City Lungs, Not Just ‘Nice To Have’

Have you ever wished every place you call home had the same green feel? I do, every day. Born in Africa’s ‘Green City in the Sun’, Nairobi, now I live a continent away in Dusseldorf where I walk and bike through my city almost every day. There are about 4 public green spaces within short distance of my home. I live in a city in a mostly industrial region, and the air feels clean. Sure, there is pollen carpeting everything from the rich, and late-to-arrival spring and summer. However, what we have, and respect here, is a deliberate action taken by the city to preserve the air quality for everyone.

The biggest issue I have come across – sitting in a summer heatwave, is thinking about people who cannot afford to be indoors, people who cannot afford cooling devices like AC units, and who have no green space to think of. People like the Black and Brown residents of Washington DC featured in this WaPo article who just dont want to die because it is too hot and there are no more trees.

Many living in cities with more dedicated green space enjoy psychological relaxation and stress reduction, enhanced physical activity and a potential reduction in exposure to urban stress factors – air pollution, noise and excessive heat. – WHO, 2016

Many who do not have these green spaces are overall unable to enjoy these benefits.

When I was growing up in Nairobi, the best green spaces were Uhuru Park, Uhuru Gardens and Jeevanjee Gardens. City Park was the closest to my school and often teeming with cute monkeys, and further north of my school was Karura Forest. Constant Cap, whose African City Planner blog just won the Best Environmental Blog award during the BAKE Kenya 2019 Awards notes that the open space is often unavailable to Nairobi City residents. Not too long ago, he reflected on the grabbing of open space land by unscrupulous individuals as a key reason why many Nairobians do not have access to viable green spaces, as they are often fenced off to become less attractive to land grabbers.

Closer to where I stay now, small yet significant changemakers are making their cities budget for green spaces.

Green spaces make iconic cities even more attractive. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced this month via Le Parisien, that the city will plant a small urban forest in Paris itself.

It is our duty to transform our City and do it without wasting time. The transformations are spectacular. They sometimes create polemics. But everyone recognizes that it is essential to embark Paris, historic and mineral city, in the ecological transition. We must both adapt to climate change and respect heritage. It is a radical transformation. That’s the challenge

Mayor Anne Hidalgo as told to Le Parisien, 13.6.19 Translated

Well, then. If urban green spaces are less and less accessible to the public, one can only hope that the city gardens that remain create a better environment for those cities, and provide sanctuary to all sizes of wildlife. At the start of the year, Nature published a study noting that city gardens are increasingly important for bees and other pollinators. Like these pollinators, I too love the flower filled branches and the weeds some parks allow to grow.

However, even cities with plenty of green space can have significant health risk from air pollution. Here, where a good portion of all cars run on diesel, the air quality harm from particulate matter pollution remains a big concern even in cities like Dusseldorf. Today is a moderate day with a score of 75 AQI here. The main pollutant, though, is 03, formed when Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) from diesel cars combines with other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight. Green spaces have been shown to help mitigate the effects of particulate matter (such as NOx) on the health and hospitalization of older people – a finding which can hopefully be replicated for other age groups.

Green spaces are a big health boost against growing social isolation. A University of Waterloo study on the interactivity people have in green spaces in Vancouver measured, analysed and concluded that these spaces promote more social connectivity among people

Let’s remember how great they are for everyone, and not just nice to have.

Do you have a favourite green space? Let me know which one in the comments section below.


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