Green Equity Health
During the hot summer months, public green spaces and parks provide urban residents places to cool off and relax. In her research urban ecologist, Nadja Kabisch, examines these public open spaces. Not all urban citizens have accessible parks in their immediate neighborhoods. Green spaces are unevenly spread throughout the city- not just in the city of Leipzig, but in Berlin as well.
In late March 2020, the first lockdown and curfew regulations came into action in major German cities. In Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg and Cologne the same scenario became apparent: empty city centers, pedestrian zones and shopping malls – rather more people were seen strolling around in parks and green spaces. At that time, people living in the immediate proximity of parks were particularly fortunate. “We were able to observe how important green spaces are (for the urban population),” explains Nadja Kabish. She researches the importance of green spaces in city-contexts: both for the climate and for the well-being of its inhabitants.
Climate Change and Urbanization strain the urban environment
Kabisch emphasizes that, “living in the city is not necessarily bad per se”. For the most part, cities offer more extensive recreational and educational opportunities, we well as better health care and infrastructure, than the urban hinterland, she continues. “However, living in the city is linked to environmental stress, involving high air-pollution levels, traffic noise, high summer-temperatures, as well as mental and physical stress, caused by social density or isolation”. Now, all of this puts a strain on the peoples’ health in cities. In recent years, living conditions in major cities have increasingly worsen. Climate Change is causing extended droughts and more hot days, where temperatures rise above 30 degrees. Influx of the population into the city districts leaves urban areas more crowded while closely spaced. In this regard, parks, green spaces, rivers and ponds, along with community gardens and allotments, may contribute to city-stress-relieve. “These “blues” and “greens” in city environments enhance and foster residents’ health, especially when they are within walking distance,” Kabisch notes.
“Even a quick 20-30 minute walk reduces stress-levels and boosts concentration (paper.)“
Both new and old parks are places to cool off
Leipzig is among the booming cities in Germany: Between 2011 and 2019, its population rose by 16 percent to 593,000 inhabitants. Thus, the state capitol of Saxony is outpacing the national capitol, Berlin. In the BMBF-funded project „GreenEquityHealth“ Nadja Kabisch and her team have researched the usage and benefits of public green recreational areas - drawing on the example of two city-Parks in Leipzig. The researched data was collected during hot summer months between 2018 and 2019 and included information on the climate in the parks, the visitors’ activities and well-being, as well as overall health. “Temperatures in ‘Friedenspark’, with its ancient tree population, were up to 5 degrees lower compared to the adjoining streets”, Kabisch explains. Indeed, the vegetation in the park both evaporates water and provides shade, thus causing aforesaid “cooling-effect”. By comparison, the “Lene-Voigt-Park” provides significantly less cooling-down-opportunities, which can be explained by it being an artificially created park featuring many clear, open areas. Nevertheless, the park, built upon the site of a former railroad station, emits more heat at night, allowing adjoint residential buildings to cool down. Said “cooling-effect” is beneficial for both park visitors and adjacent neighborhoods, when temperatures exceed 30 degrees during the days and rarely drop below 20 degrees at night, in summer. Moreover the cardiovascular system, which is often stressed by high temperatures, profits from park-related environmental impacts.
In her study, Kabisch and her team focused on the elderly, who, alongside children and low-income groups, are considered “vulnerable”. Especially seniors suffer from high temperatures during the summer. “Due to their physical or in some cases social capabilities, some elderly city dwellers are less likely to adapt to such exceptional circumstances”, Kabisch explains. According to her research, elders primarily sought out parks to rest and relax. By appreciating the shady areas under the trees, they appreciated the cooling-function of the parks. In addition, park-visits proved to be beneficial to seniors. In Interviews they described an overall positive improvement in their emotional state during park-visits in comparison to strolls along the surrounding, busy streets. Blood pressure and ECG measurements also showed a positive improvement. “Spending time in the park hat a cardiovascular protective effect”, Nadja Kabisch concludes. “The results largely confirmed our hypothseses”.
Greens are a common good, but aren’t accessible to everyone equally
In major cities, green spaces are not equally accessible to all residents. The Berlin Senate Department’s Environmental Atlas shows that only just about half of the population benefits from having good accessibility to parks and public green spaces. In addition, approximately one quarter of the population enjoys average, and 28 percent poor to verry poor access. Thus, more than a quarter of Berlin’s residents do not live near green spaces. In most cases, this lack of access results from high density areas as well as high density of population such as seen in Berlin’s Neukölln and Wedding districts. In Leipzig, residents have less than ten square meters of green urban space per capita on average, which is less than the city government stipulates.
“There’s a connection between the accessibility of urban green spaces and human health”, Kabisch notes. “In this sense, environmental justice refers to the idea that positive environmental effects, so-called ‘environmental goods’, are equally amenable to all urban citizens”. Kabisch emphasizes further, that her research findings remain relevant in a research-context but, more importantly, are of great significands to government agencies and urban planners. Studies like hers allow green-space planning to become increasingly demand-driven, in order for people living in major cities to enjoy their right to green space.
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