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The Power of Green Space to #UNLITTER Your City

By Teagan Milford

Health is often stated to be one of the most important things in life. The way we design our cities however, doesn’t necessarily support that idea. There is a simple solution to stressors that arise out of city living: access to green spaces. In this article I’ll be exploring some of the benefits that green spaces offer for individuals, neighborhoods, and communities at large. 

A Park with a lake

But first- What is a green space? The U.S. Green Building Council defines a green space as “land that is partly or completely covered with trees, shrubs, grass or other vegetation.” To me, it's much more than that. Green spaces act as glue in communities, bringing a touch of nature to the built environment. In addition to their role as a free and accessible third place, green spaces offer many social, individual, and environmental benefits - benefits that call for on-going investment into urban greenery. 

My Perspective 

I recently finished graduate school, signaling an end to my 23 years of education. As a student, I spent much of my time in classrooms, libraries, and study rooms. Between academics and the stress of the pandemic, I found that I needed an outlet, so I started spending more time in green 

spaces. I’ve been fortunate to live in places that prioritize green spaces - Gainesville, FL, and Austin, TX. This has allowed me to spend time in natural spaces, and in doing so I noticed their value in my own life.

People paddle boarding in the river of Austin, Texas.

Studying sustainability and urban planning as an undergraduate showed me that this feeling was not mine alone. Countless studies find that green spaces are a remedy for many problems,

including conclusions that they can promote a sense of community, decrease crime rates, and improve the quality and comfort of surrounding areas. 

But don’t just take my word for it! 

The Research 

The mental & physical health aspects of green spaces are well known, with obvious benefits including the calming properties of being around nature and having the space to move your body. These are important benefits and, in my opinion, justification enough to protect and expand access to green spaces in cities. I want to explore some other benefits of green spaces that get less widespread attention. 

Plants covering a path

The biophilia hypothesis proposes that humans are inherently predisposed to be drawn to the natural world due to an innate love and connection to nature. This is supported by the phrases we say (“grass is always greener” or “forest for the trees”, for example), the things we build (check out biophilic design), and the idea of environmental stewardship. 

Cure for Loneliness? 

In 2017, Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, coined the term “loneliness epidemic to describe the condition of isolation that many Americans feel. This term encompasses the over 40% of Americans who identify as feeling lonely, a feeling that is associated with major health issues like depression, cardiovascular disease, and decreased cognitive function. 

Concern about the loneliness epidemic spurred a 2023 Framework for a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection, focusing on strengthening community and social ties to address this epidemic. One of the key solutions presented is the expansion of social infrastructure, including “physical elements of a community” like green spaces to bring people together. Many green spaces also serve as meeting spaces for community groups. Whether a running club, children’s recreation group, bird watching, or pick-up basketball, many people use green spaces as a neutral place to make meaningful connections within their community. 

Green Spaces for Crime Reduction 

Research suggests that a greater amount of maintained green space in a city can reduce the amount of violent crimes and property theft committed in the area. Cared-for green spaces help inspire community engagement and neighborhood improvement efforts, reducing the propensity for crimes to occur. In fact, there are some organizations that are seeking to improve their green spaces for crime reduction in higher-risk areas, including starting community gardens and engaging youth with nature. 

Comfort & Quality 

Green spaces also offer benefits for relieving discomforts that occur in cities, including poor air quality and high temperatures, through air filtration and transpiration. 

Living in an urban area increases the likelihood of a person being exposed to high levels of air pollution, with 60% of the US population living with ambient air quality that falls below the standard set by the UN Environmental Program. The past few years have highlighted the importance of air quality and respiratory health, understating the need for air quality improvements in urban areas. 

Luckily, trees and vegetation can serve as a mitigation strategy for poor air quality. Put simply, plants filter out air pollutants, contributing to a reduction of particulate matter concentrations in air. In the current situation where air quality is decreasing every year, applying mitigation measures is an important step in protecting the health of people living in urban areas. 

A tree-lined path in a park

Briefly, the urban heat island (UHI) effect is the phenomenon where an urban area has a higher temperature than a nearby non-urban reference area. The materials used to build urban spaces tend to absorb a large amount of heat and release it slowly over time, exacerbating hot temperatures. 

The presence of trees and vegetation in urban spaces relieves some of this heat burden by providing shade and through the process of evapotranspiration. This effectively has a cooling effect on the surrounding air by releasing water vapor from their leaves. 

So what's the takeaway? 

When it comes to finding ways to #UNLITTER your mind and your city, green spaces are a great start. Supporting the creation, protection, and maintenance of green spaces in your area can bring on big change for you and your community.

Images courtesy of Wix and Unsplash

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1 Comment

Jul 03

Austin is such a cool city!

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