Seeing Green: The Benefits of Natural Spaces

Parks and gardens in urban areas are more than just beautification projects. Green spaces not only break up grey surroundings and add color to what are usually monochromatic and bustling settings, they are immensely beneficial to the area surrounding them. Green spaces have been spreading fast across the United States, but are also prevalent internationally, such as in Japan. There is a large body of evidence that suggests that green spaces benefit communities through health improvements, ecological benefits, and crime reduction. While the links between green spaces and crime reduction aren’t necessarily causal, the correlation is very strong. Some green spaces can even be exclusive to specific communities, creating inequalities in access to public space. Subsequently, we should advance the goal of beautifying and ecologizing cities with caution, and take some of these studies with a grain of salt.

Green spaces improve the general health, including mental health, of city dwellers. Over 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities, and over the next 34 years, 2.5 billion people are expected to move to cities. The physical and mental health of this growing population must be taken into consideration. This can be done by increasing the number of green spaces, which are proven to reduce the growing levels of obesity by presenting an outlet for residents to be physically active. Green spaces also display improvements to mental health of residents by decreasing depression and anxiety. In fact, a 2014 study revealed that people who moved to greener urban areas “felt immediate improvement in their mental health,” which had a lasting effect on them even three years later. This effect lies in correlation with the implementation of green spaces, but whether or not it is solely caused by green spaces or the social conditioning of reform that makes people happy is unclear.

In addition to the physical and mental health benefits, green spaces also provide cities with significant environmental benefits. These areas protect and preserve natural land and allow for greater wildlife to exist within cities. Gardens and parks can help regulate the climate and air quality, “reducing energy consumption by countering the warming effects of paved surfaces.” This specifically counteracts the effects of heat buildup, reducing localized temperatures. Furthermore, trees and vegetation in urban areas offer natural solutions for storm water runoff and air pollution. These mechanisms save cities millions of dollars in infrastructure maintenance and improvement: In Philadelphia, the city saved $16 million in 2008 from avoiding storm water management and pollution costs. The green spaces absorb water more efficiently than pavement and the trees in the spaces can absorb carbon dioxide, reducing the level of pollution — all done naturally.

Green spaces also display improvements to mental health of residents by decreasing depression and anxiety.

These straightforward, tested benefits alone should justify more green spaces. But, as Youngstown, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago have demonstrated, the presence of green spaces seems to precipitate drops in crime.

In Youngstown, Ohio, there were severe unemployment rates and economic decline due to deindustrialization, which led to 31 percent of the city’s land becoming abandoned. In 2010, city planners conducted a controlled experiment on the population, comparing crime rates between a section that had vast contracting improvements to green spaces, spaces that were reformed by the community under a set budget, and a control space, which was left alone. After five years, a team of researchers examined the data and determined that both areas that had installed green spaces had a lower crime rate than the control group. Both areas saw a decrease in “property crime, like theft and burglary, and violent crime.” The public saw a significant reduction in violent crime and the contracted lots saw a greater decline in property theft. This suggests that different types of green spaces have different effects on varying types of crime. Furthermore, in the surrounding areas, the crime rate stayed the same, which shows that the crime didn’t simply move away from these areas, but disappeared altogether. A 2001 study in Chicago displayed that areas with housing near green spaces had “25 percent fewer acts of domestic aggression and 56 percent fewer violent crimes.” A similar case was reported in Baltimore in which certain lawns were taken care of and others were not. In this study there was a clear correlation between the well-kept lawns and a reduction in crime.

Philadelphia increased greenery in an attempt to catch more rainwater runoff, and also experienced a similar effect on crime. In 2000, the city converted roadside gray spaces into vegetated plots in order to soak up rainwater. While the rest of the city’s drug possession rates increased, drug possession surrounding the 52 green spaces fell. Crime was consistently rising within Philadelphia but within these select areas, the crime dropped. Whether or not the addition of green spaces increased the crime rate in the neighboring areas, speculating that the crime “moved,” or whether it just disappeared in those areas of the city is unclear.

There are many theories to explain the correlation between green spaces and reduced crime rates. Rashad Shabazz, a professor at Arizona State University who studies how race, gender, and sexuality are shaped by geography, theorizes that the correlation between the two occurs because residents feel as if they are able to reclaim their space through locally-driven acts. Shabazz spoke of this at a lecture in 2016 at Brown University, stating that green spaces contribute to the implicit atmosphere of the community. Another theory is called the “eyes on the street” theory and was created by Megan Grove, the author of the Baltimore Study. She explains that “the level of maintenance of the yard is almost like a neighborhood watch sign saying, ‘We have eyes on the street and we will say something.’” Furthermore, there is greater visibility and lines of sight after the area is cleared. Another theory goes further, stating that the increase in greenery reflects social capital, which could discourage criminal action. It is almost used as a force of intimidation against criminals, who look for places of neglect when scoping out targets. This psychology is known as the “Broken Windows Theory,” which green spaces specifically fight. These gardens, parks, and open spaces imply greater government presence within the neighborhood. In fact, according to Professor Stefano Bloch, Director of Diversity within the Urban Studies concentration at Brown University, these areas have increased police presence.

As strong as these theories are, Professor Bloch, when interviewed, was hesitant to accept this comparison without looking at it critically. He stated that green spaces have objectively beneficial effects: They allow people to “observe each other in a public space which breeds mutual respect, not antagonism.” However, these spaces could also be used to exclude and control individuals within the community. In some communities, people are not allowed to enjoy the green spaces in an attempt to preserve the green space itself. Professor Bloch stated that some forms of human usage are less desirable than the green space itself. He used the example of the Arab Spring in Cairo, where no one was able to enjoy the green space due to the social stigma of who could be seen in public spaces. This example spreads throughout the Middle East, such in Bahrain, in which open space is socially stratified. The space is accessible to foreigners who were Qataris, not Bahrainis. The social use for Bahrainis were restricted to certain times of the day; they would gain access at night even though the green space would be an attraction to them throughout the day.

Professor Bloch also pointed out that different greenery has different effects on the community. Urban gardening brings the entire community together towards a common goal, which fosters a sense of unity. However, this type of green space is not controlled by the government, so by planting on land that one does not own, criminality actually increases. The space does not increase general crime in the area, but the act of planting on unowned land alone is criminal in nature. The community also has different use values for “open land,” and even though these spaces do not help the community gather food and resources, this type of space does not rely on criminality to achieve its goal.

In terms of correlation versus causation, Professor Bloch stated there are many more externalities than a green space to jump from correlation to causation. Instead of being placed in the most underserved neighborhoods that could most benefit from them, Professor Bloch stated that green spaces are placed in areas where there is potential for improvement. Places that are “too distressed” are usually deemed too risky to be worth the venture. Therefore, areas that receive treatment already have lower crime due to higher police presence. As Professor Bloch put it, “greenery falls in line with communities that are less criminalized.”

Though the evidence doesn’t prove it all entirely, the picture is pretty clear: green spaces work wonders for communities. In fact, this theory has spread to Asia, which promotes the concept of “shinrin-yoku or forest bathing.” This has impacted people’s levels of relaxation and promoted the spread of green spaces. The Republic of Korea is currently conducting experiments similar to the ones conducted in Old Youngstown, Ohio. Unfortunately, in the United States, funding for parks, libraries, and youth clubs is threatened by unprecedented budget cuts. The future of green spaces is unclear, but the benefits are evident.