This is a guest post by Anna Michels. Anna is an urban designer recently with HUE, and she is about to start a role at WSP New Zealand.

We are living through tumultuous times: just out of covid-19 lockdowns, RMA reform at our doorstep, the recent central government housing mandates (NPS-UD and MDRS), the release of the Emissions Reduction Plan and the new Budget. With all of this going it can feel like we have gotten lost in the detail and the big picture of what healthy urban communities actually look and feel like seems further away than ever.

It is exactly in times of massive planning reform like this that we should highlight the things around us that have real benefits for our health. Our environment has major impacts on our health and this in turn impacts a country’s economy.

Physical and mental health effects of greenery have been scientifically studied for many years, but until recently we have not invested in the science to quantify this impact. An American study found that:

…increasing tree canopy to 30% of the land area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania could prevent 403 premature deaths across the city every year.

Scientists worked out the economic cost of these potentially preventable premature deaths and came to the conclusion that:

…adding green space would also yield an estimated economic benefit of almost four billion dollars (US).

Derbyshire Street Pocket Park, London. Image: Greysmith Associates

Considering the potential to strengthen our economy, remove a burden on our public health system, and, not least, save hundreds of lives, surely we should take  urban green amenity seriously. It is important to note that we’re talking about greenery available in public spaces, such as street trees and parks, not private backyards. This is because these are the amenities that most of the population spends most of their day having access to.

In almost all research around health benefits of nature on humans, studies are split into two categories: physical health and psychological health. Perhaps surprisingly, increased greenery has a lot more to do with improving our mental health than our physical health. The mental health benefits of nature and greenery may be even more important in the current high-stress post-lockdown world  we find ourselves in. We all remember the solace that nature provided us during lockdowns: the park we could take the kids to to let out steam, the trees we heard birds singing from, the visual reminder of seasons changing as we counted the days inside.

St Patricks Square in Auckland. Source: Heart of the City

Physical Health

Provision of landscaped or green areas, such as parks or liveable streets, can play a part in encouraging people into a more active lifestyle. People are more likely to walk or undertake physical activity if their outdoor environment is greener. Australian researchers have identified that certain design attributes incentivise outdoor activity and lead to physical health benefits. These environmental attributes include ‘neighbourhood aesthetics’ that play a role in encouraging people to participate in physical activity, as well as shade provided by trees that may encourage being outdoors in hotter climates.

There may actually be a much greater increase in the public health benefits of green space than current available data shows, because people might not consciously realise that they are spending more time outside.

However, simply adding an urban park in close proximity to everyone’s home won’t fix the problem of universal access. There are more factors that will affect people’s ability to enjoy a green space than just proximity. Things like accessibility and safety, for example, might have a big influence on people’s use of a green space. This is another reason why green amenity should be included in all sorts of urban environments, and in many different forms.

Baptist Street Redfern – “The great streets of the future are dependent on how we plan our street planting today” Source: City of Sydney

While there are positive relationships to be drawn between the availability of walkable green spaces and physical health, green space has a real effect on our mental health too. Our health is a composite of both physical and psychological wellbeing. Research has shown that the percentage of green space in people’s environment has a positive effect on perceived general health. In other words, simply feeling healthier already makes a big difference.

Psychological Health

Since the late 1990s, the psychological health research sector has acknowledged that “nature” in its broadest sense, ranging from wilderness to a view of trees and grass in an urban setting, has at least three systematic, positive effects on people’s health. These effects are summarised by American scientists as the reduction of mental fatigue, the relief of stress, and positive changes in mood. Such restorative effects are likely to occur both during activity in natural environments and from ‘‘static’’ contact with nature, such as looking at nature in the form of green streets or trees outside office windows. Early work by scientists theorized that contact with nature reduces attention fatigue.

The environments we live in are mediators for the amount of stress and the type of psychological effects we encounter. Different environments have different impacts on our mental well-being. Environments that have been shown to have negative psychological effects are those that have left very little space for street greenery or parks.

People’s ability to have positive social interactions is affected by their built environment. It has been shown that both mental fatigue and stress might lower the quality of interaction we are capable of having with people. So it is scientifically proven that creating greener environments leads to happier communities and healthier relationships.

Community Park in Richmond, Auckland. Image: Holistic Urban Environments

How do we create a city of incidental urban green space?

It has been repeatedly proven that nature has a huge restorative effect on us. It makes us less stressed and happier in our interactions with others.

We probably all understand this intuitively on some level: think about your personal experience when we’ve had to practice social distancing. What has been your personal place of respite in recent times? By the sheer number of people out walking, cycling and picnicking in local parks it would be fair to say that many of us have found that space in our public open spaces near our homes. And unfortunately some have more options than others.

The current Auckland Open Space Provision Policy (2016) clearly has a focus on larger parks that are spaced far apart. These parks are a destination and cannot provide all residents with a daily connection to nature and its associated health benefits. In the light of overwhelming scientific evidence, our personal experience of respite and the implied economic benefits that increased neighbourhood greenery brings us, there needs to be a change in how we approach publicly provided urban greenery.

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  1. I really dislike the Council’s use of “Destination” parks and playgrounds. Redevelopment of park in Massey, surrounded by housing came with huge increase in carparking – as the aim appears to draw people in from far and wide rather than provide facilities close to where people live.

    1. The upside is that it changes expectations of what parks and playgrounds deliver, in quality and quantity.

      The next step should be to carry that quality into smaller, local facilities.

      A good example is Kaimoana Street Playground, Weymouth. It is small and high quality, with overwhelmingly hyper-local users.

      One improvement would be a toilet to accommodate those walking, scooting or cycling from across the area, a function currently filled unofficially in nearby planting…

      1. Would hope that is the case but doubt it is the reality. The cost to supersize one park probably means so many pocket parks are left with a rusty swing and no improvements. I also personally wonder if we sometimes forget children often enjoy playing with the box rather than the gift. Spending the big bucks on super flash theme park playgrounds is probably to satisfy adult wishes more than children.

    2. Yeah a couple of kilometres extra matters very little if you’re driving through the suburbs. I have the impression that, in the suburbs, playgrounds without off-street parking get very little use.

      Problem is, given our extremely coarse street grids, it is impossible to have more than a few dozen people living within an easy walk, with young kids, to any playground.

      1. That’s why its such a good example at Kaimoana.

        The local streets are narrower, with much denser housing. Cars are forced to go slower, mostly by other cars. Increased density justifies a bigger spend on equipment, making it attractive.

        Kids from nearby streets often visit unsupervised or with older siblings, kids from the kindy next door will play a while on the way home with parents, kids from further out can scoot or bike the backstreets and the waterfront path.

  2. Thanks so much for this post. It shows the huge benefits of a range of tree spaces in our city. There are some very real challenges in changing the treeless spaces over time. First, we need real protection for the trees that are in public and private spaces that we cannot afford to lose. Second we need joined-up thinking towards joined-up planting. The larger bush reserves that provide homes for fauna, with protection from predators and the canopy links that enable movement between them, for daily and seasonal needs. If these spaces are within reach of small wings, they should then be within reach of small legs – not only by car. We also need to learn how to make space for old and new trees while we develop our city. Squeezing out opportunity for trees just because we want to make space for cars (especially vehicle crossings to every new house) is not acceptable, but the market cost of land makes reserving green space very difficult. Whether this is buying land for public ownership or reserving private land for trees, equitable effects are hard to achieve. But I agree this is a challenge that we need to meet if what is good in our city is to be made available to all in all parts.

  3. Thanks for the post. It’s an important subject.

    Sometimes the problem is that there are insufficient numbers of access points to a park, and so walking to the park is more of a hassle than it should be. There’s potential for council to purchase land for connections, or even just doing some landscaping to make access possible.

    And then of course there’s the public space available in the form of streets, on which we need to plant a minimum of 600,000 more trees – if we are to achieve the bare minimum of street tree density recommended for walkability.

    Auckland’s public realm needs improving in some really basic ways.

    1. There is also need for councils to make it easier for developers to make these connections. Recently heard of development that wanted to include access from their site to parks but consenting process was so hard/expensive they went with no access in the end.

      1. We (THAB zone) back onto a park that leads to a track around an estuary and a supermarket. I want to put a path between the road and the park to encourage more pedestrian traffic to the supermarket especially as my neighbors would like to walk but a trip around streets almost triples the journey time. When you say it is a consenting nightmare – you are downplaying the issue! It’s actually consenting hell!!! If the costs mount further we’ll have to drop it too.

        1. Hi Heidi, when I retire I most certainly will. The amount of un-scientific and subjective non-sense embedded in building controls is staggering. Especially so in this day and age where digital design tools enable the immediate checking of empirically measurable issues like ‘shading effects’ and google provides a mechanism to quickly and easily test ‘conventional wisdom’ around crime rates and ‘permeable neighborhoods’.

  4. side note…in the new doctor strange movie, that alternate new york looks great. with all the plants

  5. Greenery in the city is of the utmost importance. Great article and good time to be front of mind as council leaders consider what city residents will need in the future for their wellbeing.

  6. Having more (sub)urban greenery (perhaps through development of more smaller non-sports, non-children specific urban parks) also provides an incentive for locals to roam around their respective local areas. In Auckland especially, walking amongst houses after houses with high fences could be discouraging.

  7. Japan city managed green their densely populated residential street without using too much land.

    They can achieve it by using space efficient mini gardens and strategically placed greenery in front of brick walls.

    Some small streams are turned to mini greenway that act as a both park and a walking track.

    New Zealand can do the same thing.

    For the small walkways, we should build something like Roy Clements Treeway that connects the streets, schools, shops, within the suburb, along streams and parks.

    On the roads, more trees should be planted along the road, with cycleways. The ideal example is Freeman’s bay Franklin road.

  8. The MDRS has a pathetic landscaped area minimum requirement of 20%. Watch sites across Auckland lose more and more greenery as they are redeveloped, with insufficient space for even trivial landscaping.
    If the government really was smart and ‘green’ they could have enabled density and height while pumping up the requirement for on site landscaping and tree planting – real ‘Green Urbanism’. These things need not be mutually exclusive.
    Council will have to do all the heavy lifting, in the public realm. Rather than the private and public realms complementing each other.

    1. Interesting take. But I don’t think a country should rely on the private sector to provide adequate social outcomes.

      If we’d suggest that for the health sector people would think it preposterous.

      A more far sighted planning approach by councils, that provides long term plans with dedicated public green spaces and street tree provision would be what I’d advocate for.

      1. It shouldn’t be either / or. Greener development is also healthier and more human development.
        Town planning has long been concerned with what happens on private property. Private property also comprises an obviously large proportion of a city’s land area, so whether it is well treed or not contributes very significantly to biodiversity, air quality, amenity.
        Or do you think we shouldn’t care at all about what people can or can’t do on their property?
        I think the development rights that are ‘given away’ by granting extra density should come with some requirements – good design, high quality landscaping and tree planting etc.
        But then I am an old fashioned left of centre person, a believer in the need to want something back for the public good if we give so much away (development rights),unlike the ‘green neoliberalism’ that dominates this website.

  9. Its interesting that everyone will agree that they “love trees” but not “that” tree beside them that annoys them with it’s leaves, seeds, shade etc. Unfortunately we do need more regulation to protect existing trees. We often hear the ra-ra-ra about new trees being planted but not much about the existing ones are struggling to survive or getting cut down.

  10. Great post, Anna. Your opinion on forecourts and street facing courtyards would be appreciated.

    Consider this scenario: A street runs East to West. I.e. the morning and evening sun stream down the street. The middle-of-the-day sun into the street, especially in winter and through to the equinoxes, would be blocked by 6-story buildings placed on the Northern side, especially as The Auckland Unitary plan ACTIVELY encourages (forces?) the building bulk to be placed at the street edge.

    But !! Placing the bulk of a six story building at the REAR of sites on the Northern side, i.e. towards the sun’s arc, means the front of the section can be used for street facing courtyards. I.e. half the street, the northern half, would be green spaces. This would also widen the feel of the street, let sunlight in throughout most of the year, and create a wetter micro climate in our warming environment.

    Alas, no developer in their right mind is going to fight Council when Council rules say, “Go big at the street edge!”

    Further, many Urban designers vehemently support this and misquote Jane Jacobs when she refers to “eyes on the street” when she actually said “SUFFICENT” eyes on the street, which in this context, would be all the 6 story buildings on the southern side of the street. (I should also point out that AC rules do NOT take into account the gradient of sites which can further destroy the street environment.)

    It seems to me that if we want more green spaces in our lives – AC must address it’s planning rules to allow far nicer, i.e. greener and more sunlit, streets. I would add that some AC appointed urban designers should likewise pay far more attention to the effects of the sun’s arc and it’s beneficial effects before quoting “urban design gospel” with such fervor that our streets will be destroyed slavishly following AC’s rules.

    With the THAB zone currently being reviewed to align with the NP/UD to create walkable catchments with buildings 5,6 and 7 stories high, we have an opportunity to correct the environmentally destructive rules that exist today. Will we do it? Or will the near biblical approach of “following commandments handed down from on high” continue?

    1. The sun is pretty high when it’s midday, though, and if there is a problem with shade on the south side of the buildings in winter, at least it means there’s good potential for a sunny park on the northern side of the buildings where it’ll be protected from traffic noise.

      Cities with Perimeter Block Housing patterns have a range of dimensions; we should try to borrow from those that work – which include many which involve building at the street frontage.

      The real problem with shade, of course, is from the current low rise regulations involving piddly side setbacks and recession planes, which encourage high coverage infill.

  11. The only reason New York was able to put in so many cycle lanes was because they had so many one way roads.

    A one way network has far greater capacity than a two-way network using the same space. For so many reasons, but mainly because of how traffic signals work. So it is much easier to go on road diet and create more space for foot paths and cycleway and green areas.

    Customs/Quay would have been a great one-way pair and you could have had freed up much more space for people. But now we have a restricted waterfront that is cold, wet and windy and exposed for half the year. Most of which is boring port wharfs or car parks. And Customs street remains a 6 lane road with busy traffic and fumes in a canyon. You could have balance the traffic on both roads and create more public space on both streets. Instead we get the poor compromise we have now where there is not enough space for buses.

    AT being useless as normal. No vision and no creativity.

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