In Praise of Green Spaces
Isabel Dalhousie, a character created by Alexander McCall Smith, is a philosopher. While driving through the countryside she ponders on the relationship between city and country. She sees a farmer waving to another while driving his tractor; she passes a field of pigs and another recently ploughed and she thinks: “…all this happens to support that – that being the life of cities, all those people who were ignorant or indifferent to the life of the countryside and to their agricultural roots.” She reflects on the importance of our often forgotten relationship to the natural world around us before concluding: “And every philosopher, no matter how brilliant his or her insights, needs a portion of this field – how much? Half an acre? – to support him if he is to survive.” The question is: In our urbanised circumstances do we need as much as half an acre? Can we do with much less? How do we maintain that connection to the natural world? How do we sustain connections with our community? How do we weaken the pressure for material experiences, such as acquiring stuff? What other experiences can we have from day to day?
There is growing support through research for money to be spent on non-material experiences rather than material goods. A number of studies show that purchasing material goods do not necessarily make people happy. Increasingly people are searching for life experiences rather than the purchase of a possession. What is the difference? Consider the decision to go on an adventure holiday. The decision is inevitably about meeting new people, connecting with new landscapes, challenging oneself. This reflects a psychological need to relate to the world beyond oneself. Now imagine if one did not have to make a purchase at all but rather could take a break from work, from the chores of home or from studies and walk into a park, alongside a stream, share a snack with the birds or with a friend. There is no exchange of money. This is a non-purchased experience that our cities and our towns can offer us by providing green places within the city spaces. If this can improve well-being and reduce stress and mental illness, as research is showing, why are we filling up spaces with places to purchase material goods?Environmental psychologists suggest that we need healthy cities, schools and workplaces which promote natural environments that are easily accessible.
I am very fortunate to have found a house that sits opposite an open space that runs along the entire road on which I live. From my window that looks out onto the road and beyond I can see people walking to and from the shopping centre, dogs chasing sticks, parents playing a ball game with their children, children learning to ride their bikes on the shared pedestrian-cycle path, trees changing their leaves and birds eating the seeds on offer. On one occasion, while walking, I saw an owl being chased by a magpie from the large pine tree. Initially it tried to find shelter in another tree, before fleeing, hopefully safely, to the hill further on. And indeed, only five minutes away I can choose to walk along the stream that runs below that very same hill to which the owl fled. My life as well as those of my neighbours will be diminished should that space ever be handed over to developers. Although not quite the same in that it is not central to the town life, that space is similar to that of an English village green.
Parisians recently have been given the opportunity to vote on how the Paris budget will be spent for the current budgetary year. Their new major, Anne Hildago, calls the process Participatory Budget. In the period between 24 September and 1 October, voters had the chance to choose from 15 projects. More than 40,740 people voted for largely environmental projects that included vegetation walls, learning gardens, transformation of neglected and run down sites into spaces for gigs, exhibitions and film screenings. In other words, Parisians who voted did not want more shopping plazas. They preferred their money to be spent on those projects that would offer experiences and opportunities for connecting with one another. People want to have a voice in city planning. They want to keep the eccentric characteristics that make their cities and towns unique.
Unfortunately many planning decisions sacrifice the old for the new. It is not just the tearing down of buildings but also the tearing down of the environment in which they sit. When we do that, what else do we sacrifice? We need these oases in our cities. It is here where we make connections, no matter how fleeting: catching a smile, sharing opinions on the weather, enjoying young people challenging themselves and each other, or cooling down in the shade of the trees on a hot summer’s day. The connection between well-being and engagement with others is important and well understood by anyone working in the mental health field. When we focus on status and acquisitiveness we become more competitive and selfish, and lose an important part of ourselves as humans. We are then in danger of becoming less socially responsible and less engaged in activities that build communities. Vandalism and social disconnection are often the result.
If we are to avoid fragmented communities, if we want a vibrant, caring society we should insist that our city planners make this possible. We do not need more shops, we do not need new buildings that reflect and trap heat into the city and chew up valuable energy resources. We need to hold onto what gives us spaces to meet, spaces of green, spaces where people can play and forge new connections and feel that they are part of a whole, places that give our cities character and connect us with our past historical roots: places where, as Isabel Dalhousie would suggest, connect us with our deep agrarian sense of ourselves as humans. Without that agrarian connection, after all, we humans would not have survived so well.
Links Barton, H. (2009). Land use, planning and health and well-being. www.elsevier.com/locate/landusepol
Anne Hidago. Environnement, properté et déchets. http://www.anne-hidalgo.net/mon-programme VicHealth. (2009).
Mental Health and Well-being. www.VicHealth.gov.au