Almost invariably, the first prescription that I receive from Trinbagonians on how to improve our cities is to add more green spaces.
After all, cities are inherently bad and nature is inherently good, right?
Given the lack of architectural design regulations and certain types of greenery, and therefore the quality of much of what we have built locally, I can understand the sentiment.
The benefits of exposure to nature for urban dwellers are well documented, but also quite nuanced. It appears that not all forms and configurations of greenery improve our lives, nor the functionality of our communities, to the same extent; there are different shades of green.
In his book Happy City, Charles Montgomery recounts a survey of people living in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas on what type of scenes they liked to look at. The results revealed a pattern with many similarities. These included: “open fields with a few trees and shrubs in the near distance, perhaps some wildlife, and, beyond that, bodies of still, clear water.”
In other words, most people said they liked looking at the savanna-type views found in places like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, London’s Hyde Park or even the Hollows at the Queen’s Park Savannah.
Montgomery notes, however, what he calls the happiness paradox: that is, the difference between what we say we like and what appears to be good for us.
Richard Fuller, a biologist, goes on to explain to him that a study in Sheffield, England showed that the perfectly planned and manicured parks weren’t the ones that people actually reported as being more beneficial to their physical and mental health. It was actually those that appeared messier and with a more diverse landscape that people reported as being more rejuvenating.
It would appear that the suburban aesthetic, with its collection of grassy lawns meant to mimic the savanna vista, isn’t really the most beneficial to us as a species. In fact, as Montgomery points out in North America – and the same can be said for TT – the further ones goes into suburbia, the more sterile and generic the landscape becomes.
The one-size-fits-all urban planning solution of isolated life in the suburbs may in fact not even provide the true benefits of a life amongst nature – one of the core justifications for its very existence.
What, then, is the alternative to the sometimes-harsh concrete, glass, and steel of densely populated places?
Relatively simple interventions can provide the restoring benefits of nature. Some of these include: potted flowering plants on the balconies of buildings, hanging from street lamps on the sidewalk, or at the entrance to shops and restaurants; vines growing on the facades of buildings; empty lots used for community gardens and as sites for urban agriculture; earth-tone paint and naturally-textured building materials; and street trees along the sidewalks.
Of course, there’s also the blessing of having a naturally-beautiful location with mountain or waterfront views, which many of our urban areas possess.
Let’s focus more on protecting the integrity of these hillsides, and reconnecting cities with their waterfronts, than on private front and back yards.
Instead of fleeing to virgin nature en masse, and replacing it with grass and maybe some fruit trees, bits and pieces of nature can be brought into the existing cities. The cumulative daily impact of varied and small doses of foliage and views can go a long way towards improved physical and mental health outcomes for city dwellers.
The extensive, grassy open spaces of large urban parks surely can be beneficial, but what about the downsides? The Queen’s Park Savannah, for instance, is one of the highlights of PoS. We proudly boast about it being the world’s largest traffic roundabout. It’s certainly utilised by many for recreational use, and adds to the city’s character.
In the case of the Savannah, what we see and tend to appreciate, while perambulating or driving around it, I think, is not the large field in its entirety, but rather the tree-lined perimeter.
In considering it as a whole, what a trained eye will perceive is that a large unbroken green space in the middle of a city creates an inefficient transportation circulation pattern for all city users, and a safety hazard at many times of the day, as most won’t dare wander through a deserted open field for fear of criminal elements.
Would this massive park have been more beneficial as a series of smaller spaces distributed throughout the city?
Perhaps ubiquitous and small interventions, with a diverse and complex outcome, are in fact the most beneficial approach to fusing the natural with the urban. Perhaps this represents the brightest shade of green.
Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org