Updated: May 20
We've heard a lot of talk about "urban green" and "green spaces" in cities. But what's all the hullabaloo really about? Is urban green just a fad? How would people, their environments and surrounding ecosystems actually benefit from simply adding plants to a concrete jungle?
This article is going to take a look at the real-world, real-deal benefits of urban green.
1. Local Food, Local Economy, Local Health
Did you know that the "local food trend" has more than doubled since 2008, from $5B to $12B? It is one of the fastest growing segments in food production, and is set to continue expanding every year. As retailers and restaurants purchase more local food to feed increasingly avid customers, money and employment opportunities will likewise continue to expand and circulate within the community.
This is a large and super interesting topic which we will expand on further in a later blog post - stay tuned!
The greening of urban development would mean that the ability to grow food and contribute to the local economy is not restricted to the lucky few with available yard space - or Big Agriculture. Food could be grown for the city, by the city - and the wealth would similarly stay within the city.
2. Cooler Summers, Warmer Winters: Reduced Energy Consumption
Plants provide thermal insulation and natural air circulation for buildings, resulting in fewer temperature extremes.
Two-story or single-story buildings with a tree buffer, for example, will be considerably warmer in winter, and cooler in summer. Areas with ample tree cover (read as "green-cover") can be 10℉ cooler in the summer than open areas without vegetation.
In the winter, evergreens can cut wind speed from 35 mph to 10 mph; with less wind leaching away your home's hard-earned warmth, your furnace does not need to work nearly as hard to stabilize the indoor temperature. Deciduous trees, on the other hand, will shade homes in the summer, and let winter sunlight in through windows in the colder months.
A surrounding layer of trees and shrubs also provide buildings with "still air" insulation; air that isn't blasted away by the wind is actually a key insulative "material" (why do you think puffy jackets are so darn warm? They make use of still air!).
Buildings with "green roofs" - plant matter growing on their roofs - insulate heat, and interrupt the heat from the sun's rays reflecting off of surfaces.
Plants transpire water through their foliage; when plants evaporate this moisture, some heat is also taken skyward, reducing atmospheric heat with every liquid molecule. Tree boughs and large enough vegetation also provide shade; on a hot day, shaded areas can offer a temperature difference of up to 36℉. That's huge!
Just as the external temperature is affected by increased vegetation, so too is your home's internal temperature.
Having trees surround your home can lower your heating costs by up to 30%, and your A/C energy costs by up to 35%! If the US incorporated green roofs into their cities, they stand to save a minimum of 2.4 billion kWh in energy use from heating and cooling alone. (Clinton et al., 2018)
On a larger scale, entire cities can benefit from integrating green in urban planning. Urban areas are known for being the sites of Heat Islands, or areas where thermal heat increases because of the number of buildings, asphalt, vehicles, lights and cement generating and insulating heat.
Places with even just several green spaces incorporated into urban planning can lower the entire city's temperature by an average of 1 º.
To put this into context: urban green would provide a reduction in lighting, heating and cooling energy consumption equivalent to throwing out the air conditioners of 9 million US households for an entire year. (Clinton et al., 2018)
5. Draws CO2 from the Atmosphere & Reduces Pollution
If you've read our blog before, you know that FoodCycler is ALL about healthy soil. One of the reasons we're so obsessed with nutrient-rich soil is because of how it effects CO2 and pollution levels.
Plants consume CO2 from the atmosphere. 40% of that carbon is then passed down to the plant roots where it will feed and give energy to the soil microorganisms.
Healthy soil - or soil that is rich with microorganisms and plants - can store 5X the amount of CO2 from the atmosphere than either plants alone or the atmosphere in general. This means that any soil that regularly has plant cover on it is capable of continuously pulling down the excess CO2 which is contributing to climate change.
Plants also continuously filter the air of less-than-lovely compounds which can damage our health. A mere square meter of green space will filter 200 grams of nasty contaminating particles from the air. Even indoor plants filter rooms of airborne contaminants by up to 25%!
The environmental benefits of urban green offers economic benefits, too:
6. Improved Water Management
If your city has a water supply, it could strongly benefit from abundant vegetation.
Windbreaks, grass sedges and buffer strips are extremely effective at trapping and filtering sediment and chemicals which run-off from urban infrastructure (roads especially). Grassed waterways and forest buffers were found to reduce nitrates in nearby water by up to 90%! This can help lower water treatment plant operation costs, as dangerous compounds found in pre-treatment municipal water have been somewhat filtered and therefore required fewer chemical agents.
Plants help reduce damage from floods by slowing flood velocity, and help prevent erosion. Plants also absorb water from rainfall and prevent run-off into the sewer systems, which could overwhelm municipal water systems and shorten their lifespan.
A study performed by the Clinton et al. (2018) determined that urban green could significantly help monsoon-vulnerable countries, such as China, India, Japan and Brazil, by reducing the amount of stormwater runoff by 1 billion cubic meters each per year - or, a third of Lake Erie.
Finally, planted soil retains water in and around their root systems, while the leaves of plants transpire it, increasing atmospheric humidity. This "recycling" of water inland can actually contribute to greater micro-climate balance by reducing desertification and its myriad negative effects (including floods, droughts, and other freak weather occurrences).
7. Improved Waste Management
Plants require biomatter in the soil in order to get the nutrients they need to grow.
What's biomatter, you ask?
Biomatter is essentially organic matter: compost, organic fertilizers, "foodilizer", etc.
Organic wastes, including food and lawn waste, are usually sent to landfills where they will generate dangerous gasses which contribute to climate change. Up to 50% of residential waste is food waste, which means that every single week, many hundreds if not thousands of tonnes of food waste and other decomposable organics are sent to your landfill.
If urban areas had more green spaces and gardens (both vertical and horizontal), they could harness the power of nature to utilize that waste by transforming it into compost. Rather than send organics to the dump where it will remain a "waste" item, why not utilize the power of aerobic decomposition to transform that trash into treasure? There's a reason why properly composted food waste is called "black gold" by those in the know!
Compost is the prized component of any good garden; the way professional gardeners talk about it, you'd think it had messianic properties!
My whole life had been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God's presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first [compost] heap.
- Bette Midler
Incorporating food waste recycling (or composting) into your city's infrastructure is actually likely to be less expensive than sending it to landfill. For one, landfills are filling up - finding available space in a landfill for a continuous stream of waste is not getting any easier. Further, health and safety restrictions make it that much more difficult to open new landfill sites and maintain old ones, which bears the burden of protecting residents from the effects of odours, pests, gasses and leachate.
Leachate is the liquid which literally leaches out of landfill sites. It can be high in toxic chemicals and bio-waste. Leachate is partially caused by rainwater, and partially by wet organic wastes decomposing within the dump site and producing yet more liquid.
For more information on the dangers of leachate, visit:
By returning unavoidable food waste materials to gardens and green spaces in the form of community compost systems, compost facilities or in-home food recycling systems, cities can reduce waste, greenhouse gasses, waste collection costs, landfill maintenance fees all while creating gorgeous, rich soil for their community.
8. Quieter Living Space
A green space is a quiet space!
Trees and vegetation actually absorb and deflect sound. A room with a few plants will provide considerably less acoustic feedback than a room without any plants.
Green walls on the exterior of buildings can actually decrease the reflection of sound in cities by 3 decibels, and the acoustic insulation within buildings by up to 8 decibels. That means that nearby sounds would be nearly cut in half for residents of buildings with green walls.
9. Less Inner-city Violence
Plants have such an astonishing effect on human psychology, that levels of vegetation in urban areas have actually been found to reduce fear, aggression and subsequent violent crime rates.
Among minor crimes, there is less graffiti, vandalism, and littering in outdoor spaces with natural landscapes than in areas with little vegetation. (Brunson, 1999)
Public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence. (Kuo, 2001)
Public housing buildings with greater amounts of vegetation had 52% fewer total crimes, 48% fewer property crimes, and 56% fewer violent crimes than buildings with low amounts of vegetation. (Kuo, 2001)
Studies of residential neighbourhoods found that property crimes were less frequent when there were trees in the right-of-way, and more abundant vegetation around a house. (Lorenzo, 2004; Donovan, 2012)
In a study of community policing innovations, there was a 20% overall decrease in calls to police from the parts of town that received location-specific treatments. Cleaning up vacant lots was one of the most effective treatment strategies. (Braga, 2008)
One could infer that with less overall crime, less pressure would be put on existing police forces, hospitals, mental health providers and fire departments, lowering the tax burden on residents and cities needed to pay for their services.
10. Improved Mental Health of Residents
"Bare" urban environments with little to no green space has actually be proven to increase the risk of mood and addiction disorders, anxiety, create greater sense of social isolation, and increase vulnerability to stress (Gruebner et al., 2017; Srivastava, 2009).
Urban environments have also been proven to heighten the likelihood of genetically vulnerable individuals to succumb to schizophrenia and psychosis (Fett et al., 2019). These are all independent of socio-economic stressors (which means that the urban environment itself is to blame).
Shinrin-yoku (or forest bathing), horticulture therapy, nature-based therapies (NBT), nature walks, time spent in parks and even just images of nature have all been found to reduce stress, improve mood and overall well-being, encourage social interrelatedness and generosity, and increase self-esteem.
Did you know? In some cases, nature experiences have actually proven to affect mood and cognitive functioning considerably more than traditional psychotherapeutic interventions (Passmore & Howell, 2014).
Stress-reduction & Stress Recovery
Ulrich et al. (1991) discovered that natural imagery and sound-cues promote considerably faster stress recovery than urban imagery.
Wells and Evans (2003) conducted a comprehensive analysis of children’s response to stress; children who had been raised within view of nature were considerably less affected by life stressors. The greater the proximity to nature, the more the children were able to handle stress in their daily lives.
Improved Mood & Well-Being
Shin et al. (2011) proved that full nature immersion during a two-week nature-based therapy program actually reduced depression symptoms and improved mood in a group of middle-aged alcoholic males.
Brooks et al. (2017) discovered that, regardless of the season, nature immersion and nature imagery contribute to improved mood and greater wellbeing (though actual nature had the greater impact).
Social Interrelatedness & Generosity
Social connection is paramount for psychological wellbeing. People who are exposed to nature stimuli will be more generous to strangers who need their help (Weinstein et al., 2009). A study of thirty-six survivors of domestic abuse proved that nature immersion actually helped contribute to their social interrelatedness (Beil, 2018).
A study of male veterans with PTSD showed evidence that time spent in nature helped them begin to trust others again, and eventually encouraged them to reach out to other veterans in the group. The safe environment that nature provided was so soothing and rejuvenating that they could reintegrate socially (Poulsen et al., 2016).
A study on recently released convicts living in a rehabilitation centre discovered that twice-weekly horticultural therapy sessions could improve self-esteem by 16 points on the Rosenburg self-esteem measure (Kim et al., 2017). The researchers found that working with plants and supporting their growth actually helped the participants to feel that they'd accomplished something tangible.
A two-year long study on visits to local British farms pulled data from 11, 800 visitors. One of the study's most exciting discoveries was that going for walks and performing activities within a natural context could help children with developmental delays/disabilities gain self-esteem and independence.
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