In 1970, Joni Mitchell sang “they paved paradise to put up a parking lot” to decry the lack of green space in the built environment. Since then, architects, planners and builders have expanded parking lots, widened highways and removed green spaces to accommodate larger buildings and extend sprawl. Turns out that Joni was right; we need that green space and the science now exists to back the claim.
According to the Illinois News Bureau, the Science suggests access to nature is essential to human health for all ages. Children with learning disabilities like ADHD improve when the teaching environment includes outdoor activities; college students do better on cognitive tests when they study in a room with a view; and the elderly live longer when housed near a park or green space. Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, compiled large amounts of research correlating direct exposure to nature with the physical and emotional health of children and adults. Walking in nature, watching birds, and listening to frogs can reduce stress and anxiety, help decision-making and improve skill development. Louv not only presented the data, he offered solutions including removing asphalt and restoring nature to school yards.
After reading Louv’s book, Eileen Sullivan, the curriculum specialist in Acton, Massachusetts, proposed adding natural spaces to the elementary schools’ playgrounds. During the proposal phase of the project, teachers from the Acton-Boxborough (AB) Regional School District and parents from the AB Parent Involvement Project (PIP) STEM read Louv’s book and engaged in a series of walks through Acton’s Conservation Lands with Tom Tidman, Director of Acton’s Natural Resource Department. The district drafted a proposal, received funding from the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) and hired a local landscape architect to design five nature play spaces.
In April 2015, the Town of Acton approved the construction of the nature play spaces at the elementary schools’ playgrounds. Instead of traditional grass fields, hard tops and play structures, the schools will add a more natural environment for those students who are less interested in competitive games. The planners envision interactive spaces for children and adults during recess breaks and inspirational places for teachers and students to meet, talk, listen, write and draw. Construction will begin July 1, 2015.
An excellent start, but what about green space for all? Studies from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have described healthy communities as more than just places with access to healthcare facilities, but towns with parks and sidewalks rather than tarmac and treeless streets.
The city of Somerville took notice. In March 2015, Somerville’s mayor, Joseph A. Curtatone, hired Gehl Studio, the U.S. based practice of Gehl Architects, whose founder Jan Gehl worked with the city of Copenhagen for more than 40 years to turn the Danish capital into a pedestrian and cyclist haven. More recently, Gehl did the same for NYC’s Time Square. Somerville by Design represents Gehl Studio’s user-friendly, people-centric approach to city planning.
“We’re rewriting the new Somerville Zoning Ordinance from the ground up,” says the mayor. The new zoning will be a collaborative process with residents and business owners to share a new vision of Somerville. The design team continues to conduct interviews and workshops including “Green Spaces, Community Places” for residents to help shape their new work and play spaces. The goal is to “enhance our squares and corridors and transform underutilized areas into vibrant, walkable neighborhoods,” according to Somerville by Design.
The Annual Review of Environment and Resources cited, Humans and Nature: How Knowing and Experiencing Nature Affect Well-Being” which said, “The balance of evidence indicates conclusively that knowing and experiencing nature makes us generally happier, healthier people.” But it’s also clear that it takes a village to unpave paradise and remove those parking lots. Let the demolition begin!
By Janice M. Ward