortality.
“Notably, green spaces also play a critical role in enhancing air quality, a particularly vital aspect in densely populated urban centres.
“In the long term, exposure to green spaces can address urban socioeconomic health disparities by providing opportunities for sustained restoration and physical activity for populations with limited access to such resources.
“The consistent use of green spaces fosters a sense of community, ultimately cultivating a more interconnected and engaged population over time. Moreover, these areas contribute to the preservation of biodiversity, offering a habitat for a diverse range of plant and animal species, thereby promoting long-term environmental sustainability.”
Sourcing for land in urban jungles
While much has been said about the benefits of UGS, one of the challenges local governments face in providing more green spaces in urban areas is that highly populated areas where they are direly needed are often also land-poor.
One proposed remedy for this problem is the pocket park; parks of less than 5,000 square metres (sqm) accessible to the public.
Though small in stature, these parks still offer some of the benefits of their larger counterparts, from heat mitigation to improving opportunities for socialising. Built opportunistically by repurposing underused land, they are an easy way of inserting green spaces into urban cities.
However, they are not a replacement for larger parks. Larger green spaces promote active lifestyles and cool urban regions better than their smaller siblings.
Mayen Huerta, who completed her PhD research on the unequal distribution of green spaces in Mexico City at the University of Melbourne, noted that green spaces tend to be concentrated in higher-income areas.
This, in turn, may lead to more disparities in public health outcomes.
Disparities in green space distribution
“There are several contributing factors to the inequitable distribution of green spaces; however, it is crucial to emphasise that this disparity is not universal. In some cities, such as Baltimore, USA, research has revealed that low-income communities have relatively higher access to green spaces,” said Mayen Huerta.
“However, the quality of these spaces significantly lags behind those in more affluent areas, thereby diminishing the health and environmental benefits that communities can derive from them. Hence, the concern extends beyond mere disparities in accessing green spaces to encompass disparities in accessing high-quality green spaces.
In Australia, inequities in green space availability in the cities resulted from differences in state-level planning policies and public funding.
“In Melbourne, the ‘Victorian Planning Provisions’ stipulate that local parks should be situated within a safe walking distance of 400 metres for at least 95% of all dwellings. Conversely, in Perth, a requirement mandates that only 10% of all sub-divisible land must be allocated to parks and other open spaces.
“In addition, disparities in green space access and availability can arise from varying public funding allocations for greening strategies by diverse municipalities. Over time, the evident disinvestment in green spaces within certain municipalities perpetuates a cycle of neglect, exacerbating both the scarcity and substandard quality of available green areas.
“Also, the cost and limited availability of land poses additional challenges to building new green spaces, particularly in economically disadvantaged areas where population density and spatial constraints persist as significant issues.
“Lastly, wealthier residents often wield more political influence and possess better advocacy resources, enabling them to campaign effectively for the creation and maintenance of green spaces in their communities.
“Conversely, lower-income communities may face constraints in advocating for their needs, including the development of green areas, due to limited resources and influence.”
Community participation critical for environmental equity
Mayen Huerta stressed the importance of including communities in urban park planning to improve green spaces in underserved neighbourhoods.
“Advocating for the creation and enhancement of green spaces in underprivileged neighbourhoods is crucial to underscore the necessity for more environmentally equitable cities,” she said.
“Considering the benefits that parks offer communities, active community involvement in the planning, upkeep, and improvement of these green areas is fundamental.
“Hence, engaging communities through participatory approaches to assess their perspectives on urban park features and the anticipated benefits of visiting such spaces holds significant importance for their optimal utilisation and upgrading.
“Various stakeholders, including local authorities, planners, managers, private sector entities, non-governmental organisations, and even the communities themselves, can orchestrate public gatherings to garner community opinions.
“These insights play a pivotal role in urban park planning and management processes, identifying key characteristics that will effectively boost space utilisation and maximise the benefits green spaces provide to the community.”
The researcher explained that urban planners have largely neglected green spaces, with many still not clued into the health and environmental advantages they give to their communities.
“There is not enough emphasis placed on the health and environmental benefits that green spaces provide, and this is why, in many cases, these spaces are not given priority in the urban planning agenda.
“However, with numerous cities integrating health considerations into their planning processes and temperatures increasing annually, prioritising investment in green spaces is imperative.”
Building parks in land-constrained cities
The researcher cited several examples where land planners used innovative strategies to address the space challenges in densely populated urban cities, from transforming derelict spaces to ‘greening’ streets.
“In urban areas with limited available land, various strategies have been devised to augment the number of green spaces. For instance, in numerous countries, neglected spaces have undergone restoration and transformation into vibrant green areas,” she said.
“Notable examples include the High Line Park in New York and the Cheonggyecheon Park in Korea. The High Line Park stands as an elevated linear park developed on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the western side of Manhattan. Initially an abandoned southern viaduct section of the New York Central Railroad’s West Side Line, this park has evolved into one of New York’s most frequented spaces.”
“On the other hand, Cheonggyecheon Park was once an elevated freeway and an early sewerage system in Seoul. This space underwent a remarkable transformation, evolving into an ecological park of natural beauty. The project involved dismantling the expressway and restoring the original stream that ran through the area, resulting in a revitalised green oasis.”
“In cities where conventional green spaces are lacking, some have turned to pedestrianising and greening streets as a viable solution,” Mayen Huerta added.
“This approach not only allows residents to enjoy their neighbourhoods but also promotes active transport in the area. The concept gained traction during the pandemic lockdowns, particularly in cities like Milan, where certain neighbourhoods faced a deficit of green areas.
“Transforming streets into pedestrian-friendly offered an alternative to residents who lacked access to other recreation options, providing them a place to exercise and unwind. The greening and pedestrianisation of some streets played a vital role in mitigating the adverse mental health effects brought about by the pandemic.”