If you’re like me, even a short summer getaway from the city, like to the mountains or shore, helps to calm your mind and strengthen your heart. Imagine if our cities were more like the natural places we visit–what beneficial impact could this have on our health? This question has special importance as it pertains to lower-income city-dwellers who can’t afford to escape to a quieter place.
The rapid growth and redevelopment sweeping U.S. cities has renewed interest in the impact of urban design on public health, including mental well-being. Spurred by important new research, many health experts are calling for greener, more livable cities to foster happier, healthier people.
To appreciate the role of city design on health, think about the last time you got sick. Often illness occurs at a stressful time, when work and family pressures cascade to cause a weakening of physical defenses.
Now think about the environment of our cities, with rampant noise, exposure to pollutants, and other stressors. Of equal concern, our city environments too often lack trees and other calming greenspaces that have been shown to improve our mental health and sense of physical well-being.
Urban living is most stressful for low-income people, whose neighborhoods are less likely to include trees and other natural features, and more likely to experience extreme heat, flooding, excess noise and pollution from industrial operations, and the visual blight of boarded-up buildings and trash.
All of this comes at a cost to health. When stresses come too fast and frequently, our bodies and minds fall into a depleted state and vulnerable to poor health. New research on the impact of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” reinforces this relationship between stressful experiences and our health, particularly for children.
So what can we do? A serious strategy for health equity in America must include a massive, nationwide commitment to greening our cities–starting with low-income neighborhoods where health-damaging stresses are worst.
Creating green neighborhoods won’t just address mental health. Shade trees and other greenspaces also directly lessen environmental health hazards like urban heat islands, caused when asphalt and other built surfaces create an oven-like effect on hot days. If left unaddressed, heat islands put residents of these high heat areas at greater health risk.
Health-promoting cities also need transportation options that increase exercise and fitness, like protected bike lanes, safe biking and walking trails, bike-share programs, and public transit that links to these walk-bike networks. These kinds of high-quality and diverse transit alternatives are often concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods but should be available to all.
So what can we do? Too often our society views parks and other green features as a luxury for civic investment. Given their importance–including for health–we need to make city greening a priority. Every neighborhood should include beautiful parks, greenways, and other outdoor spaces where people can build physical and mental health. By providing places for neighbors to gather, these places also promote community health.
Here are great examples from Chicago and Los Angeles showing how we can turn urban blight like abandoned rail lines and trash-strewn alleys into healthier neighborhoods. Foundations understand the importance of this work, as illustrated by Civic Commons, an exciting new $40 million effort that is one of many public and private initiatives intended to foster urban greening nationally.
We cannot underestimate the challenge ahead. The creation of green neighborhoods requires sophisticated siting analysis using computer mapping tools to assure that we make investment in the highest need locations. Next-generation design is also critical to create “smart parks” and other high-impact greenspace that meets multiple needs. Once we create this vision, the required scale of investment will be in the trillions of dollars.
The potential economic payback in improved public health would be immense. For example, one study in Denmark found health benefits for bicycle commuting far beyond calories burned in the saddle. Bike commuters also ate healthier diets and felt less stress at work, among other positive effects. If we could make biking transportation fully safe and accessible in our cities, the health impacts would be immense.
But the imperative behind this work is moral as well as financial. A person’s ability to enjoy a healthy life should not be predetermined by where he or she can afford to live. It is time to spread green more completely and equitably through our cities. Everyone deserves to live in a green neighborhood that supports a calm mind and healthy heart.
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