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  • Writer's picturemariannelefever

A healthy city beyond cycling - #5: Rewilding our cities

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

In this series, we're taking a closer look at some other key aspects of a healthy city, besides walking and cycling. Today's topic is Rewilding our cities. How can we bring nature back into our cities? How can we reap its health and climate adaptation benefits?

Authors: Martina Germaná, Iulia Sirbu, and Marianne Lefever

Over the past months, many of us have explored our neighborhoods like never before. We’ve been making intensive use of parks and other green spaces, just like so many of our neighbors. For some, it has been the relaxing and calming experience they were looking for. For many others, however, it was much more challenging. Either there simply was no green space within walking distance, the quality was very poor, or it turned out that an overcrowded park with a busy combination of adults, kids, and dogs is not exactly a relaxing experience - especially when trying to keep a safe distance.

Source: - Iulia Sirbu

Once again, the current health crisis has highlighted a much older problem: the lack of access to qualitative green space. Over the past few decades, this has resulted in a complete alienation from nature. When we design our cities without nature or even ‘against’ nature it does not only affect the environment, it also has a strong impact on our mental and physical health.

What is the challenge today?

Over the past decades, we have been urbanizing rapidly and made fundamental changes to society, agriculture and technology. As society flourished, people moved indoors, open space crumbled under the pressure of urban density and traffic, and media and electronic communication changed our behavior. Over time, our society's focus on growth led to a shift from a rural to an urban economy. Cities became the drivers and also the consumers behind this growth. With over 55% of the world’s population living in urban areas, our cities are altering and consuming nature rapidly in order to provide the resources we need to live our lives. From drinking water to farmland and raw materials, just to name a few. The result: reduced and depleted nature. Designing our cities ‘against’ nature has led to sinking, thirsty and flooded places.

Source: - Iulia Sirbu

Mexico City, once a natural paradise, is an unfortunate but great example of the challenges that a lack of qualitative green and blue structures could bring to both the city and its inhabitants. Now a paved paradise, the city was once a rich system of rivers and lakes. After draining the lakes and putting the rivers underground in order to make room for more people, Mexico City now faces a paradoxical problem. While it is running out of drinking water, it also deals with major flooding issues. And, in an attempt to solve the drinking water scarcity another problem is created. Pumping up large quantities of groundwater is causing subsidence or sinking of the city leading to, for example, structural instability of buildings and infrastructure. This is a growing problem in many countries. In Amsterdam (NL), trees are now planted with an artificial foundation to keep them from toppling when the ground further subsides. Meanwhile, the rainwater which should be replenishing potable groundwater can not penetrate thanks to impermeable paved surfaces above.

Nature in our cities is not just nice to have because it looks good. It is crucial because it fulfills so many different vital functions. When we take these functions away, we will have to replace them one way or another and it is never free. From water retention and managing flooding to reducing air and noise pollution. Nature provides vital resilience against more extreme weather and environmental contamination. But it also increases the economic value of real estate and entire neighborhoods. However, its biggest service might be improving population health.

"When we take nature's functions away, we will have to replace them one way or another and it is never free."

How is a lack of nature impacting our health and wellbeing?

Our lack of qualitative green space and disregard for existing water networks have created some serious health risks. In 2005, Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to raise awareness around the health impact of our disconnect with nature. Since then, a growing body of research is helping us understand just how much we could benefit from improving our green and blue networks in and around cities.

Source: - Iulia Sirbu

Having a qualitative and safe green space close to one's house has shown to increase physical activity and social interaction. This helps to reduce the risk of overweight and cardiovascular diseases. That might seem like a no-brainer but the health benefits go much further. From a decreased risk of breast cancer and a reduction in aggression and violent behavior to a positive impact on our children’s development. Children who grow up with lots of access and contact with nature have shown better cognitive development and less anxiety. But playing in the soil also helps to build a stronger immune system and lowers the risks of psychological disorders later in life.

Looking into all of these beneficial impacts of nature, it is no wonder that the Japanese ritual of Forest Bathing or Shinrin Yoku has caught on elsewhere too. Already in the 1980s, Japan recognised the benefits of walking or bathing in the woods and started incorporating it into their national health program. Since then, over 62 areas have been officially declared as “forest therapy road”. However, you do not need to go wander in the woods to capture the benefits of nature. An American study showed that patients with a tree view from their room recovered measurably faster than patients looking out onto a blind wall.

Rewilding our cities has other, more indirect, health benefits too. When we restore the environmental health of our cities, it also positively impacts our individual wellbeing. As heat waves occur more often, the cooling effect of trees protects us from overheating and heat stroke, a growing problem for young children and elderly people especially. Mitigating flood risk by actually designing with water instead of against it helps to limit the risk of unsanitary conditions and the spread of disease. Sinking cities cause structural instability and potential collapse in buildings and trees to fall over, further reducing the available green space.

Source: - Iulia Sirbu

There are many direct and indirect health benefits to reap from rewilding our cities that can lower healthcare costs, improve productivity and quality of life. However, it is often perceived as an expensive nice to have with high maintenance costs. Cities seem more eager to pave a square than to plant more trees. So how can we go about it and reap the benefits?

Some interesting examples.

Bryant Park - New York, a shared effort and investment.

What was still a no-go area forty years ago is now a vibrant park in one of Manhattan’s most expensive and dense neighborhoods. It has outdoor cafes, chess tables, high-quality green areas and a wide range of activities all year round. But it is not the city that came up with the transformation or even paid for it. Local stakeholders initiated the change and set up a private non-for-profit, Bryant Park Corporation (BPC), that is responsible for the physical management and the programming. It is financed by a.o. local property owners, who understand that a qualitative park will raise their property prices, and local restaurants that benefit from the increased pedestrian traffic in and around the park. BPC keeps experimenting with their model, their programming and the design of the park to keep evolving and adapting to changing needs and gained insights. This is a beautiful example of the impact qualitative green space can have on a neighborhood and innovative models to make it happen.

Copyright Young Sok Yun

Parque Lineal La Viga - Mexico City, an illustration of co-benefits.

Covering almost 16,500m2, the Parque Lineal La Viga in Mexico City was constructed in 2015 in an attempt to address multiple challenges at once. It might not look all that lush and green but it is uniquely adapted to Mexico City’s hot climate and water management issues. The park helps to mitigate floods, drinkwater shortages and heatwaves. It is within walking distance for 30,000 inhabitants and can be reached by another 4.6 million people in under 30min on public transit. Connecting park with so many people has contributed to the economic development of the surrounding underprivileged communities. On a smaller scale, the co-design with local citizens and having a qualitative outdoor space to gather has increased social interaction and cohesion too. Due to the success of the Parque Lineal La Viga, the city started on an even bigger park in the densely populated and marginalised district of Iztapalapa.


Princess Gardens - Berlin, bottom up rewilding.

In Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, a group of residents took matters in their own hands. They converted an abandoned lot into a community vegetable garden. They grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers but more importantly, the garden has created a strong social cohesion and sense of community around it. It also serves to educate people about local food production and what biodiversity in the cities of the future might look like. But most of all, the success of this project shows that small scale initiatives and green spaces are as important as large ones.

Copyright Marco Clausen

Nature provides many valuable services in and for our cities, from water management and cooling to improving our mental and physical health. When we push nature out, we will have to replace these services with often costly alternatives. Designing with nature in an urban environment allows us to create co-benefits and save on other efforts. So why do we keep considering it as a nice-to-have?

If you have enjoyed reading our series "A healthy city beyond cycling" then keep an eye on our blog in January. Because we're bundling all the articles in an easy to read white paper with even more examples!

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