Words by Holly Rodger
The earth is soft under your feet as you watch strong oaks and conifers sway in the gentle breeze while clouds roll across the deep blue sky. Rays of sunlight filter through the canopies, throwing spots of warm light onto the earthy ground. Grey city streets and the tireless hum of traffic feel like a world away as you continue your walk through the woods.
Many cities and urban neighbourhoods are deserts of brick and concrete, sparsely dotted with trees lining the street margins. Too many people living in built up areas don’t get the opportunity to spend time in nature – with devasting impacts on both wellbeing and city climates.
Crucially, all cities are not created equal and there are significant differences in how easily people can access green spaces depending on where they live. Shocking statistics from the World Cities Culture Forum highlight the percentage of land in cities across the globe reserved for green spaces such as parks or gardens. Some of the most deserted cities include Tokyo (7.5%), Melbourne (9.3%), Paris (10%), and Austin (10%). Edinburgh (49.2%) and Hong Kong (40%) are among the greenest cities, meanwhile Cape Town (24%) and Barcelona (28%) lie in between.
As for how easy it is for people to walk to green spaces, 2.8 million people in the UK live further than a 10-minute walk from a public park or forest. Some parts of the US fare better, with 98% of residents in Washington, Minneapolis and Minnesota living within a 10-minute walk to a green space, however this percentage drops to less than 50% for cities like North Carolina, Arizona, and Oklahoma City.
Mental and Emotional Wellbeing
The lack of green spaces in cities has a devastatingly real impact on individual mental and emotional wellbeing. Spending time in nature, either by walking, gardening, or simply enjoying the view is linked to lowering blood pressure and promoting emotional benefits. Contrastingly, walking along a busy city street has been found to raise levels of stress and alertness due to the pollution, sudden noises and pushing crowds encountered in urban environments.
Forms of eco-therapy have been used to combat the stress and pressure of urban life. Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a Japanese concept which emerged in the 1980s to describe a form of ecotherapy that aimed to benefit mental wellbeing by spending more time in nature. The concept of forest bathing captures something many of us already know. As Dr Cecil Konijnendijk, Professor of Urban Forestry at the University of British Colombia (UBC) explains, “people need to interact with nature whenever the opportunity arises. Something as simple as a five- to ten-minute break during the workday can improve well-being and boost productivity.”
A 2021 study explored the impact that forest therapy, such as walking through or viewing the forest, had on the mental and emotional wellness of university students. The paper found that forest therapy significantly contributed to the reduction of anxiety, depression and fatigue. Walking through nature helped the students relax, improve sleep, self-esteem, and raise their mood. Simply looking out at trees or greenery through library windows, as opposed to looking out onto an urban environment, was found to enhance the student’s learning, concentration and memory retention.
Students at St Andrews University are lucky to have nature spaces so close to the centre of town. Taking a coffee break on the rocks at Castle Sands, an afternoon walk to Rock and Spindle beach, or a stroll through Lade Braes, are all easy ways to enjoy more nature and relax. As the days are slowly getting longer and we can finally start enjoying more sunlight (and maybe some warm weather), it’s even more important for students to spend more time outside.
Although there is clear evidence that spending time in nature positively wellbeing, many people don’t live close enough to green spaces to regularly enjoy their benefits. Integrating green spaces into the fabric of urban areas would significantly increase happiness and wellbeing across ever-expanding urban populations.
Healthy City Climates
On top of hugely benefitting wellbeing, there are more reasons to increase greenery in cities. As well as nurturing biodiversity and improving city water management, a wealth of research demonstrates the need to cultivate more green spaces to help boost healthy city climates.
For instance, green spaces help to mitigate a phenomenon called the urban heat island effect. This happens when the heat generated by the movement of people and transport in built up areas gets trapped in concrete structures instead of being released into the atmosphere. This can cause temperatures in urban areas to rise up to 4°C higher than surrounding rural areas.
Urban heat islands can raise the temperature of water sources within the urban area. When this warm water flows from city drains into nearby ponds or streams, it can damage and stress native ecosystems. The Urban Heat Island phenomenon can also make energy use in urban areas especially difficult to manage in hot summer months. Creating pockets of nature in cities can help bring the temperatures in urban areas down and absorb transport emissions.
Creating Future Green Cities.
Futuristic visions of green cities picture trees lining clean city streets. Greenery grows on every empty rooftop, plants overhang balconies. High-rises transform into “vertical forests”, greenery climbs brick and glass. Almost every slab of grey concrete is transformed into bright, healthy vegetation. Bare street corners are turned into flourishing wildflower meadows.
As more people start to live in urban centres around the world (the percentage of the global population living in urban spaces predicted to reach 65% as soon as 2030!), it’s becoming even more important that nature truly becomes part of our everyday lives. Nevertheless, the journey to green cities is not easy, and the collaboration of multiple actors on national, local and regional levels are needed to transform our urban centres into more breathable, greener spaces.
At a community level, people can take action towards greener urban spaces by planting and caring for more green spaces in our cities. This could be looking after your own space or getting involved in your community by searching for local volunteer groups. There are a wealth of charities dedicated to nurturing green spaces at a local level. Some examples of Scottish charities include RainGardens for Scotland, and the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust. Charities provide online networks, resources, information, and opportunities to enjoy more nature. However, it remains up to individuals to get involved in their communities to make a bigger impact on urban spaces.
Future Vision of London, https://www.pbctoday.co.uk/news/digital-construction/smart-cities/green-cities-in-the-uk/67454/
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