Urban greenspace and health as strange bedfellows
August 12, 2013
“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing that I hear when I
come back to the city…Though this sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my
mind for an uncomfortably long time.” Excerpt from Ellis, B., Less Than Zero
“Heaven and Hell are just one breath away!”- Andy Warhol
The main protagonist of the novel, Clay, a native of a Godless Los Angeles, has been painted by Bret Easton Ellis as the example of the ills of urban excess—young, bored, over-privileged, well-connected and social deviant. We must merge at some point, interact with other city inhabitants then retire to our urban bunkers for shelter from the madness. It must be acknowledged that he is but one possible archetype of an urban citizen. This Clay of Bel Air does not live the same life or possess the same life chances as a young kid living in “white flighted” Echo Park, Los Angeles. They are one in the same with the city organism (Laubichler, 2013). Clay and the young kid from Echo Park share different lived realities as a city dweller. Each must find his own survival tactic. But each of them is a product of at times forgiving, often constraining complex forces beset on an urban citizen.
Milgram’s idea of a Small World make the world tied in a
network by six degrees. You could possibly have connections in Washington Heights, St. Paul and as well as from a colonias in Mexico City. Our connections may only be around 3.74 hops away as most people on this planet strapped to a Twitter and Facebook account like oxygen masks (Backstrom et al., 2012). But technology cannot solely overcome spatial proximity and intimacy (required by Glaesar) and the need for human and social capital among urban dwellers (“Get Out of Town”, 2011). Our modern world may shrink due to common interest while the physical and emotional resources to house us become more and more constrained (Lemann, 2011). Such constraints can place undue burden on the state of health among urban dwellers. Community is ingrained for some. For others, they live only in a zip code.
Photo 1: Metro North commuter train landing, Cold Spring, NY, 2010
Take for instance Cold Spring, New York. North of New York City along the Hudson Valley, it could be called a semi-urban exurb. I would surmise that the year-round inhabitants want no part of Wal-Mart or “McMansions” and have kept it that way for a good reason (“Et in suburbia ego”, 2011). The “Gap” (photo 1) is quite evident between Cold Spring, a very intimate hamlet of nonconformists (from the Super Creative and Creative Classes described by Florida) seeking tranquility, space and astronomically high priced organic tangerines and those living in the New York City proper with noise, “urban huddle” and still highly priced run-of-the-mill tangerines (Lemann, 2011; “Et in suburbia ego”, 2007). The air in Cold Spring is ripe and healthful. Cold Springers working in NYC as well as weekenders from the city jump the Metro North and begin their vinyasas entering the Valley. Green space is had in Cold Spring without much effort. In Cold Spring, one only has to look outside his door for nature. The community is intimate within the town center. Having your own plot of land goes along his union card as a Cold Springer. Green is in Cold Spring’s DNA.
Green spaces such as the ones in the photos below, serve many important uses: recreation, aesthetic and well as ecological. Why should we make provisions to keep cities green? Cities are known for concrete edifices, technological advancement and fast paces. By definition, such intimacy with nature for the most part has to be created and dedicated for common use within a city. Maas et al. (2006) found that in a Dutch city, there was indeed a positive relationship between having green space and more positive perceptions of health. This relationship was even more pronounced for the urban poor in that study. So those dahlias in the community garden are important to all of us.
The photo below was taken from my friend’s Brooklyn walk-up kitchen window (photo 2). It was a vast sea of greenery, with collective gardens and space maintained by certain inhabitants of the duplex. It brought my intention to my breath. I loved the shops and vibrancy of Brooklyn. But efforts such as this garden illustrates the ownership to the urban center is taking to recapture some organic sources of oxygen.
Photo 2: View from the Kitchen window of a Brooklyn, NY walkup, 2010
Photo 3: Urbanscape outside of the Brooklyn Museum, 2010
Sometimes a city makes a pointed effort to create green where the people are. NYC is a great example of this movement. Outside of the Brooklyn Museum, the greenspace in this photo (photo 3) may be used as a reading space is maintained by the city, as a congregation space and as a reminder to slow down before entering the city streets again on the trek to the subway.
How can cities bring green into the daily lives of its dwellers? The “e-topias” advocated by William Mitchell of MIT call for all in one places to both live and work (“Et in suburbia ego?, 2007; Zukin, 2010). As a cultural incubator, this would call to act as a citizen within a designated space. Dr. Rossler (2013) notes the importance of creating social contracts (from his video short Creation of Social Contracts) in providing space for each individual for sharing experiences. These “e-topias” may solve the concerns of making daily needs and resources closer and available at the ready. But I take pause. Would these green spaces and living spaces of the “e-topias” be based on a sense of collective, limited ownership (such as restricted use of gardens in London)? Such a proposition may greatly hamper social innovation and sense of larger community outside of its polis walls. It may also strip
the urban cultural character to an unappetizing faint Silly Putty version
of a “city” lacking diversity (Zukin, 2010).
It is quite possible the aggregate benefit of “e-topias” may be offset by increased social and health disparities among those without access. Also, where will the poor and aged live while their homes are razed to make room for this innovation? Will there be a parity of access to these new communities to all regardless of income? But urban centers such as Brooklyn somehow “became cool” (Zukin, 2010). To Zukin, the realness of urban
culture becomes synonymous with “authenticity” to a vision of Brooklyn that
does not pander to the wishes of outsiders. The grittiness and lack of organic
green sources made way for colorful motifs of strength on the sides of
tenements and upstart trendy centers bringing creative culture to the area (Zukin,
2010; Lemann, 2011). Cities need cultural and economic growth for the benefit
of all of its citizens in order to exist and thrive (“A cul-de-sac of poverty”,
2007; Lemann, 2011). What is the social cost to being “cool” or “uncool” particularly for the most disenfranchised?
All photos copyright © Michele Battle-Fisher (do not publish without permission)
Backstrom, L.,Boldi, P. Rosa, M., Ugander, J. & Vigna, S. (January 2012). Four Degrees of Separation. Retrieved on January 27, 2013 from http://arxiv.org/pdf/1111.4570v3.
“A cul-de-sac of poverty” (May 5, 2007) The Economist- A Special report on cites.
Retrieved on January 27,
2013 from http:// http://www.economist.com/node/9070705.
Ellis, B. (1985). Less Than Zero. New York: Penguin Books.
“Et in suburbia ego?” (May 5, 2007) The Economist- A Special report on cites. Retrieved
on January 27, 2013 from http://www.economist.com/node/9070632.
Laubichler, M. (2013) Cities and Biological Concepts [Video File]. Video posted to http://digital.leuphana.de/library/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q%5Btitle_cont%5D=laubichler.
Lemann, N.(June 27, 2011). Get Out of Town. The New Yorker, 76-80.
Maas, J., Verheij, R., Groenewegen, P., de Vries, S, & Spreeuwenberg, P. (2006) Green space, urbanity, and health: how strong is the relation?.Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 60:587-592.
Rossler, W. (2013) Creation of Social Contracts [Video File]. Video posted to http://digital.leuphana.de/library?oembed_type=video&page=2&phase_name=1-significant-detail.
Warhol, A. (1985-86). Heaven and hell are just one breath away! [painting] Pittsburgh, Pa.:
The Andy Warhol Museum.
Zukin, S. (2010). “How Brooklyn Became Cool”. In Naked City: The Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places. New York: Oxford.