The Call of the Wild (our need for green space, at large)
The Need for Accessible Green Spaces in the City
September 22, 2022 by Courtney Jones
Summer in the Pacific Northwest is a nature lover’s playground. Alpine meadows bloom with wildflowers that beckon city-dwellers to their trails and lakes. The cool waterways come alive with swimmers, sailors, and jet skis. Local splashpads fill with children on summer break. In every direction, you can see the response to nature’s invitation to come out and play.
But before you know it, fall happens. The transition to cooler and more frequent rainy days can be a harsh reality check. However, the need to spend time in nature doesn’t change; we still need natural spaces to enjoy.
Green spaces are an important part of any urban environment, connecting us to those wild environments we miss. This can look like a lot of different things, depending on where you are in the world. Parks, waterfronts, trail systems, gardens, protected wilderness areas, restored wetlands, forests and even sports fields qualify as green space. What matters is that people have yearlong access to them.
Being Well in Nature (the benefits of green space to humans)
There is a robust set of research that has been done over the past decade quantifying and qualifying the importance of nature in day-to-day human life. Green space provides more than a literal, physical reprieve from our built environments. Time spent in a natural environment also improves our mental health, lowers blood pressure, improves focus and productivity, and leads to a strengthened sense of community.
Environmental psychologists propose that exposure to nature is not only enjoyable, but it can also help us improve our focus and ability to contemplate. The Attention Restoration Theory suggests that the natural environment has capacity to renew our attention and restore our mental energy after exertion. The patterns of leaves gently blowing in the wind, or the slow, steady flow of water curate opportunities of soft fascination or interest for our brain. This cognitive state provides a quiet internal space to unwind and move towards reflection. Green space helps our brain relax leading to increased contentment and enjoyment. As America continues to face a growing mental health epidemic, the cost of not providing ample green space in cities and communities is immeasurable.
“Green”ing the City (the benefits of green space to nature)
Green space is inarguably connected to human health, but it is equally connected to the health of the natural environment. Greenways, wilderness areas, and waterfronts provide an important buffer between wild places and urban environments. As new development continues to push out the urban growth boundary in many cities, like Bend, Oregon, existing ecosystems and habitats are harmed, destroyed or fragmented, leading to displaced animals and a loss of native biodiversity. Green spaces, especially typologies left wilder and more naturalized, play a key role in habitat creation and protection within developing areas. Animals need space to eat, sleep, drink, and care for their young.
Increased urban vegetation also helps to negate something called the urban heat island effect. There is a negative feedback loop between the decrease in the natural environment and the detrimental effects on the built environment. Urban areas with limited greenery and highly concentrated city structures become “islands” of higher temperaturesrelative in comparison to areas further away. Daytime temperatures in urban areas are about 1-7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than temperatures in outlying areas and nighttime temperatures are about 2-5 degrees higher. Concrete and pavement absorb and radiate heat back into the atmosphere. As a result, hot, built environments become harsher environments for native vegetation and outdoor recreation.
To combat this cycle, cities need dense tree canopies and a diversity of lush green spaces. These spaces contribute shade while also absorbing pollutants such as carbon dioxide (CO2)—which is valuable for carbon sequestration— providing cleaner and cooler air. When examining the ripple effects of green space, it becomes clear how important parks, trails, gardens, and natural areas are to a healthy urban fabric.
Getting Outside in Vancouver, WA (equitable green space in our city)
At LSW, we are fortunate to be connected to a city with a variety of green spaces. There are over 150 parks and trails in the greater Clark County area.
Given the rate of growth around Clark County, it’s important that people here participate in the long-term planning process and understand what new development means for them and future generations. In less than a decade, the population of Vancouver has grown 13.3% and Clark County’s population has grown 12.7%. A growing population gives rise to a growing need for green spaces in and around the city. As new green spaces are imagined and proposed, it is important to consider who will have the needed access, time, and resources to enjoy them.
Equitable access to the outdoors is at the forefront of environmental justice. Studies have shown that redlined neighborhoods traditionally have less green space and research demonstrates patterns between race, poverty, and access to vegetated space. People of color are three times more likely to live in nature-deprived areas, while 70% of low-income communities live in areas lacking green spaces.
Sustainable urbanism can begin to address some of these inequities through encouraging robust, multi-modal transit systems. New and existing green spaces must be close to lower-income developments, easily accessible via public transit, and have secure bike parking. Green spaces should be well-lit and provide safe lighting for individuals hoping to use the space before or after work. Ultimately, community engagement is key in understanding the specific recreational needs of neighborhoods and how green space can be curated (or left wild) to support them. The importance of spending time outdoors is essential to a community’s wellbeing, and everyone deserves equal access to these vegetated, urban amenities.
When the City of Vancouver invites public input before construction begins on major public projects, your voices matter. We know that natural spaces benefit everyone and that everyone needs access to them; turning that knowledge into action is something we all have to do together.