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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.