By Alice Kaufman, Legislative Advocate
As Americans’ lives become more and more urbanized, experiences in nature are in danger of becoming a privilege belonging only to those who live near open space and those with the resources to travel to open space areas. City parks, often the only opportunity for urban residents to have easy access to trees and green spaces, can be few and far between, especially in low-income areas. With increasing development pressures, we must draw attention to the need for urban parks and green spaces before it’s too late.
Parks provide a daily opportunity for city residents to get outside and enjoy nature, fresh air, exercise, and an escape from the pressures of urban living. Studies have shown that access to parks has a direct correlation to physical and mental health; when people have access to parks and trails, they exercise more often and report lower rates of depression, anxiety, and stress. In one study, hospital patients experienced improved health outcomes when their windows had a view of trees rather than of a brick wall. Neighborhoods with flourishing park systems enjoy a greater sense of community and lower crime rates, especially juvenile crime. Property values increase with the proximity of parks, and cities with popular downtown parks have increased tourism revenues.
From an environmental perspective, urban parks provide valuable ecosystem services. The range of wildlife is dramatically increased when oases of greenery provide connectivity through urban areas. This is particularly true of natural and native habitat, but even manicured city parks can provide needed food and shelter for birds and insects. Trees, shrubs, and grasses absorb carbon and pollutants from the atmosphere, reducing incidences of asthma and combating the “heat sink” effect of urban concrete and asphalt. Every acre of land that supports soil and plants rather than impervious surfaces such as pavement, improves water quality in both creeks and groundwater aquifers by filtering stormwater that runs off into creeks or is absorbed into the ground. Soil and plants also help protect against flooding by this absorption and filtration process, both soaking up excess rainwater and slowing the runoff that can lead to flooded creeks and rivers.
As the economy recovers, new development is springing up all over the Bay Area. Thanks to regional planning efforts such as Plan Bay Area, cities are mainly focusing development in infill areas, close to jobs and transit, rather than allowing unchecked sprawl into rural areas. But the benefits of this for rural open space may be counterbalanced by the negative results for urban areas if care is not taken to ensure that land is set aside and resources are directed towards city parks when infill development is approved.
Urban planning should include options for non-traditional parks, such as community gardens and green roofs, and should especially include plans for parks that include natural areas where native plants can grow and kids can explore, dig in the dirt, and climb trees. However, even a city park landscaped with non-native grass and trees and dominated by metal play structures, soccer fields, or picnic tables, provides all the crucial benefits to public health, community, and quality of life listed above. To protect our environment, we need to recognize the value of every piece of open space.
Many of us have precious childhood memories of exploring in the woods, camping with our families, or fishing in nearby streams. Today’s children have less and less opportunity to have these experiences. If future generations are to carry on the fight to save our natural environment, they must first experience and learn to love its beauty. It is up to us to make sure these green open spaces, urban as well as rural, are preserved for their benefit and our own.
As the late Ollie Mayer said, “Once I thought the battles would end someday, but I know now that conservation battles never end. We just pass the torch to new generations.”
Our work for parks and open space ensure that there will be a generation to pass the torch to.