The Benefits of Bringing Nature to Urban Environments
In a recent meeting with community representatives, I learned of the strong opposition held by Baltimore City residents towards trees. Of course, this is more true in some parts of the city than in others- anyone who knows Baltimore City also knows that it is a city of neighborhoods, each having their own, very distinct opinions. I assume the sentiment is not as common in the wealthier and historic neighborhoods of Baltimore, where verdant yards are shaded by old trees, but those aren’t the neighborhoods who need trees. Neighborhoods like Baltimore’s Roland Park have trees abound, and clearly recognize a tree’s value (a post written on my old blog about Roland park will be transferred here shortly). Yet in neighborhoods where the typical homes are not large country manors, trees are seen as a nuisance. Care, pruning, raking, etc….it’s all very minor compared to the extensive advantages of having trees in the urban environment.
Social commentator, Julian Dobson, explains, “The nature environment is the foundation of a thriving economy and a healthy society, and we neglect it at our peril” (Abbott, 7).
The benefits of green infrastructure- parks, gardens, trees, a wild landscapes- are observed in three different spheres: environment, public health, and the economy. The most obvious, and perhaps better understood, of the three are the environmental advantages. Global warming- which can hardly still be perceived as a hoax- can be prevented with the introduction of green infrastructure into our largest cities. Green Places Journal recently cited the findings of the Micro-Economic Benefits of Investments in the Environment study, which stated a mere 10% increase in urban green spaces can prevent a temperature rise of more than 3°C. This is a critical impact, considering the predictions made at the University of Manchester which showed that current city temperatures of 27.9°C were project to rise by 3.7°C by the 2080s. The added infrastructure of green spaces would maintain the current temperatures and avoid such an increase. The more interesting finding, in my humble opinion, is that the removal of green cover would have the inverse impact, with more than double the intensity. A 10% decrease in green cover could produce average temperatures 7-8 warmer (Abbott, 6).
Floating Wetlands in the Baltimore Inner Harbor filter the water below
Of course, there are the more qualitative benefits which cannot be properly measured. For example, green infrastructure perform ecosystem services, meaning they contribute to the cycles within a limited environment. To put it simply, green infrastructure keeps everything in check, even when we humans botch it all up. Green infrastructure helps to keep local and native species alive, as it creates an enriched habitat and increases biodiversity. These advantages are better experienced than perceived on paper, yet invaluable.
Perhaps the least understood is the economic realm of nature’s advantages. Like other nonsense arguments- global warming, evolution, et al.- the economic benefit of a single tree seems to be constantly debated. Yes, up front, a healthy new tree could be seen as costly, but it’s the long run that matters. Unfortunately, most sustainable alternatives face this same fight: the more responsible decision is the least economically feasible. Installing photovoltaic panels is quite an investment, but generating your own energy will pay for itself in time- in some cases as early as 5 years time. And what’s really great is that energy from the sun is FREE! You can’t get anything for free these days! How’s that for an economic benefit?
Landscaped medians- or better yet, storm water filtering bioswales- reduce impervious surfaces in the city
Like solar panels, green infrastructure can sometimes be seen as having more of an initial investment than traditional infrastructure. Yet green infrastructure may not be much more expensive than the conventional alternative after all. In fact, the study Banking on Green: How Green Infrastructure Saves Municipalities Money and Provides Economic Benefits Community-wide suggests that most green infrastructure projects are just as affordable, if not more so, than traditional “grey” infrastructure (Berg). Evaluating 479 green infrastructure case studies in the United States, the report found that 44% actually brought infrastructure costs down.
Going back to the idea of hefty returns on an original investment, New York City is currently planning a green infrastructure overhaul in order to cut down discharges into the local sewer system. Over the course of 20 years, such a project could save $1.5 billion in treatment and infrastructure costs (Berg). Think, for a moment, about when you go to buy a new pair of shoes. The pair from Wal-Mart may only be a buck, but they’ll break tomorrow. On the other hand, a nice pair could cost you a few pretty pennies, but a good pair of shoes will last years.
Not only can green infrastructure save lots of moolah, it can also increase value. Plant a tree today, and your property will be that much more valuable tomorrow. The findings from the Micro-Economic Benefits of Investment in the Environment Review reported that people are prepared to pay 19% more for a home near a park (Abbott, 6). For good reason, too. Green infrastructure works wonders on the human body. From the late 19th to the early 20th century, cities began to see the value of parks. Leading the Parks Movement, Frederick Law Olmsted, together with his partner Calvert Vaux, designed Central Park in New York City. Considered to be the “lungs of the city,” great urban parks were established in nearly every large city.
Parks were a necessary concept that developed in response to the poor health conditions developing within city limits at the time. Their creation went hand-in-hand with sanitary reform. In addition to their recreational functions, parks served to clear the mind, reduce stress, and provide areas free from industrial pollution. Today’s green infrastructure functions in the very same way. In a country with ever rising obesity rates, it’s worth mentioning the impact that a nearby park has on a city resident. The same study which reported the affect of green infrastructure on temperatures concluded that people who have good access to green space are 24% more likely to be physically active (Abbott, 6). People who live near parks tend to be healthier and happier. Tying directly into the impact on temperature, green infrastructure prevents and reduces the number of code red air quality days. Cities tend to have an adverse affect on groups of people with sensitive breathing; children, the elderly, and people with asthma experience poor air quality more intensely than do others. Reducing the number of code red days will make cities much more livable for everyone. Furthermore, with less impervious surfaces (asphalt, concrete, brick, etc.) and more natural matter, green infrastructure reduces the urban heat island effect.
For the purpose of saving time and not overloading you with information, I’ll refrain from going into more detail. However, it’s important to understand that the examples mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, since I’m sure you’re still interested, I’ll review the above mentioned benefits and list some additional benefits of green infrastructure.
- Reduces air and water pollution
- Collects and filters storm water
- Improves air quality
- Promotes investment, increases property value
- Increases energy efficiency, decreases energy demand
- Controls temperature, reduces heat island effect, reduces number of code red days
- Reduces stress, offers a vacation for the mind
- Increases longevity and quality of life
And I STILL haven’t touched on everything! Regardless, I’ll leave it at that.
“It’s as simple as making a choice-” says Landscape designer, Chris Beardshaw, “a choice to put green space high on the agenda of social investment because it is proven that where positive green spaces exist, issues such as crime and deprivation decline, and our health and wellbeing increases.” (Abbott)
Curious about the possibilities? Have a look at this (unfortunately silent) short video about types of green infrastructure:
Abbott, Emma, ed. “Groundwork Makes Case for Investment in Green Spaces.” Green Places 85 (2012): 7. Print.
Abbott, Emma, ed. “Green Infrastructure Makes Sound Financial Sense, Says Economist” Green Places 85 (2012): 6. Print.
Berg, Nate. “Green Infrastructure Could Save Cities Billions.” Web log post. The Atlantic CIties. N.p., 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 9 Aug. 2012. <http://www.theatlanticcities.com/technology/2012/04/green-infrastructure-could-cities-save-billions/1832/#>.