Green spaces: Why we need them in our cities

This past summer has seen intense heat waves sweeping across multiple states in Australia. As temperatures continue to increase in our cities due to climate change, the concern for the health and well-being of residents grows. Heatwaves alone are responsible for more deaths in Australia than any other natural hazard.

Urban green spaces are needed more than ever. Though many of us might take cooling off at a park during lunch break or sitting under the shade of a tree to relax for granted, green spaces provide significant benefits to not only the environment but to us directly, as individuals, and our communities. However, the issue lies in people experiencing unequal access to green spaces and their benefits.

What are green spaces?

Green spaces are vegetated open spaces in urban areas. They primarily include but are not limited to street trees, parks, bushland, community gardens, and plant walls. They are areas set aside during urban planning for conservation and recreation.

Why are green spaces important?

1. Green spaces moderate our cities' temperature

The most obvious benefit of having green spaces in our cities is that they curb the effects of climate change. The urban heat island effect suggests that urban areas experience a higher temperature than their surrounding countryside. This is due to industries, people, transport, and shops producing heat that is then trapped by concrete structures and narrow roads, where it is unable to escape. Green spaces can naturally help to balance the temperature in our cities and towns by providing shade and cleaning the air. For example, having greenery and soil on a rooftop would insulate the building and reduce its surface temperature.

2. Green spaces mitigate the health effects of heat waves

By reducing the intensity of heat waves, green spaces can also alleviate the drastic health impacts of heat waves on individuals, which include cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, increased hospital admissions, psychological stress, aggressive behaviour and excess mortality.

3. Green spaces bring new life to a neighbourhood

With green spaces like community gardens and parks, they create recreational opportunities for people living in the same area. In an era where we know very few of our neighbours by name, green spaces can become social hubs that provide people with an opportunity to connect with their local community members. Studies from Sheffield, Adelaide, and the Netherlands show that green spaces are associated with increasing social cohesion within neighbourhoods.

4. Green spaces improve individuals' mental health

We live in a time when most of us are always buried in our phones, barely interacting with the people around us – no wonder a lot of us feel lonely. Green spaces were found to potentially protect people against loneliness. But how? As mentioned above, they serve as a recreational space that allows locals to interact, but more than that, they can also restore our personal sense of belonging and connection to nature. Researchers from The University of New South Wales found that residents' odds of becoming lonely could decrease by a quarter if cities hit a green space target of 30%.

But does everyone have green spaces?

One's socioeconomic status plays a big role in deciding whether or not they have access to public green spaces. A study that analysed the availability of public green spaces across Australian cities found that residents living in low-income suburbs consistently had less access to public green spaces compared to those living in high-income suburbs, possibly leading to greater differences in their health outcomes.

Furthermore, studies from Denmark, Poland, and New Zealand have found that people with disabilities, who are already more subjected to loneliness, don't necessarily feel a complete sense of belonging in these spaces, nor can they access them easily.

Green spaces can also often exclude people from lower-income and minority backgrounds as they can signify the gentrification of a neighbourhood, reducing the affordability of nearby housing.

So what can you do?

Sometimes the answer isn't always to create more parks. You can opt to help maintain the green spaces that are already present in your neighbourhood – investigate if your local community has a program like Adopt A Park Canberra, where you spend time maintaining and caring for your shared public green spaces. Do some research on where your local community gardens are, and participate in growing fresh produce or flowers there whenever you have the chance. Finally, you can push your local governments to not only create more green spaces but consult especially with disadvantaged communities while generating them – this can look like converting grey spaces like rooftops and storm water drains into functional green spaces!

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