All green without blazing

Illustration of urban setting
Olivia Staser/Staff

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It shouldn’t be a surprise that more greenery in public is better for us. If you’re having trouble imagining the benefits, just think of the thousands of lifestyle blog posts raving about how house plants really “boost your mood” and “are cheaper than a therapist.” Think about the meditative ambiance and breath of fresh air that your new palm fronds offer within your home and scale those effects up to fit an entire city.

In cities, green spaces could be the answer to counteracting what environmentalists call the “urban heat island” and its associated health risks. Access to greenery and shade is extremely limited in areas of poverty and neighborhoods of color, however. Because of this injustice, city planners and policymakers need to promote community engagement in sufficient local green spaces rather than investment in flashy tourist attractions.

Urban heat islands describe cities that are much hotter than their surrounding landscapes because of the large amount of solar radiation that is absorbed by concrete and other manmade structures. Not only do they worsen the effects of climate change in cities, but they also lead to many negative health outcomes for residents, including respiratory diseases and heatstroke.

It is widely agreed by the scientific community that public green spaces (parks, community gardens, etc.) and urban shade would be advantageous in fighting the urban heat island and these negative outcomes; some even consider shade to be a public health requirement. But integrating these spaces into existing cities can be challenging.

Past efforts to design innovative and sustainable public parks and the ways they have succeeded or failed can guide us through the process. Take Pershing Square in Los Angeles, for instance. Once covered with abundant tree species and lush vegetation, the still-classified “park” has since been redesigned to be more accommodating to the “average Los Angeles visitor” — white businessmen on their lunch break. It is now covered largely by pavement and shaded by sparse palm trees and impressive art formations. Though beautiful to look at, these additions provide no refuge from the direct sunlight and amplified heat of the city.

The High Line in New York City is excellent example. Although it was revered for its ingenious repurposing of the former elevated railway into a “linear park,” sustainability experts criticize it for being nothing more than a glorified sidewalk that can hardly shade its visitors. Nevertheless, the popularity of the High Line solidified it as a perceived success in environmentalism, and it stands as an inspiration for numerous urban projects. The High Line uses aesthetics as a Band-Aid to place over the giant gash that is the urban greenery deficit.

Not only do many current green spaces fall short of true progress in counteracting the urban heat island, but they also disregard local residents and marginalized communities who would benefit most from increased greenery and tree cover. Therefore, “environmental gentrification” is a major concern in the design and placement of green spaces.

In the case of the High Line, its trendy and eco-friendly facade attracted similarly trendy bars and restaurants. Reports speculate that property values in the area increased by about 103%, displacing residents and forcing the closure of many local businesses.

These projects were major setbacks for environmental progress in the modern cities of New York and Los Angeles, but by learning from them, we can move toward solutions and actively prevent gentrification.

One vital step is increasing community engagement in the process. If city planners want to give people what they need, then who better to assess those needs than the people?

Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York sets the standard for a neighborhood that has become greener without displacing its residents; this was largely due to active engagement from the Newtown Creek Alliance. Participation by citizens in the planning process allowed for local businesses to flourish and for new developments to be “just green enough” — not as luxuriously developed to attract unwanted tourists but practically designed to protect vulnerable residents from the heat.

In our own city of Berkeley, new housing developments pose a huge barrier to accessible green spaces in addition to worsening the housing crisis. As UC Berkeley seeks viable plots for student housing, it disregards the city’s need for greenery. In 2019, the Rausser College of Natural Resources received notice that the beloved Oxford Tract will be a new site for development despite persistent opposition by Defend the Oxford Tract, a coalition of students, faculty and other supporters of the preservation of the Oxford Tract land. This pattern of replacing cooling green space with heat-absorbing concrete is not unique, and as Oxford Tract gardening and sustainable research activities find a new home, we can only hope that planners will consider the environmental and social implications of removing this precious public space.

The idea of trying to green a city is intimidating. It’s easy to look at newly developed public attractions and simply trust that they are the solution to infusing nature into our concrete jungles. But sometimes these big, flashy parks are only aesthetically pleasing and, in practice, neither address the concerns of the urban heat island nor consider groups at stake.

Instead, city planners and decision-makers should build multiple smaller parks and engage local communities in the design process. Right now, we are rising out of a haze and finally beginning to look clearly at the inherent problems within urban developments. With a higher vision for society, we can work together to step into a greener future.

Shannon Tsang is a senior at UC Berkeley studying at the Rausser College of Natural Resources.