It is estimated that by 2050, more than 80% of the world’s population will live in cities. So how are we planning for this future?
Higher density urban living has become a primary concern for urban planners, who grapple with issues such as infrastructure development, traffic management and housing solutions. But beyond these physical concerns, there are a number of very real human issues that also need to be addressed.
For all of its benefits, city living isolates people from the natural world, which can in turn affect our wellbeing and overall happiness. It is a learned way of living that evades our instinctual predisposition to the natural world. With some clever design thinking, however, we can create cities that are more sustainable and offer a higher quality of life.
A sustainable future
Plants and trees do a lot more for us than we may realise. They filter the air, reduce pollution and keep cities cooler. As cities grow, however, green spaces become an afterthought in the planning process.
The urban island heat effect is one side effect of high-density living that makes cities much hotter than they need to be. It occurs when building materials such as concrete, glass and bitumen absorb and hold onto to heat. But by planting more trees and creating green spaces, we can reduce the impacts of this effect and lower temperatures by up to eight degrees.
Incorporating plants into buildings through rooftop gardens or green walls takes this idea a step further by naturally cooling the structure and reducing the need for air-conditioning. And if we are able to create enough green spaces to cool Australia’s cities by eight degrees, it is estimated that the reduced use of air-conditioners will lower our carbon emissions by an impressive 12–15 percent each year. So what seems like a simple element of city design can have a big impact on sustainable living.
In addition to keeping us cool, trees are also giant sponges soaking up pollutants. By cleaning the air we breathe, they create healthier environments for city living and improve quality of life.
As well as contributing to a more sustainable future, green spaces have been linked to increased levels of happiness, productivity and health. In built-up environments, the presence of plants becomes all the more significant and has been proven to have a positive effect on mental health.
This occurs because we seek out nature for restoration. In fact, 83 percent of Australians relate relaxation and time out with green spaces. Seventy-three percent also view their garden as a place to improve their mental wellbeing.
Additional mental and physical benefits of connecting with green spaces include:
· Lower stress levels
· Increased focus
· Higher productivity
· Mental restoration
· Increased longevity
When green spaces are more accessible to the community, people are more likely to exercise and feel connected to their local neighbourhood. In a time when technology is making us feel more disconnected from one another, green spaces can play a pivotal role in fortifying the community spirit.
Making more space for nature
From your own patch of land to rooftop gardens on commercial buildings, there are so many ways to introduce more nature into urban areas. Dedicating large spaces to parks is not possible in some areas, but there are plenty of other ways to reintroduce nature into the city. And when cities are designed in this way, plants and trees become a primary consideration rather than an afterthought.
· Public spaces
· Commercial developments
· Residential spaces
· Indoor gardens
· Public precincts
· Community gardens
· Green installations
The future of our cities will be shaped by our willingness to rethink the way we live in urban environments. One of the most notable examples of reclaimed public space is the High Line in New York, which has restored an abandoned part of the city. By taking the opportunity to challenge where and how green spaces are created, the local community has breathed new life into the city that never sleeps.
How you can join the green revolution
Nature can have significant economic benefits for our cities, and improved productivity and lower electricity bills are just the start. Take the USA for example, where research has found that customers prefer shopping in streets with large trees and are more likely to pay more for goods when shopping in leafy commercial districts.
Around the world, more case studies of successful green developments are emerging and it’s only a matter of time before this type of urban planning becomes the norm.
You might not be able to steer the urban planning committee of your city, but you can revamp your outdoor areas at home, take plants into your office or join your local community garden. Even small actions such as these reverberate through the community and amount to big change.
A majority of the figures in this article were sourced from 202020 Vision. This is a great initiative to introduce 20 percent more green spaces into our cities by 2020. Visit the website to find out how you can get involved.