IN THIS ARTICLE:
- What is urban green space and why is it so important?
- How green space can protect us from climate impacts and the cities making it happen
- Green space and inequality
- How you can help protect and promote green space in your area
Silent superheroes in the fight for a climate safe future are scattered throughout bustling cities around the globe. Those superheroes are our urban green spaces: our city parks, urban forests, community gardens, cemeteries, green roofs and more. These spaces are key to human and environmental health, acting as a powerful tool for climate resilience in cities.
Yet, many cities don’t have enough of these life-saving spaces. And those that exist are often unfairly clustered in areas of higher wealth, or in danger of being sold off and developed.
In this article, we’ll discuss the ways in which urban green space can help protect us from dangerous climate impacts, and some of the exciting projects around the world harnessing the awe-inspiring power of trees.
Each of these examples represent the dedicated work of people who had a powerful vision for safer, more vibrant communities, and worked together to make it happen.
We will also explore how ensuring fair and equal access to green space can help strengthen the communities hardest hit by climate change, and share resources to help you become a champion for green space in your area.
How green space can protect us from climate impacts – and the cities leading the way
- Extreme heat – City residents are highly susceptible to the dangers of extreme heat, due in large part to what are known as “urban heat islands”. These are areas where the temperature is hotter than average – even within the same city. Heat islands are a result of too many buildings packed densely together and an increase in paved surfaces that absorb, retain, and radiate heat.
Green spaces are powerful tools for disrupting the urban heat island effect. They do this through providing shade for building surfaces and surrounding areas, reflecting solar radiation, and releasing cooling moisture into the atmosphere.
In fact, urban green space champions EcoHealth Ontario say that the cooling effect of one tree is equivalent to 10 air conditioners. And the EPA has found that areas shaded by trees can be between 20-45℉ (11–25°C) cooler than non-shaded areas in peak heat.
Leading the way – Paris, France, Cool Islands: Of all the cities in Europe, residents of Paris have been found to be the most at risk of death from extreme heat – with a likelihood for excess deaths from rising temperatures 1.6 times higher than other European cities. This is due in part to the high density of the city making it more prone to heat islands, and the lack of equal access to green spaces for lower income residents, which puts them at higher risk for heat related illness and death.
To combat this, Paris has established a network of more than 800 “cool islands” throughout the city. These are areas where residents can find a break from the heat, and include the city’s vast collection of parks, gardens, and urban forests. Paris is currently adding to the over half a million trees that have already been planted to help combat the urban heat island effect, and keep its residents safe from extreme heat.
- Air Pollution – Including trees in urban areas can remove harmful pollution from the air we breathe. Trees accomplish this by catching or absorbing pollutants in their leaves, needles, and bark. One report by the David Suzuki Foundation found that of 120 studies on green space and air pollution, 92% reported the pollution reducing effects of urban green space.
Leading the way – Bangkok, Thailand, The Green Bangkok 2030 Plan: Bangkok suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the world as a result of car traffic. To address this, the city launched The Green Bangkok Project in 2019. Its goals include having trees covering 1/3 of the city’s total area, and ensuring each resident can access green space within a 5 minute walk.
The project has been particularly successful in engaging community input and creating a sense of community ownership. In the month following its launch, project administration said it received registrations of intent from the public to plant over 1.3 million trees.
- Flooding – Urban green space can help reduce flooding from high levels of rain and snow. The soil and roots of trees absorb water, and their branches and leaves collect and evaporate it back into the air. Drawing stormwater down into the earth, rather than having it run over land and flooding storm drains, reduces localized flooding and protects communities from the devastation floods can cause.
Leading the way – Freetown, Sierra Leone, #FreetownTheTreeTown campaign: Freetown has seen a dramatic increase in population, with many people coming to the city from rural areas and settling in places prone to dangerous flooding and landslides.
In response to this, Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr launched the #FreetownTheTreeTown campaign. Its goal is to plant 1 million trees in high-risk areas – equal to a 50% increase in green space. As of the end of 2022, this innovative campaign has planted over 560,000 trees and restored 578 hectares of green space around Freetown. It has also created 1000 green jobs – primarily for members of vulnerable communities including women and youth.
To maintain this new growth, the campaign partnered with the Treetracker App. For each tree planted, this app creates a geotag and unique ID. Growers can then return to the trees they’ve planted periodically to water and maintain them in exchange for mobile money payments. This model creates a sense of community ownership of the project, increasing its chances for long term success.
Green spaces and inequality
Mounting evidence shows that the availability, accessibility, and quality of green spaces is largely drawn along racial and socio-economic lines. For example, green space is less available in lower income neighbourhoods than in higher income ones. A recent study by the University of British Columbia also found that households with higher incomes and education levels were more likely to be close to green space.
And it’s not just about access. The perceived quality of these spaces differs widely, which in turn influences how they are used and maintained. A study showed that parks in Black neighbourhoods in NYC, were more likely to be crowded and in poorer condition than those in white areas.
The result of all of this is that the vulnerable communities do not have equal access to the resources required to keep them safe. City governments and key decision makers have the power to narrow the climate impact gap by providing fair and equal access to green spaces for all residents.
How you can help
There are actions you can take today that can make a big difference.
- Write to your city council: These days you can usually find the contact information for your local councillor online. And you might be surprised at how responsive they are! Take five minutes to write your councillor an email telling them you’d like to see more tree cover in vulnerable neighbourhoods. You can use the information in this article to support your request.
- Start small and work together: Smaller spaces – like community gardens – can still go a long way towards decreasing urban temperatures. They also come with the added benefit of addressing food insecurity in vulnerable communities. See if you can find one or two friends or neighbours who might be interested in starting one with you. Here is a guide to starting one that you can adapt for use in your area.
Promoting and protecting green spaces for all is not just a matter of our individual health, it’s also a vital step towards protecting vulnerable communities and building a climate safe future. Some cities are already leading the way thanks to the hard work and dedication of residents who had a vision to make a difference. They show us that if we work together, we have the power to create vibrant, resilient cities for generations to come.
My Climate Plan is a member-driven community to help each other build a climate safe future for all. Join My Climate Plan as a founding member today to get help to make your household and community climate safe.