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September 15, 2015 6:59 PMCategory: Physical Activity

Sharing the Health Benefits of Green Infrastructure

Last week, the American Planning Association hosted a webinar as part of the Planning and Community Health Center’s series focused on built environment interventions that promote community health. APA brought together leading practitioners to discuss the different ways communities can incorporate health considerations into green infrastructure plans and projects. You can watch the Health Benefits of Green Infrastructure webinar for free, and find out more below.

What Is Green Infrastructure?

Green infrastructure takes on many different definitions, depending upon who you talk to. For example, the EPA emphasizes that green infrastructure should mimic natural processes to reuse stormwater. Yet other authors are more concerned with how green infrastructure conserves natural ecosystems and open space.

David Rouse, APA’s managing director of research and advisory services, kicked off the Health Benefits of Green Infrastructure webinar by describing an evolution of what the term “green infrastructure” really means. Rouse made the point that over the years, good definitions have transformed and played off of one another. Nowadays, it is important to understand that well-designed green infrastructure should always do two things: be able to perform multiple functions and yield additional benefits for people.

Green infrastructure takes many different forms in cities and towns around the country. They include parks, open spaces, preserves, complete streets, and many other pieces of the built environment. Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, a leading proponent of landscape urbanism currently with AECOM, discussed many different examples from the U.S., including rural Ohio, downtown Dallas, and many more. Bunster-Ossa stressed how all of these projects achieve two critical things; first, they perform many different functions, and second, they provide a wealth of additional benefits to the community at large.

For example, Orchard Hills Park in rural Ohio was developed chiefly for stormwater prevention and habitat creation. Moreover, the project was successful in helping to preserve the local community’s heritage by carefully designing the space to include a mature beech-maple forest that is native to the region. This project clearly shows how successful green infrastructure project will perform multiple functions like stormwater prevention and habitat creation, as well as the additional benefit of helping to preserve a community’s natural heritage.

Yet while cultural preservation is in fact very important to the vibrancy of local communities, the public health benefits that green infrastructure projects provide are especially clear.

Making the Connections Between Green Infrastructure and Health

The webinar speakers discussed a number of ways that green infrastructure supports healthier communities. For example, Bunster-Ossa discussed the Trinity River Corridor Project in downtown Dallas, which primarily focuses on flood control for a city susceptible to heavy rainfall, especially in recent years. Better flood control is obviously essential to Dallas’s resilience, so it is no surprise that leaders are working to manage stormwater.

But the key to developing a better flood control system with green infrastructure is that there will be an enormous amount of additional benefits to community health. The anticipated benefits from a completed Trinity River Corridor include promoting recreation and encouraging more active lifestyles with new trails and open space, plus 19,000 new trees that can sequester 4,000 annual tons of CO2 to help keep air cleaner and mitigate climate change.

A rendering of the completed Trinity River Corridor during storm conditions, compared to the real impact of Dallas-area storms in March 2015. Photo by Ignacio Bunster-Ossa.

Dr. Kathleen Wolf, an expert in how environments influence human health from the University of Washington, jumped into the conversation to talk about the impact of green infrastructure on many different populations. Dr. Wolf made several striking points that illustrated how green infrastructure provides opportunities for what she called “health co-benefits.” Health co-benefits are extremely diverse, and over the years more and more research has emerged connecting green infrastructure to improved active living, mental health and function, and more.

Wolf explained that, at present, there is a “critical mass” of research demonstrating the importance of green infrastructure in cities on health. She spoke in particular about several studies that reveal many of the connections being made between green infrastructure and health, and also reveal the diverse groups that are positively impacted by more park, greenspace, and other green infrastructure. These included:

  • Studies from 2011 and 2014 indicating a relationship between urban tree-canopy cover and a reduction in low-weight births from newborns.
  • Studies describing the role of parks in bringing together the elderly in important social settings.
  • Evidence pointing to lower frustration and higher meditation in populations living to greener streets.
  • A 2010 study linking more green on high school campuses to higher student performance.

Other Examples of Green Infrastructure’s Impact on Health

More and more, the wealth of information describing the benefits green infrastructure has on health is becoming readily available. One great resource brought up by Wolf is the Green Cities: Good Health page, which contains a huge collection of scientific studies that examine how nature in metro areas enhances the quality of life in cities and towns.

Another collection of information related to the green infrastructure-health connection is the Landscape Performance Series  by the Landscape Architecture Foundation. This open resource focuses on the measurable benefits of landscapes in cities and contains metrics from over 130 landscape projects.

For more information about the Health Benefits of Green Infrastructure webinar, check out the fact sheet (pdf), and be sure to check in to the webinar series page for other past discussions about healthy communities.