Why Green Space Matters

Why Green Space Matters: Lessons in Politics and Prosperity, by Mieke Paulsen

The following is a brilliant post written for this blog by Mieke Paulsen, a PhD Candidate in Roman Art at Rutgers University. She’s an avid historian, teacher, artist, and seamstress.

A Garden in Pompeii
A Garden in Pompeii

When forests are cut down to make way for development, the consequences to the environment are well-documented.  Ambient temperature skyrockets, air quality plummets, and bio-diversity evaporates.  The consequences to the emotional and mental health of the human inhabitants of these developments, however, are often ignored; everyone recognizes that trees make them feel better, and nearby forest land is a major selling point for real estate agents and developers, but wild space has often been considered a luxury, rather than a necessity.  Indeed, researchers are only beginning to gauge the importance of green space in child development.  A recent article from CU-Boulder established what many parents already know– that in natural-environment playgrounds, physical altercations and arguments decrease exponentially in comparison to artificially-turfed play spaces.

In other words, people are happier, violence is less likely, and life is just plain better when gardens and green-spaces are integrated into neighborhoods.  The converse is also true; look at any economically-depressed region and you will find that it is almost entirely artificial.  Concrete, brick, and asphalt may shelter the body, but they starve the human spirit.  People may not always consciously recognize this, but they feel it.  Smart politicians throughout history have often turned this need to their advantage– after all, public opinion is a powerful thing.

The demolition of a large swathe of housing in the middle of New York City was justified, once upon a time, by the recognition that working people needed access to green and growing things for health and happiness; their tenements and apartments had no space for gardens.  Thus the iconic Central Park was born.  The fact that property values along the park rose almost immediately, pricing out the very poor people that Central Park was supposedly meant to serve, meant little to the landlords who profited from the transformation– but other neighborhoods followed suit, and now there are pockets of green throughout the five boroughs that benefit all who live nearby.

The benefit of wilderness space was well-known to the ancient Romans.  Wealthy houses often had enclosed gardens that brought flowers and trees from the wilderness into the home; these gardens provided space for dining, for learning, for entertaining, and for meditation and religious rites.  The enterprising Pompey the Great proposed to grant poor people access to the same benefits by constructing a large garden outside the city walls in the Campus Martius.  His gardens were so popular that other politicians soon followed suit; such gifts to the city and the people of Rome were a primary means of insuring votes for the next election.

The lesson for modern politicians and businesses? If you want to leave a legacy of admiration and respect, protect the wilderness.  If you want to be seen as just another money-grubbing profiteer, and if you want potentially disastrous consequences for your city in future, clear-cut the trees.  Ancient Rome recognized this danger; although the founders of Rome did not know the ins and outs of ecological and social science, they knew that building in the wrong place or cutting down the wrong trees could be very bad luck, and legend has it that they consulted the satyr Marsyas, a well-educated seer, to make certain that no wilderness deity would be offended by their proposed city.

Rome and New York are only two examples, but there are thousands more.  The gardens of Istanbul, of Antioch, of ancient Babylon, of Greece and of Israel, of China and Japan and Korea and Egypt– all famous, all recognizing the same fundamental truth: peopleneedtrees.  And the person who plants them or saves them will be more honored and respected– and in the end, make a larger profit– than the person who destroys them.

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People need forests too

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