The urban environment around us is constantly evolving. Change is happening not only in the morphology and structure of the city, but also in the way we think about the city and its components, including its green spaces. There are new concepts of urban lifestyle, new perspectives, design approaches and new research areas emerging.
For the sake of this piece, let’s leave behind the deep analysis and history of introducing natural elements into the city, and focus on one single reflection linked to it, which is, after all, a rather subjective opinion of a landscape architecture researcher.
My reflection can easily be illustrated through the popular ‘expanding brain’ meme. Using this scale, the lowest level of brain expansion and the most basic understanding of green spaces in the city are for decorative purposes. Beautifying the streets and buildings with plants, greening the plazas, “shrubbing up” the institutions — it is attractive to the eye and interesting to look at, it brings sensory pleasure and, in this way, can induce positive emotions. This is all fine and dandy, but there is so much more potential for our green spaces. We have to expand our minds and think more deeply about our living environment.
When the green space awakening began and we started considering the additional health benefits coming from the sanitary values of nature in cities, we were starting to get somewhere and our brain expansion commenced. Green spaces turned out to be the perfect tool to combat the nightmares of nineteenth century cities: dirt, pollution and disease. Urban green spaces, specifically parks, worked as “breathing spaces”, supporting city ventilation and bringing the sanative and restorative values to the poorest neighbourhoods. You could say we realized, or rediscovered, that “a green space a day keeps the doctor away”.
The logical next stage was “the more, the better”.Our brains expanded enough to perceive the many other health benefits of living in an urban space with easy access to green spaces, such as having an area for exercise, physical activity, recreation, and noise insulation, among many others. Designers, researchers and decision makers started to come up with more and more ideas of how to introduce natural elements into our cities. Urban greening strategies, including green roofs, green walls and others, were an effect of that. Mapping out the area of green cover within walking distance from home has become a standard activity among urban planners to such an extent that one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals
to be reached by 2030 is to provide access to green space to everyone. The UN has clearly reached this level of brain expansion, but is it enough? Can our minds expand more on green spaces?
To that question, I give an emphatic yes. Research has shown that the quantity of green space simply doesn’t cut it, and doesn’t always guarantee the best health outcomes. Yet again, as we see in so many aspects of life, quality trumps quantity. The quality of green space and how it’s designed is the key to landscape architecture enlightenment. It takes a shift in perception to realize that the surrounding environment for humans is like a displayed projection perceived with the five senses.And the quality of this perceived stimuli, after passing through their individual filters, induces a measurable system response. The response can generate many different health outcomes, including beneficial ones (like stress reduction or improved recovery from illness). The research on environmental exposure involves a lot of different methods and new technologies: neuroscience, psychology, geospatial system tracking, virtual reality modelling and landscape design theory, and is still evolving which, undoubtedly, is very exciting.
It is also exciting to think that maybe soon enough we will reach even higher levels of consciousness. Before this happens though, what level of enlightenment has your city reached?