Let’s turn our cities into nature gardens
I know it sounds crazy. But hear me out.
“Let’s turn our cities into nature gardens.”
I realize how positively Pollyanna-ish that sounds.
“Oh yes, do let us turn our cities into lovely green paradises where everyone lives in peaceful harmony with nature and all is well with the world. Won’t that be splendid!”
You can almost hear the songbirds trilling as children skip merrily along the tree-lined paths.
Hear me out.
What if we could do that? (Turns cities into gardens, I mean.)
And what if our survival maybe even kind of depended on it?
Because with the rising temperatures and increasingly intense heatwaves climate scientists predict we’ll be experiencing in the decades ahead, our cities are going to need all the green space we can give them. Extreme levels of heat stress have more than doubled over the past 40 years – and it looks like that trend will continue until efforts to combat climate change start making a real impact.
Urban environments are especially vulnerable to rising temperatures because many of the materials we use to build them – asphalt, concrete, brick, cement – are so good at absorbing heat. Cities can be 1-3°C degrees hotter than the countryside around them – a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island” effect. In the world’s increasingly hot regions, those extra degrees can mean the difference between life and death for many people.
The number of heat-related deaths has already been climbing in recent years:
- From 1998-2017, more than 166,000 people died due to heatwaves around the world.
- Europe lost a staggering 60,000 people to heatwave-related deaths in the summer of 2022 alone.
- Average annual heat-related deaths are up 95% in the US from 2010 to 2022.
- Urban deaths due to heat islands are responsible for 4% of summertime deaths.
- Here in British Columbia, we saw 600 people die from a 6-day heat dome event in 2021.
The human costs are already enormous. Not to mention other costs – in the US, the annual national healthcare cost of extreme heat is approximately $1 billion and the economy has apparently lost billions in recent years due to heatwave-related lost productivity. One report cited in this New York Times article claims that in 2020 alone, the loss of labor as a result of heat exposure cost the economy about $100 billion!
So, how can we protect people in a warming world where most of the global population lives in cities?
One of the easiest and most obvious ways to bring the temperature down in urban environments is by adding more nature and green space. Plants and trees provide shade and help to clean and cool the air, counteracting the heat being put out by the built environment.
By adding green rooftops to new and existing buildings (where possible) and replacing a significant percentage of a city’s streets and parking lots with natural spaces, gardens, and even urban farming plots, we can lower the temperature of urban environments while improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and boosting overall quality of life.
A recent study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health suggests that cities were to cover 30% of their space with green areas, 2,664 premature deaths could be avoided in Europe.
Bring nature and green space back into cities can also:
- Make them more resistant to climate change
- Protect against flooding
- Help combat drought and water scarcity
- Lessen the impacts of erosion due to rising ocean levels and intensified storms
- Offer greater food security from urban farming
- Help preserve species diversity
- Make cities more beautiful
- Increase the amount of time residents spend outdoors, improving the overall wellbeing of urban populations
That’s why I believe the sooner cities start taking significant measures to “greenify” their urban spaces, the better off their residents will be.
So if you live in a city and are looking for a way you can take action against climate change, consider what you can do to create awareness and pressure your government into bring more nature and green space into your city.
Advocate for replacing parking lots with garden plots and parkades with affordable housing and urban farms. Call for the restoration of the natural habitat of urban streams, like South Korea did with its incredible Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project, to create watery green arteries running through urban landscapes. And plant Miyawaki style “mini-forests” wherever possible (guerilla-style, if you have to, heh) to create dense pockets of native ecosystem diversity throughout the city.
Not only will most of the human population as well as all residents of your city will be grateful for it, our climate and the diversity of our global biosphere will benefit as a result.
Sounds nifty! What’s the catch?
Well, if we want to add more nature into our cities (while meeting the region’s housing, business, and industry needs and ensuring people have affordable places to live, because obviously those are primary considerations, too), we need to find the space for it.
And where are we going to find this space?
Look to all of the square footage dedicated to cars, my friends.
One of the most effective ways to green and cool our city while lowering urban greenhouse gas emissions is to swap car-based infrastructure for green space. For most cities (especially here in North America), that means evolving our current car-centric transportation paradigm into a model that prioritizes people and nature instead.
That doesn’t mean forcing people to get rid of their cars and trucks (cuz THAT would go over well for anyone who dared suggest it, LOL) or making it impossible for people to travel from neighbourhood to neighbourhood or city to city.
It simply means prioritizing greener forms transportation that take up way less space – such as ebikes, public transit, and car-sharing networks – over cars and trucks so we can liberate some of the VAST amount of city square footage that’s dedicated solely to the operation and storage of personal vehicles and use it for more people- and climate-friendly purposes instead.
Consider how much area in some US cities is currently used as parking lots:
- Salt Lake City, Utah: 29%
- Wichita, Kansas: 35%
- Las Vegas: 32%
- San Bernadino, CA: 49%
And that’s just parking lots – never mind all of the streets and freeways for cars to drive on!
Imagine if cities liberated 30% or even more of all those concrete and asphalt spaces and transformed them into pockets of nature and urban gardens and multi-purpose paths for pedestrians and cyclists. Imagine how much prettier the city would be and how much safer and more fun it would be to get around in it.
Imagine replacing most of the time you spend sitting in a vehicle stuck in traffic with a walk or a ride through nature trails instead – not to mention liberating yourself from your current level of car and insurance payments.
THAT’S why I’m so passionate about the idea of turning our cities into wild nature gardens.
Because not only will it help cities deal with the intensifying impacts of climate change – it will also transform them into healthier, more beautiful, and more enjoyable places to live.
Don’t worry, car owners. (That includes me.)
These kinds of changes aren’t going to happen overnight, if they end up happening at all.
No one’s going to take our cars away. And though it might eventually become a lot more expensive and inconvenient to get around cities in our cars and find places to store them when not in use, that’s probably not going to happen for years, maybe even decades in some places.
But I do predict that if you invest in an ebike (or regular bike) and support efforts to build more pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure in your city or hometown, you will find that your daily commute and shopping trips have become a lot more fun.
I also predict that the cities which invest most effectively in transitioning away from a car-centric paradigm and bringing more nature and green spaces into their urban environment will be the ones that are able to weather the worst impacts of climate change and thrive in the decades to come. 🌳🌲✌️
Most if not all of these links are embedded above as well:
- National Geographic: Urban Heat Island
- EPA: Heat Island Effect
- NASA: Too Hot to Handle: How Climate Change May Make Some Places Too Hot to Live
- Reuters: Explainer: How Is Climate Change Driving Dangerous Wet Bulb Temperatures?
- UNEP: Beating the Heat: A Sustainable Cooling Handbook for Cities
- Sustainability For All: Sustainable Urban Development: How New Cities Are Being Built
- UNEP: Rewilding Brings City Back to Life
- Regeneration.org: Nature of Cities
- Natural History Museum UK: City life: Why are green spaces important?
- C40 Knowledge Hub: Nature-based solutions: How cities can use nature to manage climate risks
- GOV.UK: Using the power of nature to increase flood resilience
- The Conversation: How cities can work with nature when droughts take their toll
- MIT Technology Review: Why salt marshes could help save Venice
- EOS: Urban Agriculture Combats Food Insecurity, Builds Community
- Yale Environment 360: Urban Refuge: How Cities Can Help Solve the Biodiversity Crisis
- The Guardian: Rewilding our cities: beauty, biodiversity and the biophilic cities movement
- The Nature Conservancy: Outside Our Doors: The Benefits of Cities Where People and Nature Thrive (downloadable PDF)
- Washington Post: People who spend more time outdoors lead more fulfilling lives, new research shows
And finally, let me plug once again this awesome book: Urban Jungle: The History and Future of Nature in the City by Ben Wilson
Happy reading! 😁