The path to equitable green cities

Disha Takle

Disha Takle

Disconnection from nature, curtailed biodiversity, and increased exposure to environmental hazards such as air and noise pollution: these are some of the significant problems associated with urbanisation. Green urban spaces can be part of the solution.

A green urban space, quite simply, is any part of urban land partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, and other vegetation. When presented well, these spaces offer cities and their residents many benefits. But planned poorly, they can have detrimental effects on neighbourhoods via gentrification and exclusion, actively harming residents and communities.

How cities get it right

Green urban spaces can provide natural and community spaces to residents. Urban forests in and around cities are known to prevent regional and local flooding from storms, improve water security, aid soil nutrient cycling, and sequester carbon. Trees also play a crucial role in temperature regulation. Cities are typically hotter on average than surrounding land due to the concrete, asphalt and steel which make cities hotter, a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. The same effect occurs at a sub-city scale, according to urban hydrologist Dr Fushcia-Ann Hoover, who studies how trees play an important role in regulating temperatures and air quality at the neighbourhood level.

Urban green spaces benefit communities in many other ways. These spaces are often used for leisure and recreation, which improve the health and wellbeing of residents as well as boosting social integration, mitigating inequalities, and supporting local economies. Such spaces played a key role in promoting wellbeing especially during Covid when parks were one of the few spaces we could visit during the lockdown.

How can poorly planned green spaces be harmful?

While the advantages of urban green spaces are abundant, in order to have a socially equitable impact they need to be planned and distributed in ways that allow all communities and residents to benefit from them. Conversely, poorly built green spaces may increase disparities.

Exclusion is the process which leads to a systemic shortage of opportunities to participate in society. Likewise, exclusion by the public sector involves ways in which local governments intervene in the built and natural environment, specifically through urban planning, zoning, social housing, and transport facilities. In many large cities social housing is placed in undesirable locations with poor infrastructure. This includes a lack of green spaces, more pollution, and poor transport systems.

Exclusion can also be driven by decisions made in the private sector. Green gentrification is a process where environmental planning leads to the exclusion and displacement of politically disenfranchised groups. Environmental improvements brought about by creating green spaces and infrastructure increase the quality of life and the property values of the specific area, fostering an environmental consciousness. But as wealthier residents are attracted to these renovated spaces, vulnerable and dependent groups are priced out and ultimately displaced.

An example of green infrastructure and parks disproportionately impacting poor residents or informal communities is seen in Mumbai, where protecting mangrove forests has led to the eviction of nearby urban settlers. On the other hand, high-end development in mangrove areas continues to take place.

The way forward

Reimagining our green spaces to make them more accessible will need a shift from top-down, compliance-based planning to innovative, engaged planning. Participatory planning emphasises the need to include the entire community in the planning process. Innovative funding and planning models can allow municipalities to share risks with investors, reduce liabilities, spread costs, and adopt more holistic planning models.

Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model can be an inspiration to city planners and commercial developers alike. The doughnut model is a visual framework for sustainable development which aims to operate within planetary and social boundaries. The city of Amsterdam uses this model to scale down and reimagine the city in order to meet the needs of its people without overshooting its ecological limits.

The act of integrating green spaces within the cities can be a crucial aspect of climate action and resilience. But it is important to remind ourselves that these spaces are also homes to many people from differing economic and social backgrounds, facing a multitude of challenges daily. In the interests of environmental and social justice, this is a balancing act we need to get right.

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