During the 20th century, urban development took the value nature provides for granted. Some city planners even considered green spaces archaic and redundant because they did not deliver direct profit. Now we know better.
Today’s city planners understand that climate change is real and that environmental footprints have consequences for health and quality of life. We’ve realized that there is a high price to pay — both figuratively and literally — for forsaking urban green spaces. In an environmental awakening, many cities worldwide are doing what they can to make their cities greener and healthier.
What’s the connection between city green spaces, environmental health, and the health of each city dweller? Let’s find out.
Green Spaces Help Reduce Urban Heat
The urban heat island effect is a growing challenge for cities. Structures made of asphalt, cement, and steel, like roads, pavement, and buildings, accumulate a lot of heat, raising city temperatures by 1 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit compared to rural areas.
The good news is that green spaces help curb the heat island effect. Plants and trees lower the temperature through transpiration and by providing shade. Surfaces that are shaded by trees can be 20-45 degrees Fahrenheit (11-25°C) cooler than unshaded areas at peak temperatures. In addition, plant transpiration alone or in combination with shading can help reduce peak summer temperatures by 2 degrees to 9 degrees Fahrenheit (1-5°C).
During heatwaves, urban vegetation is one of the key factors that make our cities habitable.
Trees and Vegetation Filter Air and Slow Flash Flooding
While reducing greenhouse gas emissions is of primary importance to mitigate climate change, trees play a vital role by absorbing carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air. And although trees alone do make a difference, one study found that “nature-based solutions” — trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants growing with minimal maintenance — do a better job of purifying the air and regulating the climate.
Flooding in urban areas is a growing concern as our changing climate contributes to sea level rise, more frequent hurricanes, and heavier rainfall. Cities are particularly susceptible to flooding due to the impervious surfaces of paved areas like streets, sidewalks, and parking lots. Urban green spaces play an important role in flood control by filtering water into the soil, which reduces runoff that could result in flooding.
Green Spaces Are Beneficial to Health
There’s a lot of research about the benefits of green spaces to our happiness and well-being. For example, one study found that the presence of urban green spaces may enhance mental health and well-being, while another found that people who grew up in areas with no green spaces had an increased risk of developing anxiety and depression. Other studies show that people who have access to green spaces have reduced stress levels and a reduced risk of developing a psychiatric disorder.
Having access to green spaces not only helps us live happier lives but also may help us live longer. An international study that included more than 8 million people across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia found that the closer people lived to green spaces, the less their risk of premature death by any cause.
There are many more benefits of green spaces in cities — they also offer opportunities for exercise, bring communities closer together, boost local biodiversity, and create revenue for local businesses. If you are a city dweller, venture out to the closest green space and experience how your body, mind, and soul benefit from soaking up the urban green.
Feature image by Chris Henry on Unsplash. Originally published on August 5, 2021, this article was updated in July 2023.
About the Author
Nikolaj Astrup Madsen is a founder of Interiorbeat, a company that aimed to create more transparency in the furniture industry and push the industry to create more environmentally friendly products. Interiorbeat created free tools, such as The Green City Index and The Furniture Footprint Calculator. He has a deep interest in urban planning and how people live.