Across the globe the realisation is growing that as cities become larger and more dense, so the environment and the well-being of city dwellers are put under increasing pressure. Recent research done by several US universities warns that the explosive growth of cities worldwide over the next two decades poses significant risks to people and the global environment. By 2030 urban areas are expected to expand to an area nearly the size of Mongolia in order to meet the needs of 1.47 billion or more people living in urban areas.
While the modern city may be a place where an array of ideas, sights, sounds and smells intermingle to spawn creativity, expression and innovation, the question has to be asked: “At what cost?”
Frances Kuo and her colleagues at the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory of the University of Illinois, Peter Kahn, a professor at the University of Washington, researchers at the University of Plymouth, and many others, have found direct links between human well-being and natural spaces – and the damaging effects of urban living.
Kahn, a professor at the University of Washington has explored the numbing, even debilitating, aspects of cities that disconnect humans from the natural world. Research shows the emotional and mental strain cities can have on people. Mental illnesses and mood disorders are more common in urban areas, and while many factors share the blame, reduced access to nature is a contributing cause. He says, “As we build bigger cities, we’re not aware how much and how fast we’re undermining our connection to nature, and more wild nature – the wellspring of our existence.” Kahn added that mental illnesses and mood disorders are more common in urban areas, and while many factors share the blame, reduced access to nature is a contributing cause. “There’s an enormous amount of disease largely tied to our removal from the natural environment,” Kahn said.
Frances Kuo has said that without access to grass and trees, we humans are very different creatures. Kuo and her team discovered that people living in buildings near green areas had a stronger sense of community and coped better with everyday stress and hardship. They were less aggressive and less violent, they performed better on tests of concentration, and they managed their problems more effectively. They also felt safer.
Research has demonstrated that urban green spaces and trees yield far-reaching benefits to humans, from increased happiness and health to absorbing surface water run-off and storing carbon. People need to scratch about in the soil, breathe in the scent of plants and flowers, let off steam, and meet other people. For many it’s almost like therapy. There is “Growing research and policy interest in the potential for using the natural environment to enhance human health and well-being. It is thought that contact with the natural environment has a positive impact on health and well-being. Outdoor environmental enhancement and conservation activities include unpaid litter picking, tree planting or path maintenance. It is thought that these offer opportunities for physical activity alongside greater connection with local environments, enhanced social connections within communities, and improved self-esteem, which may, in turn, further improve well-being for the individual.”
Since the late 1990s there has been an explosion of tree planting in cities, together with the increased creation of new parks and public gathering spots—a revolution inspired in part by new science. Research suggests “That spaces filled with leafy vegetation filter pollution and trap tiny particles of dirt and soot: Street trees can reduce airborne particulates from car and bus exhaust. Large groves of trees may have an even more profound green-lung effect for cities, cleansing the air of dangerous chemicals. In Chicago, scientists found that each year trees removed some 234 tons (212 metric tons) of particulates, 98 tons (89 metric tons) of nitrogen dioxide, 93 tons (84 metric tons) of sulphur dioxide, and 17 tons (15 metric tons) of carbon monoxide.”
Peter Kahn has argued that, “It’s more than just introducing nature into urban areas. People must be able to interact with these elements using more of their senses in order to experience physical and psychological benefits of nature, as well as to shift the collective baseline toward better understanding and appreciation of the natural world.”
Cities designed well, with nature in mind and at hand, can be understood as natural, supportive of both ecosystem integrity and public health.
Capetonians have always been extremely fortunate in this regard, we have Table Mountain on our doorstep and as our “back yard” – a natural park in an urban setting. For generations it has been a place for all people to enjoy and should remain that way, particularly given the City’s focus on urban densification. Yet it has been clear from the start that SANParks have limited knowledge in managing an urban park. It is also increasingly apparent that the management strategies of SANParks focus on conservation via commercialisation – to the exclusion of local users, who along with visitors to Cape Town are referred to as “tourists”. While the focus on biodiversity is critical, and one cannot deny the touristic value of TMNP, it cannot be at the cost of limiting the Cape Town community’s access to areas of safe, natural recreation. We may have the benefit of our own urban park, but it appears that we will increasingly be denied that benefit.
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