The importance of nature in public places cannot be overstated. Studies show that not only does including greenery and biophilic design make for healthier, happier and safer as communities, there are actually measurable economic benefits. We like to be in places that make us feel good. And we spend money where we like to hang out.
Beyond economic and health benefits, studies have also shown that incorporating urban parks can improve social equity in cities. In the wake of a pandemic and recession that have disproportionately impacted lower-income people and people of color, we need to work harder now than ever to address the challenges of inequity in our country.
So, what’s getting in the way of doing something we know is good for us and for our communities? In urban environments especially, conventional wisdom suggests that the best use of limited land is to fill it with developments that either house people or give them a place to work or shop, thereby creating an asset that produces financially for the owners.
Downtowns are sought after because of their critical mass of businesses and amenities, after all, but as priorities change around what makes a successful development and a thriving city, it’s clear that incorporating natural elements is the way of the future.
Local governments in both Denver and Austin have taken some exciting steps toward improving their urban forests. Denver voters passed a Green Roofs Ordinance that requires environmentally friendly upgrades to some commercial buildings, which can include rooftop gardens. The city’s Urban Forest Initiative aims to increase the urban forest canopy in downtown Denver from its current (dismal) 4% to 10%.
And Austin has in place an Urban Forest Plan that guides decisions around types and volume of plants to use in urban developments, laying out the current state of the city’s urban forest and goals for the future. They also developed a tree-planting priority analysis and map for identifying opportunities for tree-planting on public land. According to the city’s website, “Austin’s urban forest provides millions of dollars annually in social, economic, and environmental benefits to the community and enhances the quality of life for Austin residents.” The efforts here have helped increase the city’s urban tree canopy to an impressive 30.8%.
For generations, with a few exceptions like New York City’s Central Park, parks were considered suburban amenities, but increasingly city builders and developers who target urban areas are striving to reintroduce nature to the concrete jungle in a meaningful way, carving out pieces of their precious downtown land to create pocket parks, installing mature trees or adding rooftop gardens.
These actions are important steps toward greening downtowns and should become a bigger priority in both public and private investment as we look to create cities – and communities – that will thrive long-term.