Today’s post is a continuation of my series Learning from European Cities and I’d like to talk about the role of green space in urban life. In my past visits to European and South American cities, I’ve always been impressed by the green space embedded in their urban fabric in the form of beautiful, lush city parks. On my recent trip to Europe, I was particularly impressed with the green spaces in Brussels. This may partially be due to the fact that Paul and I stayed next to the Botanique, a beautiful and very old botanical garden right in the middle of the city.
The Botanique (botanical gardens) in Brussels established in 1829
In dense cities, it’s very hard to incorporate nature into the every day experience of the city dweller:
A busy street in the heart of Brussels
It is usually crowded, cramped, always in motion and you’re surrounded by a man-made world of the street, buildings and cars. This is why it’s so important that dense cities have places of respite from the harsh pulse of the city. Besides the obvious psychological benefits, a connection with nature has been shown to have health benefits as well and it’s even been proven to aid in healing. According to Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in their book The Experience of Nature: A Pscychological Perspective, “People with access to nearby natural settings have been found to be healthier overall than other individuals. The longer-term, indirect impacts (of ‘nearby nature’) also include increased levels of satisfaction with one’s home, one’s job and with life in general’. No wonder city dwellers in Europe like to escape to the country every now and then.
In Brussels, there were some very beautiful and relatively large parks embedded in city. In many instances, these parks are older than many of the buildings that surround them, but the people and government of Brussels made sure that these green spaces remained intact as the city grew around them. And now they reap the benefits of these gorgeous parks that provide much needed peace and quite amidst the hustle and bustle of city life.
A meditation garden within the Botanique
Besides full-blown parks, there are other ways to insert the serene influence of nature into busy cities. One is the presence of the urban forest, which comprises mostly of the trees and other plants around the city, but is not limited to those things. I noticed in the European cities I visited, there were very few trees in the heart of the cities, but there was a significant canopy of trees just outside of the very center. Unlike our young scrawny trees in Phoenix, almost all the trees I saw in Europe were old, lush, very established and quite breathtaking. Even though these trees are not in a natural setting but a part of the urban environment they still provide the psychological and physical benefits of nature to city dwellers.
The lovely canopy of trees a little bit outside the center of Berlin
Another rather delightful way that nature is inserted into European cities is in the form of flower boxes and baskets adorning the balconies of apartment buildings and street lights:
Pleasingly, flower arrangements made an appearance all over Brussels
Although these small bursts of plants may seem insignificant in the middle of an imposing urban landscape, they go a long way in terms of reminding people about the sheer beauty and power of nature.
I think in regards to a connection with nature, we are way ahead of many European cities here in Phoenix. Because we aren’t a very dense city and because of our unique landscape, we have lots of opportunities to experience nature in our daily lives with readily available views of the mountains, a wide open blue sky and some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. And Phoenicians are able to escape the city and immerse themselves in a natural environment with just a short ride to a mountain preserve. Plus, in addition to visiting city and state parks around town, which are woefully underutilized, we can walk or ride our bikes on the canals.
That being said, we still have a unique opportunity to build an even stronger and more meaningful connection with nature and that is by utilizing some of the empty lots that plague our city and turning them into green spaces. I’ve been told by various people ranging from city councilmen to local business people about all the reasons we aren’t able to make anything useful out of these empty lots. And I’ve heard from some that it’s useless to even dream that anything could possibly be done with these empty lots.
I don’t believe it’s useless to dream of and to plan for a better future for our city. Some really fantastic uses for many of our empty lots would be to turn them into urban gardens, city parks, or green public squares. For a great example of making a (newly) empty lot into a green space, read about Sean Sweat’s proposal for a dog park at the site of the Sahara Hotel in answer to the currently proposed black space – a 2 acre parking lot.
Photo Credit: All photos by the author.Tags: botanique, Brussels, canals, city dweller, city parks, connection to nature, dog park, empty lots, flower boxes, learning from European Cities, meditation garden, parking lot, phoenix, public squares, Rachel Kaplan, Sahara Hotel, Sean Sweat, Stephen Kaplan, The Experience of Nature:A Psychological Perspective, urban forest, urban gardens