The green amongst the urban

New York’s Central Park – aerial view (image: thisisthestoryof.wordpress.com)

Green spaces in urban environments are well known to offer a wide range of benefits for people and the environment.  They offer an escape for city inhabitants away from their often tiring normal routines. One of the things I find most pleasing about living in London is the abundance of parks and reserves, making green space and a little bit of nature easily accessible from almost anywhere within the city’s vast limits.  In fact, in most cities I’ve lived or visited I’ve come to appreciate time spent in green space.  An immediate benefit of green space apparent to me is space for recreation and leisure.  Whether it be kayaking down London’s Regent’s Canal, a football game with mates after school at the local common, or a formal exercise session in the city centre for fitness enthusiasts; green spaces make the perfect venues.  Green spaces also provide a place for relaxation and peacefulness, often comprising of tranquil ponds or lakes and beautiful gardens to explore. They contribute positively to the environment in areas such as climate change and biodiversity, and offer a place for wildlife to live and flora to grow, often including native or rare species.  The flying foxes hanging from the tree tops in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney and the grazing Deer in Richmond Park in London are particular favourite examples of mine.  Personally, I have also found joy in the cultural and historical significance of particular green spaces, such as the haunting sculptures of artist Gustav Vigeland in Oslo, or the rich heritage of Greenwich Park in London.

Regent’s Canal, London.                                              Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.
Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park, Oslo.                                  Greenwich Park, London.

I have a theory that my well-being is greatly improved by interactions with green space and the natural environment, and it turns out I’m not the only one with this view.  You don’t have to research very deeply to find a number of academic articles investigating and supporting this notion.  Nina Morris (2003) reports that urban green spaces are now widely recognised as major contributors both to the quality of the environment, and to human health and well-being in inner city and suburban areas.  A study in the Netherlands investigated whether the presence of green space can provide a buffer against negative health impacts of stressful life events, determining that health complaints were significantly moderated by the amount of green space in a three kilometre radius (Berg et. al., 2010).  Similarly, statistical analysis by Mass et. al., (2006) of people registered with 104 Dutch general practices revealed that the percentage of green space inside a one kilometre and a three kilometre radius had a significant positive association with perceived general health.  Mitchell and Popham (2008) explored the effects of exposure to natural environments on heath inequality, noting that populations exposed to the greenest environments also have the lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation.  Mitchell and Popham (2006) also reported that while in general a higher proportion of green space in an area is associated with better health, the association is dependent on the degree of urbanity and level of income deprivation in an area.  Results of a 2009 study (Lafortezza et. al.) indicate that longer and frequent visits to green spaces generate significant improvements of perceived well-being.  The study focused on physical and psychological benefits associated with the use of green spaces on people in the UK and Italy when heat stress episodes are more likely to occur.  And finally, Fuller and Gaston (2009) following their study of green space coverage in European cities, reported broadly that benefits of urban green spaces range from physical and psychological health to social cohesion, ecosystem service provision and biodiversity conservation.  I imagine with further research there would appear countless more examples supporting the idea of urban green space being associated with improved well-being.  But for the moment it is clear enough that the benefits are well documented.

Pondering my love of green spaces, I cannot help but ponder also the future of these areas.  With increasing populations and more people living in cities in the world than ever before, and increased demand for residential, commercial, and industrial space, will the amount of green space in our cities be compromised?  Will their size, abundance, or diversity be reduced?  Will we have to travel increasingly farther to get our nature fix?  Will green spaces become restricted or will their maintenance become an issue?  There are already many parks and reserves in London that charge an entry or usage fee.  Will the effects of climate change have an impact?  These thoughts do scare me a little, as I believe we should cherish and preserve our green spaces.  They are an integral part of our cities and their benefits to society and the environment are plenty.  So, go on, go enjoy some green space today.

Richmond Park, London.
Photos by Billy Haworth

Leake Street graffiti tunnel: Accepted and ‘cool’.

Hidden below the chaos of London’s busy Waterloo Station lies a very different place where the interactions of the people in this bustling city are evident in a very different way. The Tunnel is an authorised graffiti area where writers can practice their craft without the fear of the societal consequences associated with writing in the majority of other places in the city. Works include anything from tags to more artistic forms of street art such as pieces or throw ups. I’ve even seen recently more elaborate forms of visual art and sculpture. Subject matters might be anything from identity or political messages to professions of love or contemporary culture. There is an image below of a great piece paying tribute to the late cultural icon, Amy Winehouse.

The thing that strikes me about this place is how ‘cool’ it appears. Speaking generally from the view of a society, why is graffiti and street art considered ‘cool’ when it’s all together in one legal place, but not when it appears in its more organic and perhaps true form on our city’s streets and walls? (Though, I know there are many people who would still consider this cool, and some even cooler simply for its illegal nature). Is it a bit ‘not in my backyard’, whereby people don’t care what is going on as long as it isn’t in their own space or interest? The ‘broken windows’ concept proposed by Wilson & Kelling in 1982 is also worth mentioning here. The concept states that a broken window left unrepaired gives a sense to the community that nobody cares, leading to more broken windows. Similarly, leaving graffiti unchecked can lead to an increase in graffiti in the area, thus adding to a feeling of disorder and disrepair. Perhaps with graffiti contained in one place that is not somebody’s personal space these fears are reduced. I admit, even I probably wouldn’t appreciate someone defacing my home.

But I still think there is a place for graffiti in our cities, and the simple existence of a space like The Tunnel shows that some people at least acknowledge that. For me that is probably what I find ‘coolest’ about this place. This is especially cool when compared to other places that do not have such spaces, such as the City of Sydney LGA for example, which currently has no legal space for graffiti writing, and is so heavy-handed in its removal of graffiti that graffiti was defined on their website (2004) as “any inscription, word, figure or word design that is marked, etched, scratched, drawn, sprayed, painted, pasted, applied or otherwise affixed to or on any surface of any assets and includes any remnants of same such as adhesives, glues, tape, shadows or colour variations remaining after removal.”

Everyone has differing views on graffiti and street art, and often in the end that doesn’t really matter anyway. Policy makers and people with authority still make the decisions for its management, and graffiti will continue to occur anyway, whether authorised or not. In my opinion, though, I think this place is rad. I love the art, I love the juxtaposition of paint and colour with the otherwise empty, utility feel of the unused tunnel. I love the interactions you witness between people; I love watching artists paint. I love the vibe, and I love the exposure. It’s definitely one of my favourite places in London.

Photos by Billy Haworth