The Benefits of Urban Green Spaces

Urban green spaces are not common in many downtowns around the United States.

Here in Jacksonville, dilapidated, neglected, and unattractive city lots clutter the town. Once the heart of the city, the downtown area has been declining ever since families began moving to the suburbs where children can play in yards and ride bikes on sidewalks. Retail, restaurants, and grocery stores are almost non-existent, while the number of abandoned buildings and crimes shoot up daily.

A majority of my accounts are downtown, as the skyscrapers still need interior landscaping, but anything besides a multi-floor office building are located outside the city where commuting is much safer.

Every time I drive downtown, I see the magnificent architecture falling apart and abandoned land overrun with weeds. I wonder why we don’t do more to beautify our city like the pictures I see from a hundred years ago. There is one simple step that could help: replace these desolate lots with greenery.

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Evidence for Urban Green Spaces

After thinking about this idea for years, I found a study that confirmed my theory.

While waiting in the doctor’s office, I thumbed through the medical journal called JAMA Network Open, which included a study on the effects of green space on mental health. Based in Philadelphia, a group of doctors studied the effects of turning abandoned urban city lots into green spaces and how it impacted the surrounding community. They identified 541 spaces that were contaminated with illegal dumping, abandoned vehicles, and overgrown vegetation. Then, they found 442 adults living near those spaces and asked if they would participate in a mental health study. The participant simply had to answer a series of questions concerning urban mental health now and then a follow up questionnaire in the near future.

After completing the initial surveys, the research team randomly picked 37 lots out of the 541 for a “Greening Intervention.” This term, which I think is great, means removing trash and unsightly objects and replenishing the space with sod, trees, fencing, and various landscaping. Several other lots did not undergo a “greening intervention.” Rather, the team removed the trash, but left the space as is.  

The Results

Eighteen months later, 342 of the original 442 adults were re-interviewed. I found it fascinating that the participants who lived near the “greening intervention spaces” experienced a 41% drop in depressive feelings and a 51% drop in feelings of worthlessness. 

Participants around the lots that just had trash removed did not show any mental improvements. This result suggests that care and attention to plant design is important for improved mental health. The study demonstrated that just adding a fence positively impacted people, as that action implies someone is caring for the area.

The research team concluded, urban greening increased social connections as well as recovery from mental fatigue, especially for people below the poverty line where neighborhoods are hit the hardest with dead space.

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The Future of Urban Green Spaces

Dr. Eugenia South, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the study above, added to the research results. She determined that a small investment of $1,600 to transform an abandoned city lot—and $180 per year to maintain—can have wide population impact on better mental wellbeing. Dr. South and her colleges are currently working with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to create more urban green spaces and hope other cities will follow their example. 

I know my city of Jacksonville is working to bring back many families who fled the deteriorating downtown. Dead city lots are transforming into new housing facilities, trendy restaurants, city squares with water fountains and landscaping. I look forward to the day I drive downtown on avenues lined with trees and foliage covering every open space. Not only will my city be beautiful once again, but the inhabitants will be much more content and happy, and that is a worthy cause.

Sherry has been part of the interiorscape industry for over fifteen years, starting at an entry level job at North Florida's largest greenhouse and currently owning two horticulture companies. At UMaine, Sherry majored in English where she worked part-time writing scripts for a local college TV studio.

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