Greenspaces are the key to elevating our communities

2021-05-14

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

Greenspaces aren’t just pretty on the outside, they’re a master key to solving many common problems. As we verge into climate changes and communities experience urban densification, the development of quality greenspaces is an effective way to be proactive about building a more resilient future.

Populations are growing, developments are being constructed and environments are rapidly changing. Believe it or not, we humans are brilliant and have the ability to ponder how our actions will impact the future. We can stop and consider what will change, and we can use technology to generate predictions to get ahead of it. Just as we make economic and climate predictions, we can imagine the best and worst outcomes for communities. 

Figure 1. Constructed wetland to extend the age of the stormwater system and make better ecological and social use of water resources. Taken at Westhills Park, Langford BC.

As you may have seen, children from this generation are growing up with more technology and less time in nature. Each generation has reduced interactions with our environment (i.e. less bugs on the windshield and frogs croaking in creeks), which is referred to as environmental generational amnesia. The concern is that if people don’t know what they’re missing, they are less likely to protect it.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather live in a world where kids could be catching snakes and making tree forts at the park. I think the sooner we can reconnect kids with the outdoors, the better.

Envisioning our future landscapes can safeguard more than our children’s perception of nature. Recent studies have quantified the benefits of urban trees and the results may surprise you. Turns out, greenspaces may be one of the most comprehensive tools we have in our toolbelt.

Figure 2. Glimpse into what kids could be doing in urban greenspaces.

We see the challenges, set the goals, but overlook the obvious solutions

You may notice that some areas are rewilding underutilized outdoor spaces with the addition of native plant gardens or constructed wetlands. Strategically adding natural aspects can be also called land enhancement. These projects help provide us with a sense of place which helps us psychologically. Land enhancement can close the gaps on an array of common problems which urban communities face.

Childhood education and social development 

Evidence suggests K-12 students are more friendly, engaged and perform better in school when they have a view of landscapes with natural features like trees or wildlife. In contrast, students with a view of a parking lot or brick wall struggle more with mental fatigue, often resulting in misbehaviour and absences. Childhood exposure to greenspaces generally helps their cognitive development, seen with longer attention spans and reduced severity of Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).  

Having an easily walkable outdoor spot can promote rough-and-tumble play that helps children develop socially while promoting physical activity. If available, schools will likely utilize the outdoors for more hands-on learning experiences.

Even for adults, it’s nice to have scenic neighbourhoods and free outdoor meeting places to host recreation groups or events. Knowing this, cities like Vancouver have set sustainability objectives for homes to be within a 5-minute walk to an outdoor space. Greenspace can help bring back recreation, social networks and ecological interactions.

Figure 3. Educating Children Outdoors (ECO) program.

Safer neighbourhoods 

Studies show that people feel less stressed and safer in areas with tall trees. There are examples where reducing tree canopy in urban areas was linked to an increase of violence and crime in the neighbourhood (i.e. in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA). 

Foster environmental cycles and connections 

While these greenspaces grow, they uptake and store carbon. They also help stabilize the soil and provide habitat for types of mycelium and microorganisms that munch on common pollutants (oils, chemicals). Natural areas with root systems and symbiotic organisms can help filter roadside runoff by creating avenues for deeper soil infiltration. We can value these areas to help groundwater recharge. 

Be prepared for climate changes

With predictions of heavier winter precipitation and more extended, hotter summers, we will be looking for ways to divert peak rainfall and store freshwater for summer irrigation. Tree canopy and vegetation help buffer local weather conditions by providing shade in the summer and blocking cold winter winds. Well-planned greenspaces can be a hot-spot for environmental services that will be increasingly valuable. 

Economic incentives 

Buffered temperatures can actually reduce energy consumption because buildings will require less A/C and heat. Smart landscapes can reduce noise pollution, increase property values and extend the lifespan of stormwater systems. Even better, the aesthetic background of quality landscapes or interesting innovations may gather attention on social media and generally promote tourism to the area. 

Food forests 

Urban orchard projects are becoming more popular among cities, as they plant forageable tree species. Organizations like LifeCycles Fruit Tree Project exist to maintain trees and collect fruit to supply to those in need directly. No doubt, there’s potential for many more urban agroforestry jobs and volunteers. Just imagine if the government carbon tax helped pay for urban agriculture projects and opened up green jobs.

Figure 4. Forage friendly tree (Photo by Marisa Westbrook).

Older trees, wetlands and creeks are worth more.
For the initial cost of planning, planting and maintenance, these spaces offer very high-return investments, as they increase in value with age and functionality. How? Economists refer to social benefits and ecosystem services as positive externalities which can be converted to a dollar value. As the demand for sustainability initiatives rise, multiple sectors of revenue (i.e. carbon offsets, water management, food security, education) become involved, out of necessity. 

You don’t have to wait, you can start now!

If you own land, you can initiate projects with the help of specialized companies like Edible Landscape Design, Hatchet and Seed, Saanich Native Plants and Stanhope Organics Compost. If you’re renting, speak with others, suggest types of spaces possible and inform your local government of project ideas. 

This blog post was inspired by the comprehensive paper by Jessica B. Turner-Skoff published in 2019, The benefits of trees for livable and sustainable communities. If you have trouble accessing the paper, I recommend listening to her interview episode “Why cities need trees” on the In Defense of Plants Podcast (available on Spotify). 

Reference:

Turner‐Skoff, JB, Cavender, N. The benefits of trees for livable and sustainable communities. Plants, People, Planet. 2019; 1: 323– 335. https://doi-org.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/10.1002/ppp3.39