Restoring green to a city’s concrete hardscape
by Deborah Marton
APR. 24, 2016
Americans’ personal connection to the environment, which the founders of Earth Day hoped to restore nearly 50 years ago, is all but lost.
Today 80% of American families live in urban areas, the vast majority of which are densely populated and defined by concrete. There are no open vistas, unobstructed night skies or untouched forests.
So when people celebrated Earth Day on April 22, they should not only have reflected on how humans connect with the natural environment, but also with the built environment where many Americans actually live.
Americans have favored cars and buildings over trees and pedestrian zones, and the health of U.S. communities is suffering as a result. Traffic congestion, polluted air, vacant lots, asphalt parks – this is the environment that confronts millions of people every day as they go to school or work. This landscape, devoid of nature, has been directly tied to high U.S. rates of asthma, diabetes, obesity and other serious health problems.
Last year, President Barack Obama announced an effort to send 1 million fourth-grade children from low-income areas to national parks. This effort should be encouraged. But it also shows how few neighborhood parks are available to many Americans, especially in low-income communities. The question is: What is being done to create green spaces where those fourth graders live?
The sad answer: Not enough. The days when landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead won prizes for sculpting parks into American cities – as he did with Central Park in New York City and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York – are long gone. America needs to find new ways of weaving nature back into the fabric of urban lives.
As a starting point, U.S policy makers and community leaders should agree that all Americans deserve access to serene and beautiful public spaces near their homes. A growing body of scientific research shows that connection to nature has tangible, positive benefits on people’s health and the economy. When people have access to parks, they breathe cleaner air. When people have trees to look at, they feel less stress and can recover faster from illness. Even photos of trees have been shown to make us feel better.
When cities scale up, more benefits accrue. Walkable neighborhoods with vibrant public spaces have been shown to bind communities closer together and to enable people to live longer. Large-scale investment in trees in a city cuts carbon emissions and can save money.
Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that municipalities are starting to embrace environmentally sustainable planning. Last fall, New York City, along with the New York Restoration Project, the nonprofit organization I lead that was founded by actress Bette Midler, reached its ambitious goal of planting 1 million trees. New trees are now growing in parks, gardens, business districts, medical centers, along sidewalks and more, under the leadership of Midler and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
This goal was attainable in part because it included the largest tree-giveaway program in the United States. Our group gave trees to families in neighborhoods that were starved for them, which supplemented the work of thousands of volunteers and New York City Parks Department staff already planting trees along barren streets, in school yards and public housing complexes. Funding was crucial to the program’s success. It required private and public support, as well as help from many city administrations.
Boston, Los Angeles and London have undertaken similar projects. These cities also understand that green, livable cities help people lead more healthy, productive and even happier lives. New York and other cities have initiatives to help turn hundreds of vacant lots into community gardens and other functional spaces – reinventing how city dwellers relate to their environment.
One exciting benefit of these urban greening efforts is that they bring people together. In the South Bronx, for example, local residents are helping lead a new effort, called the Haven Project, to turn a neighborhood composed of asphalt parks, treacherous walkways and traffic congestion into a people-friendly hub with gardens, urban forests and water access. Residents came together and a scalable model is now in progress; the model tracks everything from traffic safety to asthma rates and obesity.
This South Bronx effort is critical for another reason: Low-income workers disproportionately live in unhealthy urban environments. In the South Bronx, for example, asthma rates are 50 percent higher than the New York City average and seven out of 10 residents are overweight or obese.
That is one reason why urban greening programs are popping up around the country, like the LA River Project and Denver’s bike lanes. Local and federal leaders must make green investments that support communities and their environments. Yet, proposed budget cuts for 2017 could imperil these positive trends.
As Earth Day’s founders look to a new generation to rethink how we use energy and tend to our environment, all need to remember the realities of how people actually connect to nature, particularly low-income Americans. Sometimes improvements might be as simple as planting and harvesting tomatoes in a community garden down the block – on that street corner that used to be an abandoned lot right next to a thriving shade tree that didn’t exist five years ago.