Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
As much as humans have attempted to distance ourselves from nature, we are inherently natural and our bodies respond to nature’s benefits. City dwellers take respite in urban green spaces like Central Park in Manhattan or Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C. Aside from a positive impact on one’s psyche, green spaces can offer a potentially lifesaving service in a rapidly warming world.
A study done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C., this summer found that areas with an abundance of green spaces, such as Northwest, could be up to 17 degrees cooler than neighborhoods in areas like Northeast that have more development. The study looked at the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon where more industrialized areas tend to be warmer than nearby rural areas due to the combination of lots of paved areas and minimal tree coverage.
Unfortunately, D.C.’s urban heat island effect tends to impact low-income areas the most. Just as with income inequality, these temperature disparities often take place within a few blocks of one another.
The costs of increasing urban green spaces are paltry compared to the benefits for public health. A 2006 study found that increased tree coverage in urban areas could filter out air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Trees filter air effectively enough that increased urban tree plantings could be considered a reasonable part of an air quality management policy.
A study on the benefits of urban trees in Toronto found that having 10 more trees in a city block improves perceived health for people living there as much as a $10,000 increase in median income. Above all, trees provide shade, reducing the need for air conditioning, which can not only be prohibitively expensive, but also releases about 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
Part of the battle for increasing urban green spaces in low-income areas is getting residents on board. Low-income residents of D.C. frequently don’t have the time or resources to lobby the government to plant more trees in their neighborhoods. When trees are planted without notice, residents often see them as a burden. Trees bring fallen leaves in autumn, pollen spores in spring and, in the worst case scenario, a wave of gentrifiers.
Nonprofit organizations like Casey Trees work to re-green low-income areas of D.C. by connecting personally with residents and espousing the positive impacts of trees. Unsurprisingly, trees that Casey Trees planted without consulting residents were not likely to survive.
D.C. has experienced one of the sharpest declines in forest cover in the nation, second only to Oklahoma. But beyond trees on city streets, low-income neighborhoods of D.C. also need accessible public green spaces like Rock Creek Park or Meridian Hill Park, both located in Northwest. These areas provide myriad health benefits, as well as a service that is a minor miracle in our late-capitalist society — a place to exist, for free.
Public parks are one of the few places where a person can sit and enjoy a lovely day without the expectation of spending money. They serve as community meeting places, which are vital in our increasingly isolated world. Urban green spaces should not be a luxury or a privilege. In a rapidly warming climate, they are a human right.
Emily Maurer is a junior environmental policy major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.