Got Green Space?

Coker Arboretum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Source: Anna Patterson

Planning for Preventative Health
Urban green space provides a place to escape the concrete and steel of urban city centers, spend time in nature, connect with others, and get moving. As Americans become increasingly sedentary, a push towards funding and implementing green space as a means of increasing individual health has gained traction. Doctors now write green prescriptions for patients to go walk at their local park three days a week or to visit the local farmers market weekly to purchase healthy local fruits and vegetables. Not to mention, green space is aesthetically pleasing and likely to increase property values. But planners and public health practitioners often underestimate the power of green space to prevent disease and serve as a promotive factor for physical, social, and emotional health.
In young children, green space promotes muscle strength, coordination, cognitive thinking, and reasoning abilities—all important aspects to the future health and success of children.   Additionally, green space promotes cleaner air and increased exercise.
Research demonstrates that the relationship between green space and increased health outcomes is particularly strong for individuals from lower socioeconomic statuses.   In large cities, elderly, youth, and those whose highest level of education was secondary benefitted most from living near green space.
Research regarding the mental health benefits of green space is emerging.  It is widely accepted in current Western culture that stress is ubiquitous.  However, when a person is exposed to high levels of stress for long periods of time, the resulting toxic stress can wreak havoc on the body and result in negative health outcomes. Previous research demonstrates that the quantity of green space in a person’s living environment is linked to stress on the biological level.  Individuals with less green space exhibited higher cortisol levels, an indicator of stress, than individuals who lived in greener environments.

Partnerships for Prosperous Green Spaces
Partnerships, especially between public health and city and regional planning practitioners, are crucial to the work of health equity.   Ultimately, successful large-scale green space initiatives require investment from commercial, philanthropic, and government organizations.
High Line Park in Manhattan’s West Side exemplifies a successful, large-scale, public-private investment.  Friends of the High Line, the conservation group that organized to save the old High Line railway, agreed from the start to pay the entire cost of operations of the park.  In turn, the City of New York paid most of the construction costs for the park. Today, the park attracts over 3 million visitors per year and provides a unique and aesthetically pleasing landscape for residents and visitors alike to get their daily dose of green space.

High Line Park in New York City. Photo Credit: David Berkowitz, CC BY 2.0,

Problems with the Popularity of Green Space
Admittedly, a multitude of factors contribute to the impacts that access to green space has on individual health outcomes.  For example, residents who work odd hours or multiple jobs may not benefit as much from access to green space, since they are unable to utilize such spaces during daytime hours or have other priorities that take precedence.  
Little research has been done on the effects of urban green space, which is traditionally built in blighted areas that have not been developed because of their high poverty rates and lack of surrounding attractions.  How do residents interact with visitors to parks and green space built in low-income areas? Do residents have a voice in the building of such parks, which will not only literally change the landscape of the neighborhood, but create a gentrifying force that attracts trendy restaurants, rising property taxes, and increased traffic to the place they call home.

How Can Planners Participate in the Green Space Movement?
Ultimately, green space serves as a unifying force, fostering social health and understanding amongst individuals who might not otherwise interact.  It provides a place to reflect, relax, and mentally recharge. The effects of green space on physical, mental, and social health are often overlooked.
Planners’ participation in the creation and conservation of green space requires advocating for and educating others about the benefits of green space, particularly for marginalized populations.  Green space should be viewed not as a luxury or architectural aesthetic, but as a necessity. While preserving and maintaining green space, and particularly parks, is likely more expensive and less profitable than razing the land for an asphalt parking lot or strip mall development, the health benefits truly do add up.   

Photo Credit: Pixabay, Creative Commons.

About the Author: Anna Patterson is a first-year dual degree master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning and the Department of Health Behavior. Her scholarly interests include health and the built environment, vulnerable populations, and community development. Prior to coming to UNC, Anna worked as a program officer for a health foundation in Alamance County, NC.  She likes American folk music, slalom water skiing, and hikes along the Haw River.