THE GREEN CITY
Shelter-in-place policies, enforced in jurisdictions around the world in response to COVID-19, have highlighted the vastly unequal access to public green space and nature within urban centres. While homeowners with private yards and gardens can comfortably experience the outdoors without compromising physical distancing protocol, urbanites living in confined high-rises have limited access to green amenities.
Decades of research have shown that spending time in nature immensely benefits our physical and mental well-being - critical physiological assets that are increasingly threatened and challenged by the chronically stressful modern world. A 2016 WHO report states that urban green spaces, such as parks, playgrounds, and residential greenery, can reduce morbidity and mortality in urban residents by providing psychological restoration, stimulating social cohesion, fostering physical activity, and reducing exposure to air pollution, noise and extreme heat.
Yet despite its many benefits, in many cities, outdoor space increasingly comes at a premium. According to the Urban Institute, approximately 100 million people in the US live further than 10 minutes away from a park or green space. One in eight British households is without private outdoor space, with black residents being four times more likely to be without access.
A 2019 UBC study reveals that green space in 10 major American cities was in short supply in lower-income neighbourhoods and areas with residents of colour. In contrast, gardens, rooftop or balcony greenery, micro parks on pavements or city blocks, and even trees, all of which require long-term investment and maintenance, dotted more affluent areas.
As such, studies show that access to green space positively correlates with income, especially in urban cores. Aided by massive fundraising campaigns and affluent stakeholders, urban parks can be of much higher quality in wealthier districts with private donors. As government park budgets are likely to deteriorate because of the pandemic pressures, a critical pinch point emerges on how to cultivate and leverage private funds to invest in parks in lower-income neighbourhoods.
Some cities are making significant steps towards producing accessible green space. 92% of Vancouver residents live within a five-minute walk of green space, while almost 300 American mayors have signed the 10-Minute Walk Challenge that parks be a 10-minute walk from all homes in their municipality by 2050 - a goal met by San Francisco in 2017.
The West Toronto Railpath is a local example that has transformed 2.1km of elevated railway into a multi-use green trail, bringing a green reprieve to the industrial Junction Triangle. Biking the trail takes roughly 10 minutes, which is not enough to satisfy most cyclists. Phase 2 of the WTR has been a prolonged process, slated to begin in 2021 if all goes according to plan.
"View corridors" to parks from high-rise housing, tree planting, and streetscapes embellished with vibrant flowers and lush landscaping can also provide interim actions to bridge the green divide. As many residents can't visit a park five blocks from their house every day, interacting with nature when looking outside their window or walking down the street also represent meaningful green interventions.
While efforts to democratize green space has been a goal of cities long before the age of COVID-19, the conversation has dramatically intensified since the pandemic amplified the socio-spatial disparity. While there is hope that this momentum will accelerate the pre-pandemic push for better community gardens, more accessible parks, and green streetscapes, a tangible change must originate from city governments prioritizing them.
Lubna talks about Metrolinx’s decision to pull funding for the Jane & Finch community hub.
Learn more about the concept of 8-80 Cities, which advocates for public spaces that are designed for both 8 year olds and 80 year olds.
CP24 reports Toronto-wide and global bike shortage due to COVID-19.
Read more about the East Scarborough Storefront basketball courts project that was driven by a youth engagement program called the Community Design Initiative.
Lubna talks about Sabina Ali and her initiative with tandoor grills in Thorncliffe Park. Read Bloomberg CityLab's feature on her here.
Read more about OpenStreets TO's 'pop-up park' where parts of Bloor turned into grass in 2019.
Danforth Avenue bike lane pilot approved as part of city’s COVID-19 relief plans.
ActiveTO Plan closes 10km of roads for pedestrians and cyclists, including the Gardiner.