Cities do not have to be at odds with people's health and well-being. Pollution can be fought with blue and green areas accessible to all.
The cities we want must be designed for people and become places where they can live well and healthily, something that does not happen today, since the car and its polluting emissions are the masters and lords of cities.
Every year more than 800,000 people die prematurely across Europe due to pollution, according to the European Environment Agency. These are deaths that could be avoided if the international recommendations on physical activity, air pollution, noise, heat ... and also access to natural spaces were met.
“Interventions in urban planning and in transport systems have a great impact on people's health because they determine the levels of exposure of citizens to air pollution, noise, temperature (anthropogenic), as well as their levels of daily physical activity and access to green and public spaces ”, he explains toBodymind Natalie Mueller, researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a center promoted by “la Caixa”.
More green and blue areas in the cities of the future
One of those health factors in cities, that of natural spaces - green areas, gardens and urban parks and others called "blue spaces", such as riverbanks, beaches, sea or canals - were hardly taken into account until now as a health enhancer, but recent research provides very interesting information on this “green preventive medicine”.
We know that natural stimuli (walking through a forest, for example) help restore a sense of well-being in people suffering from mental fatigue, chronic stress and attention deficit.
Proven benefits of natural ecosystems
Nature gives us a long list of benefits, all free, and asks very little in return: visiting it and pacing ourselves at its own pace. Green ecosystems have been scientifically proven:
- Relieve symptoms of depression.
- They boost the immune system (promoting the expression of anticancer proteins).
- They contribute to a lower risk of allergies and obesity.
- They improve the quality of sleep.
- They decrease cardiovascular problems.
- They give fewer complications in pregnancies.
- They generate more life expectancy.
- They create a better state of general and mental health.
Promoting nature in cities allows you to benefit from these effects. Thus, a 2018 study of theKing’s College London (UK) has shown that exposure to trees, clear skies and birdsong in cities improves mental well-being.
ISGlobal scientists have also analyzed its relationship with breast cancer for the first time and the conclusion goes in the same direction: women who live near urban green spaces have a lower risk of suffering from the disease.
This same center, which has led several studies on the subject, has shown that the elderly who live in greener neighborhoods have a slower cognitive aging process.
Green spaces today are not for everyone
Let's reflect on these projections:
- 73% of Europeans live in urban areas, very often with poor or limited access to natural spaces.
- This figure is projected to increase to more than 80% in 2050.
- In that year, it is estimated that 68-70% of the world's population will live in urban areas.
However, today's cities are dangerous, they generate health problems that will be avoidable if we manage to rethink cities and design them for people and their well-being.
It is true that many have gardens and parks, but according to a report by the WHO Regional Office for Europe, green spaces are not available or accessible to all population groups.
Low-income communities tend to enjoy much less, or are spaces damaged by poor maintenance, vandalized and even avoided due to their insecurity.
Bring green areas to each neighborhood
Research on the benefits, not of native forests, but of bits of green or blue nature embedded between traffic-filled streets, can lead to a change in the management of cities in the 21st century.
These studies open the way to rethink urban green spaces. The most basic change they suggest: they must be very close to the people and proliferate in all neighborhoods because their benefits in the form of health must reach each of their inhabitants and neighbors.
Connected natural space designs
A smart urban design is one that projects gardens in all districts and connects them to each other to create green corridors. Thus, people can plan their routes without leaving the greenery in the middle of the city, as they happen in the Green Belt of Vitoria.
Blue natural spaces too
Another positive surprise is to discover that spaces with water (rivers, lakes, beach, sea, canals and even those that host fountains) are not only interesting for leisure, but also promote health.
This is corroborated by another study by the ISGlobal team, which has carried out the first international scientific review on blue spaces and health: “At the end of 2017, and within the framework of the BlueHealth project, we published a systematic review with the aim of reviewing the scientific evidence of the possible association between blue spaces and benefits for people's health and well-being ”, explains researcher Mireia Gascon.
“Only 35 studies had been published evaluating the relationship between exposure to blue spaces and health. We observed that the existing results indicated evidence that the greater the exposure to blue spaces, the more benefits for mental health and well-being, and the greater the promotion of physical activity.
In contrast, there were very few studies available in relation to general health, obesity, cardiovascular indicators or longevity ”. With these results, guidelines can be offered so that the design of cities, and the natural spaces within them, have health as an objective.
Goodbye to cement
With these data, the era of hard parks and other actions that often waste common resources of citizens and do not bring them real benefits should be ended.
We want green and blue cities not only because they mitigate the heat and clean the air, but because they promote exercise and restore us to health. After the era of cars and pollution, the era of people finally arrives.