March 10, 2022

Greening our cities; The need for green space in city environments.

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Both people and the planet can benefit from green spaces amidst the sprawling expanse of urban cityscapes.

If you’ve ever lived in a busy city then you’ll know just how fast-paced life can be. In the hustle and bustle of these grey-landscapes, it is easy to forget how important a breath of fresh air can be. There is significant evidence to suggest that having green spaces purpose-built throughout cities can play a vital role in maintaining mental health at a population-level¹, reminding us to slow down and be present. Not only that, but think of the environmental benefit associated with an increase in greenery and how much it would be valued by all the nature that has been displaced from human development.

The power of perspective

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were provided a unique opportunity to examine our relationship with the natural world and it highlighted significant disparity in access to green space, an issue that persisted long before the pandemic, but one that was significantly exacerbated when our movement was limited during lockdown². The inequality in access to green space is most evident when considering those living in built-up areas and high-rise accommodation; individuals without access to gardens, parks within 300m of their dwelling or even balconies. Members of these disadvantaged groups were shown to have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of ill mental health³ during isolation. Now, more than ever, the general population is starting to realise the impact that natural spaces have on our wellbeing — both physical and mental.

Urban ecology and the human experience.

Sadly, it wasn’t just over lockdown that mental health suffered in the absence of green space. It is a trend that has long-since been observed, with green spaces first proposed to have health benefits in the 19th century¹. In spite of this, the world continues to urbanise and green spaces are becoming fewer and farther between, especially in centres of economic and social activity. It is vital that we act now to reverse that trend.

In contrast to the majority of other ecosystems on Earth, human action is causing urban environments to expand at an unprecedented rate and as with any environmental change, we must work to better understand how this shapes the living and non-living environment for organisms that call these spaces home. This is Urban Ecology, the study of densely populated, concrete jungles, examining their impact on global resources, ecosystem function/quality and even human well-being⁴.

Finding a green solution

With COVID-19 having made us increasingly aware of the need for green space, the team at Carbon Fingerprint are looking to find greener solutions closer to home, so that we can continue offsetting digital carbon emission whilst working in cities across the UK to better engage those who were previously impacted by the lack of green space. It is the hope that future projects will not only benefit community well-being but lead to improvements in biodiversity, air-quality and resource availability.

When we consider the many benefits associated with green space, they can be split into three broad categories; abiotic (referencing the non-living components of our environment); biotic (living components); and anthropogenic (human-related). Let’s examine these in a bit more detail.

Abiotic (non-living) benefits

Here, I consider improvements in air quality. You might be wondering what good a few plants and a couple of trees can do. Surely not that much, right? Wrong! Carbon sequestration, particle filtration and regulation of ambient temperatures are some of the many services we derive from urban green spaces⁵ — plants have considerable influence over the abiotic (non-living) environment. Reducing (local) atmospheric pollution and sequestering carbon emission which is of notable benefit to those living in city environments. Even small-scale green spaces are known to influence the microclimate, helping to reduce the rate of pollution in cities; furthermore, the presence of trees is shown to not only sequester carbon but generate a breeze that helps to disperse pollutants⁶. Unfortunately, the relationship between purpose-built city green spaces and human well-being isn’t as predictable as we’d like, so the human experience is somewhat difficult to decipher. In most cases, it’s an issue of scale, with carbon sequestration having a direct impact on atmospheric CO2 but only when occurring over a large enough scale⁷. Projects should be designed with this in mind, employing novel methodology to monitor air quality and detect the presence of pollutants, working to establish a ‘sphere of influence’ around urban green spaces and an appreciation for how the non-living aspects of our environment can benefit from the presence of greenery.

Biotic (living) benefits

In our continued efforts to protect biodiversity, urban green spaces play a crucial role in how cityscapes craft the living world. A sprawling expanse of city landscapes threaten biodiversity not only through habitat destruction but in that they isolate the green spaces that do still exist, stopping animals from travelling between them to reproduce. On their own, urban green spaces can be rich in flora and provide a home to a vast number of insects, birds and small animals — when considered in the wider context, however, we can view urban green spaces as corridors or little islands, reducing the distances that animals have to travel across the city before coming into contact with wilderness again⁸. This can be of enormous biological benefit.

It is likely that habitat type and the types of plants/trees present in a green space will attract different types of wildlife back to the environment and this is something else that Carbon Fingerprint seeks to better understand.

Anthropogenic (human) benefits

In urban environments, green space is usually designed with humans in mind. There are a wealth of studies showing that the presence of vegetation can improve human health in a number of ways, alleviating stress, nurturing emotional health, increasing cognitive function and promoting increased physical activity, which in itself has a myriad of physical and psychological benefits⁹ ¹⁰. A meta-analysis revealed that ‘green exercise’ (activity in the presence of nature) has both short and long term impact on human health. Cardiovascular and physiological gain aside, there was considerable evidence to support improvements in both mood and self-esteem after having regularly been able to access and enjoy green spaces¹¹.

It should also be noted that, in many cases, a perceived increase in biodiversity was enough to positively affect human well-being¹²; this would suggest that the mere creation of a green space is enough to improve mood, even if animals have yet to colonise the area. Surveys also report people to have a greater emotional response in the presence of bird species¹³, adding further merit to the creation of urban green space as birds are usually the first to start visiting and using the area.

A look to the future

Here at Carbon Fingerprint, we are striving to make the internet climate positive by 2030 but more than that, we seek to create a legacy of positive social impact. Yes, the carbon generated through our use of internet-based technologies can be sequestered through growth in the natural environment, but more so than that, green spaces in cities across the UK can help to protect mental well-being whilst teaching sustainable practices that will help to mitigate future greenhouse gas emission.

COVID-19 stressed the importance of green space in urban environments and this, compounded with a state of worsening climate, could — in part — be remedied through a greater number of opportunities to engage with green space throughout our cities. In the coming years, it is our hope that community green space initiatives established across the country will contribute toward greening our cities. We will take a data-driven approach to understanding how green spaces impact air quality, biodiversity and the human experience, using it to inform global literature and leave behind a legacy of sustainable development. Watch this space!

Do you have a green thumb, an interest in community gardening, or know any businesses looking to collaborate on building local green spaces? If you do, drop us a comment and we’ll be in touch!

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[1]: Barton, J. and Rogerson, M. (2017) The importance of greenspace for mental health. BJPsych International 14(4).

[2]: Burnett, H., Olsen, J. R., Nicholls, N. and Mitchell, R. (2021) Change in time spent visiting and experiences of green space following restrictions on movement during the COVID-19 pandemic: a nationally representative cross-sectional study of UK adults. BMJ Open 11(3).

[3]: Gray, S. and Kellas, A. (2020) Covid-19 has highlighted the inadequate, and unequal, access to high quality green spaces. Accessed: 05/03/2022.

[4]: Pataki, D. E. (2015) Grand challenges in urban ecology. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 3(57).

[5]: Byrne, J. and Jinjun, Y. (2009) Can urban greenspace combat climate change? Towards a subtropical cities research agenda. Australian Planner 46(1).

[6]: Makhelouf, A. (2009) The effect of green spaces on urban climate and pollution. Iranian Journal of Environmental Health Science and Engineering 6(1).

[7]: Pataki, D. E., Alig, R. J., Fung, A. S., Golubiewski, N. E., Kennedy, C. A., McPherson, E. G., Nowak, D. J., Pouyat, R. V. and Lankao, P. R. (2006) Urban ecosystems and the North American carbon cycle. Global Change Biology 12(11).

[8]: Kong, F., Yin, H., Nakagoshi, N. and Zong, Y. (2010) Urban green space network development for biodiversity conservation: Identification based on graph theory and gravity modelling. Landscape and Urban Planning 95(2).

[9]: Tzoulas, K., Korpela, K., Venn, S., Yli-Pelkonen, V., Kazmirerczak, A., Niemela, J. and James, P. (2007) Promoting ecosystem and human health in urban areas using Green Infrastructure: A literature review. Landscape and Urban Planning 81(3).

[10]: Shanahan, D. F., Lin, B. B., Bush, R., gaston, K. J., Dean, J. H., Barber, E. and Fuller, R. A. (2015) Toward Improved Public Health Outcomes From Urban Nature. American Journal of Public Health 105(1).

[11]: Barton, J. and Pretty, J. (2010) What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environmental Science & Technology 44(10).

[12]: Schebella, M. F., Weber, D., Schultz, L. and Weinstein, P. (2019) The Wellbeing Benefits Associated with Perceived and Measured Biodiversity in Australian Urban Green Spaces. Sustainability 11(3).

[13]: Cameron, R. W. F., Brindley, P., Mears, M., McEwan, K., Ferguson, F., Sheffield, D., Jorgensen, A., Riley, J., Goodrick, J., Ballard, L. and Richardson, M. (2020) Where the wild things are! Do urban green spaces with greater avian biodiversity promote more positive emotions in humans? Urban Ecosystems, 23(1).