Do Greener Cities Mean Healthier People? How Do We Measure the Effect and Role of Urban Green-Areas on Our Lives? the Groundbreaking Work of a Cross-Disciplinary Project Is Answering That Question and Helping to Direct the Planning of 'Livable' Cities

Article excerpt

Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with more than 90% of the population living in cities and towns. By 2030, more than 60% of the world's population is expected to have made a similar transition, moving from a predominantly rural or agricultural lifestyle to an urban one. Our connection with the land lives on, however, in our backyard gardens, parks and sporting grounds, street trees and nature strips--'greenspace' in urban planning parlance. But just how important is greenspace to our lives in rapidly expanding urban areas?

In this Year of the Built Environment, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems landscape ecologist, Mr Guy Barnett, is leading a project called Greener Cities, Healthier People that demonstrates a new approach to understanding and addressing the issue of livable, sustainable cities. The approach, known as Social and Economic Integration (SEI), is a CSIRO Emerging Science Areas initiative, which aims to incorporate social and economic considerations in the design, conduct and delivery of research.

SEI brings interdisciplinary teams of social and biophysical researchers together, to apply their collective and specialist knowledge in a 'whole system' approach to complex problems. The teams look at human behaviour and decision-making, the welfare of communities and society, economic contexts, and the related interdependencies and linkages between these areas.

'By studying whole systems rather than their component parts, we're more likely to deliver lasting and durable solutions,' explains Barnett.

'If we fail to address the fundamental drivers of a problem, many of which are social and economic, we'll only get part of the story, and limit our ability to understand our world and the way it works.'

Greener cities, healthier people?

Urban development is placing enormous pressure on the planning and management of smart and sustainable urban regions. Studies have shown that greenspace provides a range of environmental, economic and quality of life benefits, for individuals and local communities. Therefore, the retention of and provision for greenspace will be essential to the over all livability of the urban environment.

The environmental benefits from greenspace include: filtering air pollution, protecting biodiversity, reducing stormwater run-off, and cooling heat islands (high heat areas) within cities. Economic benefits arise by making areas attractive to new employers or through better real estate prices.

Perhaps the most significant gain, however, is made through the effect of greenspace on the physical, spiritual and mental wellbeing of individuals and the community as a whole. Overseas studies suggest that urban greenspace can reduce fatigue and stress, improve concentration, enhance worker productivity, boost immunity, promote healing and recovery after an illness or accident, encourage exercise and provide a haven for peace and tranquillity.

If these suggested benefits are correct, the implications for urban planning and design are significant. Much of our greenspace is earmarked for urban development and consolidation, but we know little about the risks to human health and quality of life associated with their deterioration or loss. If such areas do have a positive impact on human health, could they act as a preventative health-care mechanism for an ageing population, and help contain the rising costs of health care in this country? Could we design or revitalise urban greenspace for positive health outcomes?

Barnett's team--an interdisciplinary group of CSIRO scientists with expertise in community and cognitive psychology, remote sensing, spatial analysis, plant and landscape ecology, and ecological economics--are nearing completion of a one-year scoping study investigating these and other greenspace issues. The study explores the current knowledge about greenspace and its impact on mental, physical and community health, assesses the quantity of greenspace and access to it--through a Melbourne case study--and establishes a framework for future research. …