Not knowing the name of the tree, I stood in the flood of its sweet scent” - Matsuo Basho
When I need to clear my head, get energized or de-stress my go-to has always been to get outside and reconnect with nature. I live in an urban neighborhood but am fortunate enough to be within walking distance of a park where I can cruise around, do a yoga flow or just sit under the canopy of one of its massive fig trees and bask in the filtered sunlight.
In practicing mindfulness, I am acutely aware of how the tension dissipates from my shoulders, I breathe deeper and a general feeling of relaxation often comes over me. I never realized how important my access to the park was until Covid hit and my daily walk became a daily lifeline.
Our health is directly linked to our environment and green and public spaces have an important role to play. Having access to green (land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation) and public spaces is vital for health promotion as well as illness prevention and recovery. It affects how we feel, which impacts how we behave and how our body operates.
This is especially important for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities (children who live near green spaces have higher levels of activity and a lower chance of increased BMI, and older people living near green spaces tend to live longer). Part of this is attributed to urban green spaces promoting physical activity as well as providing opportunities for social interactions to take place, helping to reduce social isolation and foster a sense of community.
According to the UN World Urbanization report, a growing number of people are living in urban areas compared to rural areas globally, with 55% of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2018. In 1950, only 30% of the world’s population was urban, yet by 2050, 68% of the world’s population is projected to be urban. With this urbanization we are over-stimulated and stressed by today’s man-made world, add in a global pandemic, and that makes our bodies more susceptible to disease.
Cities are not inherently bad for us, but our bodies need nature in order to regulate and feel more comfortable. This nature can also be in the form of vertical gardens, green walls and green roofs which are other examples of green spaces we can find in cities today. Having access to these spaces, what some consider their medicine or nature therapy, supports our physiological functions and can lower stress levels, improve quality of life and potentially reduce the cost and strain on health services.
Some researchers have even put a dollar on it, one team finding that urban trees in 55 cities across the U.S helped avoid $4 billion in health care costs each year and the health benefits of natural spaces in 10 U.S. cities combined could be valued around $69 million each year.
In Japan there is a notable preventative medicine being practiced by increasing numbers of the population called shinrin-yoku. Translated literally as “forest bathing,” where you bathe in the environment of the forest using all your senses to experience nature up close. I happened to discover this practice from a book in an Airbnb I stayed at (Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing by Yoshifumi Miyazaki), and was immediately captivated by all the positive benefits including increased immunity, increased count of NK cells, reduced stress and blood pressure, just to name a few.
A group of scientists in Pennsylvania discovered that you don’t always need access to a forest for the same benefits, even a view from your window can have a beneficial effect. They studied patients in a hospital who were recovering after surgery. All variables were the same except some patients were assigned a room with a window that looked out on a brick wall, while others had a room with a view of a natural scene. Guess who recovered faster and needed less drugs?
Patients and city dwellers aren't the only beneficiaries, green and public spaces also have an impact on the environment and local economy. The ecological effects include protecting and maintaining the biodiversity as well as mitigating air pollution. Considering the World Health Organization claims over 92% of the world’s population reside in places where air pollution exceeds health and safety limits, that’s a big benefit.
Green and public spaces also attract tourism, business investors and promote cultural activities bringing in revenue to the local economy. These are valuable natural environments within our cities. It's why an increasing number of cities are committing to sustainable and innovative uses of public green space in their urban planning initiatives. To many of its urban inhabitants, it is the only natural space available to them.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the same type of access. In disinvested communities in particular, creating these spaces can be a challenge when there is pressure for resources, space and developing the land. Low to moderate income communities are more susceptible as installing and maintaining green spaces can be expensive which the tax base may not support. These spaces are often viewed through the narrowed lens as a burden on public finances and a cash solution instead of its inherent greater value as a low-cost, preventative and holistic solution to improving health and environmental outcomes.
Urban growth is closely related to economic, social and environmental factors. There is no simple linear relationship but when managed well, all impacted variables should be weighed to maximize the benefits and minimize the adverse impacts of a growing number of city dwellers.
The importance of social equity and community access will only continue to grow in today's rapidly changing socio economic landscape. In modern society, stress and stress-related diseases have become a social problem on a global scale. Green and public spaces provide a wide range of ecosystem services that help combat the effects of urban living and improve overall well-being for its inhabitants. Having access to green and public spaces should be a universal right.