Why inner-city parks are important

I had a day off recently and decided to go for a walk with my mom.

As you already know, I live in a big city in Poland and while there are some trees around offering shade and a splash of green, it’s mostly a brick and concrete jungle. My apartment building is close to the city center, so no matter where I walk, I have to endure busy city streets, and the air near them leaves something to be desired.

Thankfully, I have two city parks within 20 minute walks from me (not the closest, but I’ll take it). They are both big, with lots of trees and benches to sit on. We decided to go to the less popular one, which has fewer tourists in general and is further away from the city center.

It was like entering an entirely different realm. The noise was gone. I couldn’t hear cars or trams. The air had a different, nicer taste to it.

And I saw four different squirrels in the span of 30 minutes. It was really amazing.

During that trip, I was struck by the fact that when new buildings are being planned, no (or very little) attention is being paid to leaving space for parks like the one I have nearby. Sure there are a couple of obligatory trees planted, but nothing that would take the valuable real estate and limit the profit bringing potential.

Part of me hopes that one of the outcomes of this pandemic will be people attaching more value to inner-city parks and, as a result, more developers will add them to their development plans. As Guardian writer Gaby Hinsliff pointed out in her piece:

“One of the few things to emerge with any clarity from muddled government messages about the next phase is that the outdoors will become much more important to us, because that’s where the first signs of normal life will return. Talk of being allowed to sunbathe in parks, have picnics or go rambling may sound Enid Blyton-esque but outside may be the best place for the anxious to be, and not just in a pandemic. Research repeatedly shows that being close to the wild makes people feel healthier and happier.”

In fact, according to a survey conducted by the American Public Health Association, 75% of adults believe parks and recreation must play an important role in addressing America’s obesity crisis. And they’re not wrong. It’s so much more pleasant to walk, run, and play when surrounded by trees and grass. Walking your dog, and having a picnic with your family isn’t something you’re looking forward to when all you’ll be surrounded by is buildings and sidewalks. Inner parks can help with both your physical and mental health. A study by Finnish researchers found that even ten minutes in a park or urban woodland area could tangibly reduce stress.

Aside from their impact on individuals, inner-city parks also impact the communities they’re in. Green Ribbon points out: “Increasing the number of parks and recreational facilities in a neighborhood also reduces crime rates, especially among youth. By giving young people a safe place to interact with one another they keep them off the streets and out of trouble. For example, many American communities have created “Midnight Basketball” programs, keeping courts open late and drastically reducing their youth crime rates. Similarly, when parks are used by many people, there are more eyes on the street, creating a safer environment for everyone.”

Not every park is equipped to host Shakespeare in the Park or bigger events, but almost every one of them can accommodate smaller programs for the kids, stuck in the city for the Summer. And while not every park has the potential of Central Park in NYC, it should be obvious what a draw they can be on tourism.

Sure, right now, those might not sound like good arguments, given the restrictions everybody’s under during the pandemic, but it doesn’t change the fact:

We need more inner-city parks, not less.

For those of you still on the fence, let’s talk about the environment.

The more buildings we create, the more space we take away from animals. Animals like those squirrels I saw in the park. Because that’s exactly where those displaced animals escape to inner-city parks. We’re talking squirrels, hedgehogs, and other critters. While it’s not their stated purpose, city parks create small ecosystems that offer refuge to animals that our urban development kills.

If we fill all our surroundings with concrete, we also take away shade, allowing concrete to soak up the sun and heat. Have you ever wondered why it’s so much hotter in the cities? It’s called the urban heat island effect. It can be virtually eliminated from cities through a combination of increased park space and green roofs. Strategic planting of trees and vegetation—this means letting the branches hang over the sidewalk—can reduce summer temperatures by 1-5ºC.

Parks can also help with stormwater collection. Trees and grass are much more efficient at collecting water through the unpaved ground. Not to mention it’s way cheaper than concrete storm drains. And given how crazy the weather has been over the past several years, it might be a good idea to invest in trees.

And finally, I want to put things in perspective for you. One of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” (it’s Goal 11, for those interested). Part of that goal is lowering the air pollution in the cities – an incredibly important aim if you consider that in 2016 4.2 million premature deaths were caused by it. One way to help with that is ensuring cities have well-functioning public transport schemes. According to data from 2019, only half of the world’s population has convenient access to public transport.

While public transport is an active way to limit the number of cars on our roads (a lot of people are like me – unwilling to buy a car because everything can be reached by public transport), planting more trees in our cities can affect air pollution as well. Plants can actively clean the air, helping us lower the carbon footprint the cities have. According to Green Ribbon, “even a small increase in the number of city parks or their size can make a big difference when it comes to air pollution. In Atlanta, a U.S. city renowned for its lack of green space—though they are actively working to change that reputation—trees remove 19 million pounds of pollutants each year, a service that would cost $47 million if done by a company.”

There are all kinds of advantages to having more inner-city parks. We need to push our local governments to actively demand developers include more trees and green spaces in their development plans. But we also need to ensure the city councils don’t sell the public-owned land for urban development if the land is already used as a park. Look into how city planning is done and approved in your community and get active in your local government.

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