Quality green space is good for you

Jenny Roe

20 March 2014

Will our new understanding of the health and economic benefits of quality green space change our horizons, asks Environmental Psychologist Dr Jenny Roe?

Our surroundings affect how we feel and how we behave. Well-designed spaces can help remove some of the social problems that plague our cities. Yet our cities are littered with uninspiring, unloved and unutilised pockets of green space.

What makes an urban green space great?

Isn’t it largely about the people, and the patterns that evolve around everyday living? These are the rituals we see every day, without really giving them a second glance. The dog walkers, the joggers along the riverside, the street encounters and chance meetings.

In the 1970’s the urbanist and anthropologist, William Whyte, observed what distinguished a successful space from an unsuccessful space.

His findings were simple, yet profound. If urban spaces are well designed, curious, engaging and attractive to everyone, the social problems that plague some urban spaces simply disappear.   

But today, 50 years on from Whyte’s studies, our cities are still littered with unloved pockets of green space.

So how can we raise the bar for quality of green space in our cities?

The health and economic value of green space

Health is one lever. On a study led by the James Hutton Institute, I measured the stress hormone cortisol in middle-aged men and women, not in work, living in deprived urban communities in Scotland. We found that higher levels of green space were linked with lower stress levels, with stronger effects in women.

Another study I was involved in showed that the higher the quality of green space the more it was used, potentially increasing activity levels and quality of life in a deprived urban community. My latest work - in collaboration with health economists - looks to identify the economic benefits of improved quality in urban woodlands in disadvantaged communities.

Economics is another powerful lever. Green space and street trees increase the value of property and spending power of local residents sparking regeneration in deprived urban areas such as the 19th arrondissement of Paris where Park de la Villette revived the site of an old abattoir.

Add to this benefit, the potential of green infrastructure to mitigate the effects of climate change – by surface water management and reducing concentrated urban heat island effects – and suddenly, a powerful new economic argument for greening our cities becomes feasible. 


Hyde Park in the early morning, by Amelia Collins

Understanding green space diversity

Friends of the Earth has highlighted the importance of sharing as part of its Big Ideas thinking on cities. And Dr Nicola Dempsey from Sheffield University has blogged on the Big Ideas website about the implications of austerity cuts on quality green spaces. It’s time we put more effort into measuring quality in our green spaces rather than quantity.

For example, residents can mimic the work of William Whyte using innovative mobile phone technologies to gather data on how and when people use their local urban green space – how they feel in these spaces – and record the local wildlife and the social life of the space. 

This so-called citizen science educates people about the world around them, and enhances understanding of the space by researchers and residents alike.


Children playing with flowers, by Jenny Roe

Champions for quality

It’s vital we raise our expectations of what a green space can and should be.  We need to demand excellence in design – and how the experience is presented – just as we would of any product we purchase. But where are the champions of quality green space?  

Charles Jenks generated a new concept for healthcare architecture in Maggie’s centres and instantly raised the bar of what design can contribute to the care of people with cancer.

In Canada, Peter Busby is relentless in his pursuit of applying new research to create project outcomes like Eco Density in Vancouver.

Another massively influential and innovative visionary in the application of quality green space is William McDonough who has turned around how leading industries such as Ford Motor Car approach design of the built environment. 

I firmly believe that health, the need to adapt to climate change, and the economic value of green space can provide a new impetus and driver for quality greening of our cities. And in doing so, we will continue the ground-breaking work initiated by William Whyte almost 50 years ago.

Dr Jenny Roe is an Environmental Psychologist exploring how the quality of the built environment relates to health and wellbeing.

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