Greenspaces

The following map shows various greenspaces in Allegheny County.
In green are larger parks.
Smaller municipality and city parks are in blue.
Cemeteries–mostly large and open cemeteries–are in light green.
Community gardens are marked with a star symbol.
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Greenspaces are incredibly valuable resources for urban, suburban, and rural population centers.  A greenspace–also called an open space or urban greenery–is any lot of land or water conserved indefinitely, usually with minimal development, intended for recreational use or beautification (Feldman 2015).  This includes parks, vegetable gardens, streams and reservoirs, and even cemeteries (with some limitations).  Typically greenspace is open to the public and development is limited to some recreational sport fields, playgrounds, restroom facilities, and picnic shelters; however, greenspace may also simply be a local woodland or prairie with sparse trails and no development (US EPA 2017).

Greenspaces provide numerous benefits for communities regardless of local population density.  These benefits can be broken down into three categories: community health, ecosystem services, and community enrichment.  The benefits of a greenspace often depend on the intended use of a greenspace, although any greenspace may provide at least one or more of these benefits.

Community Health

The obesity epidemic in America is a challenge that faces our society.  Despite the ease and availability of physical exercise programs and healthy diet options, youth and adults often fall victim to unhealthy habits.  Accessibility, safety, and opportunity are the key elements that greenspaces should provide for local residents young and old to experience moderate, regular physical activity.  Playgrounds for children to play on and trails for hiking, biking, or running are simple and popular options to remain active in greenspaces.  The benefits of greenspaces for children are particularly integral to mental, emotional, and physical development (Ward et al. 2016).

Aside from combatting obesity, greenspaces also provide opportunities for respite from stressful situations.  The noise and bustle of a city, or the rage-inducing traffic situations in urban centers can contribute to daily stress from work, home life, or personal trauma.  Mental illness is often overlooked in American society and the elderly are at a particularly high risk for mental illness.  Studies have tentatively supported that physical activity within greenspace can reduce the impact of mental illness (Gavarkovs 2015; Feldman 2015).  Greenspaces additionally provide peaceful places which can contribute to reduced stress levels for any individual.

Ecosystem Services

Not all greenspaces are created equal.  Public lands are often set aside with human interests in mind–sport fields, playgrounds, cemeteries, and community gardens provide recreational opportunities, but may be simple in design with only the main element in mind.  In contrast, nature reserves, nature parks, and wildlife gardens provide areas for wildlife to cultivate and ecosystems to continually develop while relatively undisturbed.  These areas provide some obvious benefits for the community such as beautification, hiking and biking trails, and educational opportunities.  Yet ecosystem services are an underlying benefit of natural greenspaces.  Ecosystem services are broad-ranging, but include erosion control, runoff filtration, urban heat-island abatement, air filtration, and biodiversity maintenance.

Ecosystem services can be provided by design or incidentally when natural environments are conserved from development.  Excessive runoff can be efficiently managed where paved roads and parking lots drain into bioswales and roadside greenways.  Extensive tree canopy cover in small or large conserved woodlands provide shade and cool microclimates that can be.  Tree cover of just 10% can decrease daytime air temperatures by nearly 0.5 °F–so, logically 100% tree cover can reduce air temperature by nearly 5.0 °F (Sugawara et al. 2016).

Community Enrichment

While greenspaces provide benefits that can be assigned some monetary value–reduced healthcare, water treatment, air-conditioning/cooling, and flooding prevention costs–there are underlying benefits that may be difficult to value in dollars.  Imagine gridded asphalt streets lined with brick or concrete buildings with little break from the view of the human environment.  Add street trees, scattered strips of seasonally colored flower gardens, forested slopes and ravines, and/or a tree-lined highway median and the aesthetic value of the community significantly increases.  Aesthetic value can positively influence how people perceive a community, whether they work, live, shop, or play in that community (Ambrey and Fleming 2014).

By developing aesthetics with greenspaces, communities can experience a greater sense of community as residents take time to appreciate their surroundings in greenspaces.  Residents may also become more involved in their community through volunteerism and community activism.  Residents can take ownership of their community in this way, which can lead to secondary benefits such as reduced crime rates, local business development, and healthier environmental conditions.  Community programs such as after-school activities, fitness classes, community appreciation festivals, and open community forums often influence these benefits and further develop community enrichment.  Greenspaces can act as common spaces for these programs.

Conclusion

When considering new development, whether in a densely populated area or suburban expansion, greenspace is an important consideration for designing healthy communities.  The various benefits can outweigh the costs and furthermore, developing and maintaining greenspaces can incur minimal costs depending on the intended recreational use of the area.  Living in Pittsburgh, for example, I have been very appreciative of the various greenspaces in and around the city.  From the manicured plantings and historic urban-scape at Point State Park to the forested trails at North and South Park in the respective suburban hills–Pittsburgh offers recreational use in their greenspaces while also providing ecosystem services through conserved lands.  Even driving in and around the city offers vistas full of greenery and roadside flower gardens that erode the stresses of city traffic.  Pittsburgh is often associated with its industrial past, yet its current grand greenery demonstrates a metamorphosis of ideologies.  The deleterious nature of its past has been transformed into a healthy and future-oriented mega-community which in all appearances seems to mold to its environment.

References

  • Ambrey C, Fleming C. 2014. Public Greenspace and Life Satisfaction in Urban Australia. Urban Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.) 51(6):1290-1391.
  • Feldman J. 2015. Health benefits of urban vegetation and green space: Research roundup. Available from: https://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/cities/health-benefits-urban-green-space-research-roundup
  • Gavarkovs AG. 2015. Greenspace to facilitate the positive physical activity and mental health outcomes of older adults in Canada. WURJ: Health and Natural Sciences 5(1):1.
  • Lee ACK, Jordan HC, Horsley J. 2015. Value of urban green spaces in promoting healthy living and wellbeing: prospects for planning. Risk Manag Healthc Policy 8:131-7.
  • Sugawara H, Shimizu S, Takahashi H, Hagiwara S, Narita K, Mikami T, Hirano T. 2016. Thermal Influence of a Large Green Space on a Hot Urban Environment. J Environ Qual 45(1):125-33.
  • US EPA R. 2017. What is Open Space/Green Space? | Urban Environmental Program in New England. In:Agency EP, editor.
  • USDA. Community Gardening | Alternative Farming Systems Information Center | NAL | USDA [Internet]. Available from: https://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/community-gardening
  • Ward JS, Duncan JS, Jarden A, Stewart T. 2016. The impact of children’s exposure to greenspace on physical activity, cognitive development, emotional wellbeing, and ability to appraise risk. Health & Place. Jul2016 40:44-50.