Creating Sustainable Green Spaces in Urban Environments

Global warming has driven an influx of extreme weather events and prompted city governments worldwide to seek sustainable solutions for greater climate resilience and public safety measures. Currently, 78% of carbon emissions and harmful air particles derive from urban ecosystems, with 50% of city inhabitants facing severe health implications as a result. 

Perhaps even more alarming, more than 90% of the global population lives where air pollution concentrations exceed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. One practical solution to improving sustainability and quality of life is creating green spaces. Here are four types that thrive in urban environments.

Urban Food Forests

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food access study for 2015 to 2019, 12.7% of Americans lived in low-income areas, equivalent to 39,074,974 people. Of that, 6.1% had limited access to supermarkets and other food stores. This data has likely worsened following the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, urban food forests have begun popping up across the country, generating greater accessibility to resources in underserved communities. 

The largest urban agricultural area in the United States is the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill in Atlanta, Georgia, spanning 7.1 acres. Locals have planted 30 community gardens and over 100 fruit trees, helping combat food insecurity. Additionally, 1,000 volunteers deliver nutrition education, such as gardening and cooking classes, to promote sounder health. 

At AgLanta, another nearby urban food forest serving the Atlanta area, volunteers have helped increase food access from 52%-75% between 2015 and 2020.

Pocket Parks

Balancing environmental, economic, social, and public health measures is difficult for city officials aiming for improved sustainability in urban ecosystems. In addition to safeguarding citizens’ physical well-being, research has now correlated climate change with mental health problems.

WHO’s recent Mental Health and Climate Change: Policy Brief highlighted various ways climate change impacts mental health, from chronic stress-induced sleep disorders to anxiety to increased risk of suicide after a significant weather event. Green spaces provide an opportunity to boost immunity and reduce depression, ultimately improving people’s quality of life. 

However, creating green spaces in urban areas requires creativity, such as building pocket parks. Pocket parks are green spaces measuring less than 5,000 square meters that allow urbanites to connect with nature and relax — and more cities are catching on.

In Closter, New Jersey, city officials are applying their $11,000 AARP Community Challenge Grant award to create a pocket park for senior citizens. The project, expected to be completed in November 2022, will provide community residents with a vibrant eco-urban space to walk to the downtown shopping district. 

Pocket parks can include several features. Some might have benches or a small playground for kids. Others might have other unique offerings, such as sustainable ponds that oxygenate the water to support a thriving ecosystem and plant growth.

Mini Forests

Trees provide ample environmental benefits for urban ecosystems, including preventing erosion, decreasing urban heat islands, enhancing biodiversity, and sequestering carbon. For instance, street trees account for 10%-20% of California’s urban forests, providing habitat for numerous bird species. In New York City, trees sequester an estimated 52,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the borough of Manhattan alone. 

Mini forests can thrive in just about any urban environment if done correctly. It’s best to use native trees naturally found throughout the surrounding area. In crowded cities especially, mini forests can reduce air, water, and noise pollution while restoring biodiversity. 

Rooftop Gardens

Converting city buildings into eco-urban oases is another way to create a sustainable green space. Like mini forests, rooftop gardens help reduce the heat island effect and decrease air pollution. They also help improve public health.

Kansas City, Missouri, installed over 700,000 square feet of rooftop gardens between 1999-2022. This circumvented 269 tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 2020 and reduced citywide health expenses by $35,500-$80,500.

A recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report also found several physical and emotional benefits for those who maintained urban rooftop gardens, including:

  • Improved mental and physical health
  • A sense of purpose
  • Lower obesity rates
  • Better social relationships and communication
  • Enhanced aesthetic experiences
  • Improving local food accessibility for vulnerable citizens

Many of these benefits derive from the restorative nature of urban gardening and the ability to make critical social contributions.

Green Spaces Are Essential for Sustainability and Public Health

Urban governments must take extra measures to create more green spaces within city limits. Driving sustainability through progressive green building codes and energy-efficient transportation systems is essential, but restoring natural areas delivers its own benefits for the environment and city residents.


Author bio: Jane is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co and an environmental writer covering green technology, sustainability, and environmental news.

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