Smart planning of urban green space for better public health

Most city-dwellers know the pleasure of enjoying the calm of a green public park, taking a short break from city life. But what impact do green spaces have on our mental and physical health? And how can a better understanding of these impacts support the planning and development of our cities? NORDGREEN brings together five Nordic cities and municipalities and four research institutions to explore the linkages between urban green space and the health and wellbeing of the citizens.

New methods for citizen involvement

The project dives into how the difference in accessibility to urban green space affects people’s health and wellbeing and how cities can plan and design green spaces to promote public health. An essential component of the project is to collect data from the public on how they perceive their cities and neighbourhoods – data that will guide and validate future planning strategies and design interventions.

“We have good scientific evidence of the value of contact with nature for people’s health and wellbeing,” says Kjell Nilsson, former Director of Nordregio. “In NORDGREEN, we’re exploring methods, statistics and data collection that enables us to compare the quality of the green areas with health and socio-economic data on a more local level. In addition, our city partners are conducting public participatory GIS surveys (PPGIS), where people can map their most frequently visited places and give feedback on how they perceive them.”

Valuable input into green space planning

The five cities and municipalities involved in the project are Espoo and Ii in Finland, Täby and Vilhelmina in Sweden and Stavanger in Norway. Espoo recently completed the largest PPGIS survey conducted in Finland, and similar efforts are underway in Ii, Vilhelmina and Stavanger. The surveys have been developed in cooperation with researchers at Aalto University.

“These surveys are being conducted partially as research cases, but particularly, they’re being used by our city partners as tools for informed planning processes,” says Ryan Weber, Senior Researcher at Nordregio and NORDGREEN project manager. “The cities gain an understanding of how people use urban green space, their preferred mobility networks and preferences for urban development. From a research perspective, we want to translate the information into practice-oriented and planning-relevant knowledge for planners.”

While the approach is similar, the objectives differ from city to city. In Espoo, the survey is intended as general knowledge collection to structure and support overall municipal planning, green space planning, and urban development plans, while Stavanger seeks to improve the quality of green spaces within a specific neighbourhood. The survey in Vilhelmina is designed to incorporate the perspectives of residents, seasonal tourists and second-home owners to support the planning and development of Kittelfjäll as a year-round destination.

Inclusion is key to sustainable development

NORDGREEN is one of four projects that received funded by NordForsk through the Nordic programme for sustainable urban development and smart cities.

“The research programme is directly linked to the strong trend of increased urbanisation, as well as the fast-growing phenomenon of megacities in other parts of the world,” says Ethel Forsberg, Chair of the programme committee. All four projects emphasise the social aspects of sustainability and smart-city development. “There’s a lot of funding available for research into new technology, whereas the social aspects have not been sufficiently prioritised. It’s time for us to start looking at sustainability from a more holistic perspective.”

Forsberg adds that transitioning to sustainable development requires a democratic and inclusive approach to change, not least in the cities.

“We must ensure that our society is a living, vibrant and democratic society, where everyone has equal opportunity to influence their local environment. This more inclusive approach is the key to adapting to the challenges of climate change and reducing our dependency on fossil fuels – before it’s too late.”

Transferring research into practical action

Forsberg says that NORDGREEN has successfully linked researchers and planning professionals by teaming up with the five cities. One example of the knowledge transfer within the project comes from the design and development of the Alnarp Rehabilitation Garden. The garden combines restorative natural areas with various forms of therapy and nature-based health interventions.

“We’ve worked intensively on the rehabilitation garden for more than two decades and accumulated extensive knowledge about the importance of nature for human health and wellbeing,” says Patrik Grahn, Professor of landscape architecture at SLU, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The knowledge now forms the basis of four workshops organised for the planning department in Stavanger. “We have summarised the knowledge into a theory about what works and helps people, combined with practical examples from the rehabilitation garden. And while the experience is from therapy and rehabilitation, it’s certainly useful to promote general health and wellbeing of the people in our cities.”

Renewing the municipal planning process

“The project aims to renew the municipal planning process by improving access to knowledge and enabling the cities to include health-promoting elements in urban green space design,” says Kjell Nilsson. Densification is an important consideration, he says; while widely acknowledged as an essential strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is also a potential threat to the often scarce urban green space.

“The overall question concerns the more strategic planning of the cities; the balance between green spaces, streets and houses,” Nilsson explains. “You might want denser cities to reduce the need for transport, but it should not be at the expense of urban green spaces and their capacity to benefit human health and wellbeing.”

Ryan Weber adds that the value of urban green space has been highlighted even more by the pandemic. People have found new demands for the use of green space in their area, now that home and work have become more intermingled. At the same time, the city centres could well be facing reduced demand for offices, which would impact the use of existing public spaces in the central business districts.

“Urban development is an ever-changing process,” Weber says. “In NORDGREEN, we’re working to be mindful and responsive to these changing patterns and to how we can make our cities as attractive as possible from a health and wellbeing perspective. Which is not just about the neighbourhood park; it’s also about integrated networks and good quality green spaces that are well-distributed throughout the urban fabric. All combined with multi-modal commuting and good facilities for walking and cycling.”

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