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Green Spaces Promote Community Health 

Written by Communications Associate, Jarea Fang

For the second year in a row, Forest Park is named the country’s #1 city park by USA TODAY. This comes as no surprise for residents of St. Louis, of course. Sitting on 1,300 acres and boasting 15 million annual visits, Forest Park is our pride and joy. As the weather starts to warm up, the WashU community is especially ecstatic to gather once again at our neighboring park, whether for picnicking, exercising, or sight-seeing at some of Missouri’s most important cultural institutions: the St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis Zoo, and more.  

Since the 19th century, city parks have been a much-needed way for urbanites to escape the concrete buildings and hassle of modern life. Originally called “rural” or “country” parks, these green spaces were created specifically for socialization and relaxation, often encouraging guests to get in touch with their inner selves as they frolic around beautiful pastures and shiny lakes. The Missouri Botanical Garden, for example, is a popular gathering spot for days-off, with many WashU students taking advantage of the Zoo-Museum District (ZMD) Resident Free Hours. 

With 89% of the US population and 68% of the world population projected to live in cities by 2050, urban green spaces are more important than ever. But why are green spaces so significant, and how can we incorporate more of them into our increasingly urbanized world?  

What is a Green Space?  

A green space, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), refers to land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation. This includes parks, community gardens, or even cemeteries. Clever city planning allows for urban green spaces to maximize benefit for both the community and the environment. The East End Transformation of Danforth Campus, for example, embodies this principle. A smooth transition from Brookings Hall to Forest Park, the East End combines LEED certified buildings, rain gardens with bio-retention, native plantings, and much more to demonstrate WashU’s commitment to sustainability and resource conservation.  

It’s been a few years since the East End Transformation was completed, and the results are astounding. Aside from making huge strides in areas like energy and water conservation, Tisch Park quickly became a popular spot for gathering and studying, much like other green spaces on campus like Mudd Field, the gingko tree allée by Olin Library, and the terrace above Hillman Hall. On warm, sunny days, students don’t budge from the green spaces even as the internet starts to suffer from poor reception. Why? Because studying outside feels good. 

 In a 2019 study of 20,000 people, those who spent two hours a week in green spaces, either all at once or spaced over several visits, were much more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. This benefit applies to those of all ages, genders, and occupations, crossing generational lines and socio-economic status. Green spaces are antidotes to stress. By making people feel safe, green spaces decrease feelings of isolation and anxiety while increasing self-esteem and immune system function.  

With their abundance of trees, city parks with dense trees and forests can also improve air quality by as much as 25% or more by absorbing particulate pollution that exacerbates illnesses like asthma. A study of nearly 50,000 New Zealand children found that those who live in green neighborhoods are less likely to develop asthma. Considering asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital, this can be a game changer.  

Speaking of asthma…  

Who Deserves the Green Space?  

African American children experience greater health risks than their white counterparts. One important reason for this is the urban heat island effect, which occurs when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat.  

“Higher temperatures escalate public health concerns and disparities, increase energy burdens, and adversely affect local economies,” said Heather Navarro, director of the Midwest Climate Collaborative. “There are many ways communities can mitigate heat stress, including the expansion of an area’s tree canopy.” 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), shaded surfaces may be 20-45ºF cooler than the unshaded, and the evapotranspiration by trees and vegetation can help reduce summer temperatures by another 2-9ºF. Planting deciduous trees or vines to the west is typically most effective for cooling a building, especially if they shade windows and part of the building’s roof. Urban green spaces, therefore, can save lives in neighborhoods that experience urban heat island effect. Even lining streets with trees can make a significant improvement.  

Disparities in access to green spaces are patterned by race and class, with 74% of communities of color living in nature-deprived areas, compared to 23% of white communities in the United States. So, even though St. Louis boasts the nation’s best urban park, many St. Louisans don’t actually get to reap the benefit. Some don’t even have access to lush, green spaces at all.  

So, what’s next?  

The Future is Foliage 

In 2022, the Midwest Climate Collaborative (MCC) was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Civic Innovation Challenge (CIVIC) grant to explore solutions to mitigate the effects of heat islands through equitable expansion of the tree canopy. This project is a collaboration between Indianapolis, Kansas City, Madison, and St. Louis, and will be a notable step toward eliminating disparities in the access of urban green spaces in the Midwest.  

WashU students are also a formidable force in improving access to green spaces and raising awareness about their benefits, with many student organizations dedicated to this cause. The Outing Club often takes trips hiking, canoeing, and even foraging in trails around Missouri and Illinois. The Wilderness Project believes in the natural world as a safe space for fostering connections between people and aiding in life transitions. Gateway to the Great Outdoors (GGO) is dedicated to providing urban, low-income, at-risk youth with opportunities to interact with the natural environment through lessons and activities that instill a value of environmentalism, leadership, teamwork, science, and physical activity. 

Recent events, such as our increased reliance on smart technology and the abrupt isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, also prompted many people to reevaluate the way they spend their time. Mindfulness, self-care, and mental health have never been bigger topics, with many people rediscovering their love for nature and parks during this period of self-growth. Tiktok’s hot girl walk, for example, encourages people (of any gender!) to go out on walks and think only of the things you’re grateful for, your goals and how you’re going to achieve them, and how hot you are.  

As the weather starts to warm up, we implore you to think more about the outdoors. Hug some trees, go on a walk, and donate to urban park funds. Treasure our earth, and it will love you back.   

More Resources 

  1. Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health – Yale Environment360 
  1. How Parks Help Community Health – Forest Park Forever 
  1. East End Transformation – The Office of Sustainability (OOS) 
  1. Learn About Heat Islands – Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 
  1. Green Space – St. Louis Magazine 
  1. The Nature Gap – American Progress 
  1. St. Louis Climate Vulnerability Assessment – Climate Central