How greener streets can lead to healthier cities


How greener streets can lead to healthier cities

Study finds benefits in reclaiming urban space from traffic and creating more green spaces

Street trees in downtown Medellin, Colombia.

Fri 5 Nov 2021 02.00 EDT

Headlines in the run up to Cop26 have promised new technologies, including electric cars, flying taxis and heat pumps to warm our homes. But we can do more – starting with the streets around us.

Jon Burke, a decarbonisation policy consultant, has likened the private motor vehicle to an invasive species. It grows to dominate our transport systems, choking out alternatives, and erodes the diverse social fabric of neighbourhoods. While electric vehicles will reduce climate-changing emissions and exhaust pollution, they will not relieve our congested roads and will not tackle air pollution from tyres, brakes and road wear.

Redesigning our villages, towns and cities to favour walking and cycling can help the climate crisis, air pollution and the urban noise that plagues the lives of so many people, as well as improving our health through daily exercise. This goes beyond debates on cycle lanes and low-traffic neighbourhoods. Cities around the globe including Sydney, Portland, Paris and now many in China, are embracing the “15-minute city“. This places shops, schools, health centres and the everyday necessities of life within an easy walk, cycle or public transport trip, reducing the need for car use and home deliveries.

A study from Barcelona’s Institute for Global Health adds to evidence on the benefits from reclaiming the urban space devoted to traffic.

Much-quoted research from the 1980s found that recovery from surgery could be helped simply by seeing trees from the hospital window. More recent studies have found that people live longer and have fewer heart problems if they have green spaces in their neighbourhoods. The World Health Organization (WHO) therefore recommends that we have access to 0.5 hectares of public green space – about two-thirds of a football pitch – within 300 metres of our homes.

The Barcelona researchers looked at satellite images of more than 1,000 European cities. They found that 62% of people were living in areas with less green space than recommended. Meeting the WHO recommendations could prevent 43,000 early deaths a year across 31 European countries studied.

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, who led the research, said: “Any greenery that can be introduced is good: green roofs and vertical gardens, green school yards, green corridors, street trees, park and pocket parks, community gardens and other measures such as rerouting traffic, digging up asphalt and replacing it with green space, across the board.”

Globally more than 50% of people live in cities. In the UK it is 80%. Pathways towards healthy, low-pollution and low-carbon cities should be a priority for the forthcoming Cop26.


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