Green Infrastructure; a path towards Healthier Cities
Figure 1: São Paulo (Brazil) and Tampere (Finland)
Health is the condition of being physically, mentally, and socially fit. (WHO,2022) . Designers and planners can play a vital role in encouraging people to maintain healthy lifestyles by including green infrastructure (GI) in city design. GI combines green space- trees, forests, etc.- and blue space- waterways, lakes, etc (Townshend 2022). In this article, I focus on the importance of incorporating GI in the design of our cities and how this has a positive impact on an individual’s physical condition in particular.
The 1880s saw an early consideration of health in city design evidenced by Ebenezer Howard’s garden city proposal (Townshend, 2022). This scheme championed the use of green spaces and infrastructure to encourage healthy living including the use of exercise hence boosting individual physical health.
However, the International Congresses for Modern Architecture (CIAM), a movement led by Le Corbusier in the 1990s developed a different city planning scheme. Different areas joined by highways were marked to cater to people’s particular demands (Townshend, 2022). Cities were designed to favor cars creating limited or zero space for green infrastructure. This also increased air contamination from car fumes that contributed to poor health and routine illnesses, a similar situation that we observe today. (Townshend, 2022)
Today, there is a large division between ourselves and nature which is a different approach to city design of historical times (Townshend, 2022). With growing urbanization and increasing demand to build cities, designers and planners may have disregarded GI in favor of highway systems and large building developments. However, people’s desire to access basic needs cannot be ignored according to the Biophilia theory (Figure 2). Therefore, city ponds and green areas can easily reminisce such requirements to suit human needs.
Figure 2: Environmental triggers of Biophilia
GI can help promote healthy lifestyles in different ways. Firstly, it encourages human interaction. Investigations have proven that easily accessible gardens or parks can encourage community members to interact with each other. Human interaction enhances the social well-being of an individual.
Secondly, natural environments are considered to be a source of healing. Studies have shown that nature can boost healing from exhaustion, reduce tension and enhance individual mental well-being. Individuals living in natural surroundings over a long period of time also develop an unconscious optimistic response to its scenery (Coutts 2016) which is beneficial to their health.
Let me now focus on the impact of GI on physical health for the rest of this article. I will look at studies that show a connection between nature and physical health and use Oslo which held the 2019 European Green Capital title (European Commission, 2019) as an exemplary green city.
Green spaces promote physical training (Catherine 2010). Over the years, more and more people have taken to exercises encouraged by green spaces. This prevents them from becoming obese (Catherine 2010). In doing so, by keeping individuals active and through the consumption of clean air, GIs are a factor in reducing the risk of getting heart diseases.
A study in Lithuania revealed a significant connection between the intensive usage of parks and less chance of getting heart disease (Schaumburg 2020). However, this investigation showed that proximity to community gardens or parks had a minimal effect on heart disease (Schaumburg 2020). Another study in Lithuania revealed that strolling in green environments creates a lower risk of heart disease than strolling on urban sidewalks. Therefore, GI is necessary for maintaining good physical health in individuals.
Case study: Oslo
The local authorities in Oslo aim to ensure easy accessibility to green environments for all in the city of Oslo. This will be attained through creating parks in the city, open-air leisure, inlets and islets, city farming, and the well-being of wildlife (Schaumburg, 2020). It is the hope that access to green and blue spaces will boost the health of individuals in the city.
Figure 3: The urban farming community at Losæter with the Bjørvika Barcode office buildings in the background
Figure 4: A scenic urban garden with the Oslo Plaza looming in the background
In addition, Oslo’s Urban Ecology Programme for 2011-2016 ensures that GI takes precedence over increasing the density of people in the city. Its various wildlife features, the Grorud Valley in particular, as well as open-air leisure activities have superiority to encourage sustainability (Schaumburg, 2020). Therefore, people are encouraged to visit green spaces to maintain healthy lifestyles due to easy access.
Though there are no explicit connections between Oslo’s GI’s design principles and health, designers in other cities can adapt their methods to create healthier environments for their people. (Schaumburg, 2020)
The inclusion of GI in city plans by designers can have a significant impact on the health of individuals in cities and minimize the risk of routine illnesses. As a result, pressure and public expenditure on healthcare systems can be reduced significantly. It is also important to note that the availability, size, access, and nature of GI play a large role in its use. The Covid-19 pandemic showed an increasing desire for people to use green space. Lockdown made social interaction, physical exercise, and relaxation incredibly difficult as people were confined in their houses and yet still, not many have private gardens. Therefore, designers should place GI at the heart of city plans to encourage healthy lifestyles, especially in periods of uncertainty.
List of Figures
Figure 1: https://www.sustaineurope.com/oslo-european-green-capital-2019-20191023.html
Figure 2: https://www.naava.io/editorial/biophilia-love-of-life
Figure 3: https://www.sustaineurope.com/oslo-european-green-capital-2019-20191023.html
Figure 4: https://www.sustaineurope.com/oslo-european-green-capital-2019-20191023.html
Coutts, C. (2016) Green infrastructure and public health.
Eric Andreas Helsem Schaumburg, Green Infrastructure: A Nature and Health Perspective for the Municipality of Oslo, 2020
European Commission (2019). Oslo Green Capital Final report [Accessed 30 November 2022]. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/europeangreencapital/wp-content/uploads/2020/Oslo_European_Green_Capital_2019_final_report.pdf
Townshend. (2022). Healthy cities? : design for well-being.
Ward Thompson, C., Aspinall, P. & Bell, S. (2010) Innovative approaches to researching landscape and health : open space: people space 2. New York: Routledge.
World Health Organisation (2022) [Accessed on 30 November 2022] Available at :https://www.who.int/about/governance/constitution
Thanks for the interesting text about the relationship between physical health and nature. I enjoyed reading your post. And I agree with the importance of Green Infrastructure. Also, it was good to know about the Oslo case study.
I would like to talk about more mental health because you mentioned more physical health. I do agree that nature gives a positive impact in terms of physical and mental health as we experienced isolation and lockdown during the pandemic by Covid. During that period, most people were not allowed to have social interaction in person and were limited to going outside. Accordingly, In the early days, many people experienced stress, and some complained of depression and loneliness (Pietrabissa and Simpson, 2020). According to the ‘Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic’ research programme, spending time outdoors was the main factor to reduce the stress of the pandemic (Mental Health Foundation, 2021). We could see some people with a yard at home found psychological stability by communicating with the external natural environment from the plants in the yard, and others moved toward relieving stress through outdoor activities that can do in nature such as camping, hiking, or walking in a park. In addition, nature not only has the power to raise positive emotions and individual resilience but also enhances concentration, learning, problem-solving, critical thinking capacity, and creativity (Government of South Australia, 2021). Especially, some species of plants such as oak and pine trees produce phytoncides, which are volatile organic compounds or essential oils by trees to protect themselves from germs and parasites, it has the effect of relieving stress, strengthening cardiopulmonary functions, and sterilization and purifying the air (New York State, n.d.). Therefore, I also think nature took part as a major factor that helped us to overcome the depressive situation, nature in the urban environment should be offered more and carefully designed in the public realm.
Government of South Australia (2021) Nature and Mental Health Promotion: Why spending time in nature is good for you. Healthy Parks Healthy People South Australia 2016-2021 Report.
Mental Health Foundation (2021) Nature: How connecting with nature benefits our mental health. Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 Report. Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/research/nature-how-connecting-nature-benefits-our-mental-health (Accessed: 05 December 2022).
New Yotk State (n.d.) Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health. Available at: https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html (Accessed: 05 December 2022).
Pietrabissa G and Simpson SG (2020) Psychological Consequences of Social Isolation During COVID-19 Outbreak. Front. Psychol. 11:2201. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.02201.