Spread out greenery means proximity to greenery
Living amongst man-made structures made up of hard edges and a lot of grey can be hard on the soul. We weren’t designed to live this way.
The introduction of greenery into a metropolitan environment has a profound influence on the urbanised human being. Trees and plants soften the impacts of modern life on our brains ― brains that evolved amongst trees and on grassland, and not squished in between a million other people, thousands of noisy cars and endless concrete structures.
Studies showing everything from correlations between street trees and reduced use of antidepressants to tree canopies making people feel safer add some scientific evidence to what most of us know already: trees and flowers are nice. We feel comfortable around them, especially in spring and summer when they are colourful and help enclose spaces with their foliage. A study from Chicago even showed that the presence of greenery can reduce crime in inner city neighbourhoods.
Separate greenery benefits fewer
These facts haven’t escaped us in the past, of course. Cities have parks, and some streets have trees. But very often, streets could do with many more trees, and parks seem to sometimes be a bit of an afterthought. Not weaved into the fabric of the city but instead presenting themselves as discrete units of greenery, entirely separate from the rest of the city.
A good example of this is Central Park in New York. Few New Yorkers can imagine their city without it today. It is the most visited park in the United States — conceived when an ever growing number of 19th century New Yorkers had to resort to the city’s cemeteries to find respite from the chaos and noise of the city streets. The city needed a park proper.
Central Park is rectangular and very large. In fact, you could fit 525 football (soccer) pitches in it. But unless you find yourself in the central part of upper Manhattan, Central Park actually feels quite far away. Good for a Sunday picnic? Absolutely! For a coffee break during the day or just a little temporary peace and quiet and some views of nature? Not so much. The problem simply being, that the park is usually too far away from where you are.
Cities have sprung up this way, of course: Blocks and blocks of buildings getting erected and occasionally making way for a square or a green space — the latter often initially reserved for the king or the wealthy residents of the area.
More planning = more potential for greenery
But these days we have more opportunities. We plan better. We value liveability more in the new urbanism of the 21st century.
In new urban districts we can allow greenery to grow into the fabric of an entire area instead of simply containing it in square blocks. We can start to think of green spaces not simply as building plots left clear of buildings to make way for some greenery.
Green spaces can be planned as veins running through the city — connecting it and spreading vegetation to benefit larger parts of the city.
As a thought experiment, imagine if Central Park had instead been planned as such a green vein. A long park only 1/3 the width of the existing Central Park, but covering the exact same area as now, would be long enough to span most of Manhattan ― and there would still be enough square metres (or feet) left over to let the park do a few twists and turns to create some extra interest.
The park would suddenly be “available” all over Manhattan and offer green vistas from several of the streets running through mid and southern Manhattan too. New York City would feel less ‘harsh’ than it sometimes does today — greenery would often be seen, and always be close. The vein would also create a mental connectedness between areas and between people.
Green in old
Knocking down a few hundred skyscrapers to make way for a new Central Park doesn’t seem very realistic. Green veins are primarily for new districs such as the Nordhavn area in Copenhagen, Denmark. This old industrial port is now being completely redeveloped to house 40,000 people as well as 40,000 office spaces in the future. It has the potential to weave greenery into itself in a more organic manner than traditional ‘plot planning’ does.
But also in existing cities we have the opportunity to introduce more greenery through a bit of creative thinking. ‘Pocket parks’ are already becoming popular ― miniature parks put up wherever the fabric of the city allows them to: On an old parking lot, where a demolished building used to stand or just a little corner of the city that was never really put to use before. New York has actually been one of the pioneers in this work, possibly in the realisation that Central Park very often is just too far away.
The pocket parks allow you to pause and breathe as well as supply you with more frequent views of greenery as you move about the city ― even if you don’t have time to stop in them.
The aim is proximity, of course. Big parks, like London’s Hyde Park, are great. But the liveable city needs to bring more greenery to people ― not demand that people seek it out.
If we can’t demolish buildings to make way for greenery, then maybe we can add greenery to the buildings. One option is communal gardens on roof tops such as this one in Copenhagen:
Aproximately 400 euro a year will get you a little plot of roof-top-land where you can grow your own vegetables. People on the street below, of course, can only see tops of plants peeping up above the roof edge. But add gardens to several buildings and you suddenly have a lot of green peeping.
Or we can build Bosci Verticale (vertical forests) like in Milan: adding greenery not only on the top of a building but also on the walls of it.
The 3 to 6 metre tall trees on the buildings help to moderate temperatures within the building as well as combat city smog outside it. And, of course, give people below the joy of looking at greenery.
Greenery on empty plots, on top of buildings and on the walls of buildings. And trees on streets. Proximity to greenery can be achived in may ways.
On a greater scale, it can also be achieved with some creative uses of disused infrastructure. Paris was the first city to convert a disused stretch of elevated train tracks into a park. New York followed with their High Line which has become an immensiely popular green boardwalk ― not surprising as there are more than 30 blocks up to Central Park from there.
About 4 million people use the 2.3 kilometre long High Line in a year. That’s more than 10,000 on an average day. Curiously, the other day I picked up a book at our local library here in Copenhagen to read to my 6-year old daughter. It was called “The Curious Garden” and was about a little boy who transforms an entire concrete city, starting with nurturing wild plants left to grow on top of a disused railway structure. It instantly made me think of the High Line.
Turns out that the story written by Peter Brown was actually inspired by The High Line in New York. And there I found myself passing on its visions of an entirely green city to my young daughter ― thousands of miles away from New York. She loved it.
A very long vain
Possibly the best example of making greenery a true presence in a city comes from Valencia in Spain.
The river Turia, that runs through Spain’s third largest city, for centuries had a tendency to overflow ― causing severe flooding in the city. In the 1950s the citizens had finally had enough and diverted the river around Valencia instead of letting it run through it.
This left them with several kilometres of barren, drained land in the heart of the city. For about 25 years it was just left sitting there even though, along the way, General Franco backed a proposal to turn it into a motorway.
Thankfully, ultra-modernism lost this battle and instead, in the 1980s, ideas for a new urban park began to take root.
Now, in 2015, the park ― the Turia Gardens ― has finally been completed. It took a while as the park is no less than 9 kilometres long and is far from just a stretch of green grass with a few trees on it.
The Turia Gardens are home to hundreds of tree types, including palm trees and orange tree groves, thousands of flowers, playgrounds, football pitches, baseball pitches, cafés, fountains and much more — including the architectural extravaganza of ‘The City of Arts and Sciences’ in one end, designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava.
And as it is not contained on a square plot of land, but runs like a vein through the entire centre of the city, it truly becomes a presence of greenery. “It has transformed the city,” as a Valencian told me when I lived there between 2012 and 2014.
Most 21st century urban planning bodies realize the value of greenery in cities. What is not truly appreciated yet is just how important proximity to greenery is.
Having trees line streets all over a city brings happiness-inducing greenery into your everyday life. According to the biophilia hypothesis you have an instinctive bond with other living things — including plants. Being closer to them makes you feel more content, more at peace. Numerous studies have shown everything from hospital patients getting well quicker when having a green view, to higher levels of work satisfaction when using a nature photograph as a desktop wallpaper.
Injecting a city with greenery will expose people to these effects simply when they move about town. Greenery incorporated into the fabric of a city becomes a natural presence that benefits life quality as well as pollution levels.
Plants shouldn’t be an afterthought, something added to something else. Plants need to be thought of as an urban ingredient just as buildings and streets.
Plants should be close to us.