Green is the new grey – the role of plants in greening our cities

The time when humankind decided they wanted to settle down, build permanent shelter, get a couple of goats and make a veggie garden marks the begin of civilization as we know it and took place around 12,000 years ago. That’s only the most recent 4% of the history of Homo sapiens. That means that for 96% of our existence on earth we roamed the savannahs, forests and bountiful water edges of the earth, rather than being closed off in constructed settlements.

Some argue that this long period of communion with nature created a kind of habit: we crave the close contact to nature and we feel good when surrounded by vegetation (particularly now that we don’t need to watch out for giant beasts). This might explain why camping and bush walking are national Australian hobbies. It’s also one of the proposed explanations as to why so many studies have observed that vegetation helps people resist to and recover from mental and physical illness, makes them calmer and even feel happier. Even the most hardcore urbanite recognises the feeling of unwinding more easily from a stressful week when surrounded by nature.

This was one of the most exciting findings of the research we’ve recently wrapped up for Horticulture Innovation Australia: the large volume of evidence that establishes and (as much as possible), explains the link between physical proximity to plants (or green spaces) and wellbeing and good health.

The implication of us liking plants are (tick the ones that apply to you):

  • we are willing to pay more for property in leafier suburbs
  • we are more productive at work if we get to hang out with plants during the day (have office plants, have lunch outside in a garden)
  • we get together and build more cohesive communities in our parks, leafy squares and community gardens
  • we are more likely to go shopping on a tree-lined shopping district
  • we’re more likely to exercise if we have access to walkable green spaces
  • our children develop better if they play outdoors in nature.

Even if we didn’t like plants, they’d be doing their job anyway. This is called ecosystem services.

Green Infrastructure has solutions for many of the problems that affect urban dwelling Australians.

Having more plants across our cities could help us fight off urban-heat island effect, which is particularly pernicious during heat waves, which in turn are becoming more frequent and harsher. This is because the canopies of trees and bushes don’t accumulate and radiate as much heat as hard surfaces do, because they provide shade and because they help dissipate heat through moisture. Less extreme heat means we preserve our buildings and streets better, that we don’t need to use so much electricity for air conditioning, that we feel less uncomfortable and that we die less.

Another thing that kills people (3000 people every year in Australia alone) is poor air quality. Plants are proved to remove pollutants from the air, indoor and outdoor. They could even help us clear up the pollution along our main roads.

The list goes on and our instinctual and factual knowledge of the benefits of plants in the built environment has triggered:

  • Important initiatives like the 202020 Vision and Greening the City plans in Melbourne and Sydney.
  • Thousands of brilliant brains into research and development to understand how we can harness and manage these benefits. In almost every Australian university there is at least one research group working on this topic.
  • Rewards for the use of green infrastructure in sustainability rating schemes such as GreenStar and WELL for buildings and ISCA ratings for infrastructure.

If you’re curious, please join us at a free event on the 8 March at Barangaroo. It’s an opportunity to meet with a diverse panel and an enthusiastic audience of green infrastructure aficionados (and sceptics), for a lively discussion (and refreshments).

If you know a thing or two about the topic and would like to help us validate our research, please fill in this quick survey about your experience with green infrastructure. For each response, a native tree will be planted!

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