A dear friend from out of town came to stay with me for a few days. While she was here we did lots of running around; I wanted her to experience what I loved about my new home. As she was ready to leave, she told me that she could see why I loved it here because “everyone was so friendly.”
My first response to that was that it’s a college town filled with students and lots of unique people. As soon as the words came out of my mouth I realized that they weren’t totally the answer. We had lived in other college towns before and they definitely weren’t the relaxed, friendly place that this is. I knew it wasn’t the climate — our weather can be downright nasty. We aren’t surrounded by unlimited recreation opportunities and we aren’t a town of great, unlimited wealth. So, what makes the difference? Why is there an overwhelming feeling of contentment here?
A few days later as I was again running errands, the answer hit me full force. Compared to other towns and cities we have lived in, this place has a myriad of green space available to all of its citizens. No matter what part of town you are in, there are well designed and maintained parks, lakes, walking trails, biking trails, playgrounds and plantings of trees, shrubs and flowers to enjoy. There are community gardens and areas to gather and picnic. The focus is on enviroscaping, or integrating green space into the daily life of the community. Having seen the results firsthand, it seems to me that this philosophy of urban design not only provides a multitude of wellness benefits for individuals, but also gives critical environmental and economic advantages which enhance the entire community as well, making it a satisfying place to live.
Cultivating broad swaths of large trees and shrubs throughout our communities helps to improve the quality of air we breathe both outdoors and indoors. It is well documented that green plants, especially trees and shrubs, absorb air borne carbon dioxide and release oxygen which humans then use to convert nutrients into energy. What is often overlooked though, is that the leaves of plants also absorb particulate matter that causes pollution. According to treehugger.com a study in the UK showed that a stand of silver birches planted in front of a group of houses trapped metallic particles thought to be from the combustion and brake wear of vehicles passing by the houses. In addition, the stand of trees significantly reduced the amount of dust seeping inside the buildings contributing to a healthier indoor environment. Existing research studies show that by reducing air borne particulate, matter lung development and function, especially for children, improve, thus reducing the health related costs.
In addition to their contribution to air quality, green spaces are also key in controlling energy costs. We know that trees and shrubs strategically selected and placed around buildings lower the temperature of the walls by blocking the sun’s rays and thus reduce cooling costs up to 20%. As an unforeseen benefit, green spaces play a role in cooling the heat-islands common in urban areas, making pedestrians feel more comfortable and reducing the need for heat-caused street repairs. In the winter months, evergreens planted as windbreaks reduce heating costs 30% and provide pedestrians shelter from the elements.
Green spaces in urban areas are important for noise control. The human ear is comfortable at about 50 – 60 decibels. A quiet urban area may average 45 -60 decibels, while a high traffic area can average between 70 and 100 decibels. Eight hours or more of 80 decibels and above can cause hearing damage. Appropriate plantings can muffle up to 40% of urban noise, creating safer and more peaceful environments in which to live and work.
Reduction of urban glare however, is an even more critical aspect to consider as the intense brightness and contrast from building materials such as steel, glass, and concrete can at the least cause distraction to drivers and at the greatest can cause damage to the eyes, especially to young children and aging adults. Up to 90% of glare can be eliminated through the judicious use of vegetation, resulting in safer streets and safeguarding our eyesight.
Over the past seven years, the urban population of the United States has increased by 12%. Currently 250,000,000 people, or 81% of the population, make their homes in less than 5% of the total U.S. land area. Our average urban population density is 2,534 people per square mile and forecasters expect that to continue to increase. As our living spaces become even more crowded, maintaining existing green spaces and adding new ones will be a necessity rather than a nicety in maintaining a high quality of life for ourselves and for generations to come.