Crammed Cities Go Green for Climate, Health

Sourced from Voice of America

In a square in central Barcelona, families with young children perch at picnic tables as traffic thunders past and high-rise blocks loom above them.

But the concrete mecca that is Placa de les Glories Catalanes is about to undergo a major facelift that will create a new green public space for Spain’s second-largest city.

Starting this month, two underground tunnels will be built, funnelling traffic away from the square, Marta Pigem Jubany, a spokeswoman for Barcelona City Hall, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Subsequently a new park will be constructed, including a lawn and children’s play area, an outdoor market, exotic gardens, water features and a performing arts space.

In the city best known among tourists for its Las Ramblas shopping street, the regenerated zone will also feature a tree-lined avenue called the Rambla dels Encants (Boulevard of Charms).

It is not the only new park planned for Barcelona. In the north of the city, a 7.6 million-euro ($9.4 million) project begins in May to transform the grounds of a dilapidated early 20th century estate, known as Finca Ravetllat-Pla, into another green space.

Further afield, Madrid’s environment ministry embarked on a multi-million-euro project last year to expand the city’s parks, and cover walls and roofs with more greenery.

Meanwhile Italian architecture firm Stefano Boeri Architetti has had plans approved for France’s first vertical forest on the outskirts of Paris, featuring a 54-meter-high (177 feet) wooden tower block decked in trees, shrubs and plants.

Access to nature

Cities are increasingly looking for ways to provide more greenery, as migration to urban areas rises and a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that being close to nature is good for people.

Vegetation also sucks up planet-warming carbon dioxide, and is key to efforts to combat climate change.

Some 750 climate scientists and urban planners are gathered in Canada this week at a U.N.-hosted conference to discuss how to help cities reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and become more resilient to extreme weather and rising seas.

The proportion of the global population living in urban areas has risen from half in 2000 to 55 percent now, and is predicted to reach two-thirds by 2050.

“Access to nature provides an array of health and well-being benefits, from the psychological and physical to the social,” said Kevin J. Gaston, a professor of biodiversity and conservation at Britain’s University of Exeter.

“Particularly in westernized societies, we are becoming aware of a whole array of quite chronic health consequences associated with city living - for instance, obesity, mental illness, diabetes,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Making more room for nature in cities brings multiple advantages for residents and the environment, said Marcus Collier, an assistant professor of botany at Trinity College Dublin.

A green roof, for example, not only makes the landscape look more attractive, but also provides insulation, cutting back on energy usage, said Collier, who leads a Europe-wide research project called Connecting Nature.

Green spaces can help combat rising heat levels, provide a buffer against flooding and intercept dust, toxins and noise, according to the Connecting Nature website.

But some benefits are harder to quantify, such as a fall in hospital stays and lower blood pressure, Collier noted.

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