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Exploring Urban Green Space

by Jared Huennekens

High Line in New York, from Wikipedia (Image by Beyond My Ken)

Our environment plays an instrumental role in determining our ability to rise in social and economic class in America. Yet, not all environments are created equal.

By the year 2025, 65% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban environments. In America, people of color and low income Americans experience a disproportionate lack of green space within their communities–which have, in recent history, been urban environments. By instituting green space, urban environments may improve wellbeing of residents in disinvested communities, boost their economic performance, and address ecological concerns such as stormwater runoff and air quality.   

Green space development attempts to balance economic, ecological, and environmental justice themes into a comprehensive framework. When green space development occurs, property values increases. For example, the High Line, an old train line converted into a green walkway in New York City, attracts millions of visitors a year and thus, despite a deep recession, between 2003 and 2011 nearby property value increased by 103% and $2 billion was invested in property development. Although property and business owners benefited an immense amount from the High Line, green space development aims to help disinvested communities – people of color and low income Americans who suffer from a disproportionate lack of green space.  

Unfortunately, the High Line and other green space projects have acted as a catalyst for gentrification. As overall neighborhood conditions improve, rent increases for residents and they’re forced into communities without established support systems. Residents may find themselves separated from family members or friends, without community-based organizations like after school programs that provide additional education for children, with even less green space than before (re)development occured, and farther from work, health-care services, welfare offices, or healthful food. Without an emphasis on environmental justice–and input from the communities being impacted–green space development ignores the very people it aims to help. In addition, ecological considerations should motivate projects, instead of aesthetic prioritization. When beauty is prioritized, not only are there few ecological benefits such as improved water infiltration, stormwater capture, or localized cooling of air or water, residents are inhibited from recreational activities that can promote better physical health, improved community connections, and decreased stress levels.  

In a Comprehensive concept planning of urban greening based on ecological principles: a case study in Beijing China, Feng Li et al. establish a green space framework aimed at long-term, achievable sustainability on the regional, city, and neighborhood levels. The regional level constitutes large scale buffer zones, forests, and farmlands on the outskirts of urban areas. When approaching city and neighborhood green space development, disinvested community priorities need to inform what type of green space development occurs. A bottom up approach ensures “just enough green space” will arise to increase the psychological well-being of residents and create a healthier ecological environment in the area, yet not cause property values to increase so much as to force residents from their homes. Feng Li et al. advise on the city level to create a green network system of wedges, parks, and green corridors that  connects the regional and neighborhood levels, establishing migration pathways and habitats. For neighborhoods, utilization of vacant lots and greening sidewalks, medians, rooftops, and riversides has abundant potential for ecological and psychological health benefits. By breaking green space development into three categories, developers are better able to build connections between spaces, build a greater ecological vision for a region, and identify underdeveloped or unprotected areas.

When developers institute a bottom up approach, they’re placing the needs of the community before economic incentives by integrating the community into the development process. Developers need constant communication with community leaders before, during, and after green space implementation  to design a successful green space that address community needs. Planners need to ask questions such as what their priorities are for improving the community, what type of green space they prefer, and what their major concerns are for implementation. For people of color and low income Americans, their list of priorities may rank environmental injustices lower than other wicked problems such as poverty, homelessness, education, employment, affordable housing, and mass incarceration to name a few. Resources directed towards disinvested communities needs to address issues most important to disinvested communities. Often, more pressing matters should take priority over urban greening. By asking community members what type of green space they prefer and their major concerns, planners can institute green spaces that maximize the wellbeing of residents. For example, a green walkway and cafe gears towards the needs of middle and upper class and may lead to gentrification in an area while cleaning up a toxic creek decreases exposure to harmful materials without increasing property value an exponential amount. When developers deploy this principle of “just enough green space” to mitigate the effects of gentrification, projects may not be economically viable because people don’t flood the surrounding area leading to stagnanet property value and business incentives. These projects address environmental injustices and the needs of community members without adding tremendous economic value to the area.

Street trees, lawns/parks, urban forests, cultivated land, wetlands, lakes, seas, and streams are identified as the seven urban ecosystems by Per Bolund and Sven Hunhammar. Each ecosystem prioritizes different ecological services in urban areas: air filtering, microclimate regulation, noise reduction, rainwater drainage, sewage treatment, and recreational/cultural values.

Ecosystem Services by Ecosystem, per Bolund and Hunhammar (1999)

Although Bolund and Hunhammar identify those ecological services as most important, urban green space can provide other services such as food production, roof longevity, carbon sequestration, and soil erosion mitigation. Food production combines disinvested communities need for green space with another wicked problem: food insecurity and food deserts.

Ron Finley, who envisions a world where “cool kids know their nutrition and where communities embrace the act of growing, knowing and sharing,” promotes urban guerrilla gardening. Based in South Central Los Angeles, he found himself traveling great distances to find an apple without pesticides. Even though Beverly Hills is only a few miles away, South Central’s obesity rate is 10 times higher, which is correlated with a lack of access  to healthful, affordable food. The Ron Finley Project transforms yards and parkways into vegetable and fruit gardens. Finley argues Los Angeles should utilize their 26 sq. miles of vacant lots, the equivalent of 20 Central Parks, by allowing people to grow food for the community and for themselves. Through projects similar to Finleys, urban greening has the potential to address multiple issues  facing disinvested communities whether that’s food insecurity or their psychological and physical wellbeing.

Different types of green space facilitate different health benefits for nearby residents. Parks encourage physical activity. When children and adults have more access to parks and recreational facilities, more physical activity occurs and obesity rates decrease. Parks and other green spaces are shown to both aid social interactions (linked to improved physical and social-emotional health) and provide an area for residents to experience solitude. Increased exposure to green space rejuvenates residents, enhances contemplation, provides a sense of peace and tranquility, reduces stress, and builds a connection to nature. Vegetable and fruit gardens expose children and adults alike to learning about the food production process, expose them to foods they might not otherwise eat, increase opportunities to do physical activity in the garden, and foster community connections. Ron Finley exclaims in his TedTalk, “If kids grow kale, they eat kale.”

Although there are many positive benefits to urban green space, several negative aspects exist. For example, if developers use non-native vegetation when reviving the ecological health of an area, adverse effects may arise for the environment, including introduction of new weeds or pests. Whenever new ecological features are introduced, residents may suffer from unexpected noise disturbances, increased allergies, or bad odors from improperly managed stormwater conveyance or treatment systems. These annoyances are avoidable if an ecologist or knowledgeable landscape architect informs the development process. Further, there can be unintended economic impacts on residents. Unfortunately, the principle of “just enough green space” to discourage gentrification may mitigate growth, causing the projects to not be cost effective and therefore be rejected by city planners and other decision-makers. All of these factors need to be considered before developing green space in urban environments to ensure sustainable development that benefits communities.  

No resource goes to waste in a natural environment. Urban green spaces, whether community gardens, wetlands, or urban forests, have the potential to transform a wasteful, inefficient artificial environment into a natural environment. Up to 85% of air pollution can be filtered out in a park. Tree cover can reduce total energy costs for heating and cooling by $90 per dwelling per year. And, wetland restoration has potential to treat wastewater and stormwater significantly before it re-enters streams or sewers while increasing increasing biodiversity. Urban greening diminishes the negative effects of urbanization, improves the well-being of residents, and enhances the economic performance of an area. Through this development, people are more capable to create healthier communities and rise in socioeconomic class.

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