Urban retreat: green spaces

As more and more of the world’s population live in cities, green spaces for seeking refuge from urban life are more important than ever

For the planets increasing number of urbanites, whether they live in a salubrious penthouse or a shoebox apartment, green spaces in the city are more than just an aesthetic concern. They provide valuable places to relax, picnic, play sports, be entertained, meet friends, kindle love affairs or simply enjoy a fresh perspective on the place they live.

People have understood the benefits of the great outdoors for centuries but earlier this year a study from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health has quantified exactly how much of a difference they make. The research, conducted over an 18-year period, tracks psychological health and found that living in an urban area with more green space increases people's wellbeing. Even when stacked against other life factors - such as being employed or not, married or not - green space has a significant effect.

It’s not just psychological wellbeing that green space can determine, but physical health too. As London developed rapidly during the industrial revolution of the 19th century, overcrowding and insanitary conditions came in its wake. The park’s potential to solve some of these issues became a focus for the era’s great social campaigners.

Named for the reigning monarch, Victoria Park in London’s East End is a landmark in the history of parks. An Act of Parliament passed in 1841 made it the first planned park in both the country and the world, specifically intended to meet the needs of the surrounding communities.

It was a similar ethos that drove the creation of New York’s Central Park, a triumph of city planning and the first landscaped park in the United States. First opened for public use in 1859, its resounding success launched the country’s famous urban parks movement. Today on a sunny weekend it is full of the city’s cosmopolitan population enjoying walks, sports, music, cultural events, picnics and contemplative space.

These diverse uses for outdoor space are shared worldwide. In one-time imperial pleasure garden, Beihai, in Beijing, a colourful and imaginative mix of landscaped features transports contemporary visitors into another dimension. The park, a shining example of historic preservation and regeneration, provides a literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air to the megalopolis’ residents.

Similarly, in Dubai, a series of parks including Creek Park and Zabeel Park have been designed to give citizens sporting facilities, beautiful views, botanical gardens and a varied cultural programme. The Dubai Municipality's strong parks department continues to carry out a programme of green space implementation for both recreation and conservation purposes. Maher Stino, former United Nations Town Planning Expert at the Dubai Municipality states his recommendations for the future of the rapidly expanding city: “Projects selected for the greening of Dubai over the next 10 to 15 years should link and join open spaces while conserving fragile landscapes, beaches and the creek wetlands.”

As history shows us and science proves to us, come rain or shine, it is the green parts of the city that keep urbanites happy all across the world.