Over 80% of people in Finland and over 50% in the world live in urban areas. These numbers are on the rise. Regardless of developments in technology, systems and structures created by humans depend entirely on nature’s processes. In cities, the natural environment provides the following ‘ecosystem services’ , which don’t just improve our quality of live but enable our urban existence.
Water purification and retention. Abundant vegetation in a city filters pollutants and fine particles from rain water. This plays an essential role in preventing more pollution of the Baltic Sea, caused partly by unfiltered run off. Natural green surfaces also help with stormwater management by providing proper drainage and therefore helping to prevent flooding. The city’s manmade infrastructure does not have the capacity to handle runoff alone. This is a good example of ‘green infrastructure’ as part of the city’s overall infrastructure.
Heat or climate regulation. Urban nature acts as a buffer when the temperature rises, alleviating the effects of concentrated heat in the city and assisting the movement and exchange of air. With summers being as hot as they have been lately, this service can actually help save lives.
In addition to the above, urban nature assists with pollination, biological pest control and soil maintenance and repair.
Air purification. While forests are particularly good at this, almost any natural green surface reduces the amount of dust and air pollution that burdens our lungs, be it carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen or other small particles. Natural environments also create moist microclimates that help soothe the lungs. They also provide a much-needed carbon sink.
The benefits of urban nature are not limited to biophysics. Urban nature promotes physical health by encouraging movement. The threshold to go for a walk in the nearby woods if often considerably lower than it is to go the gym or any other paid for activities. A British study published in the Lancet shows that representatives from the lower income categories who lived near green areas were healthier and had a longer life span than those who just made occasional trips to into nature. Biodiverse local nature also helps prevent allergies. In Japan, ‘forest bathing’, in other words spending time in the woods, has been studied extensively. A forest experience, amongst other things, strengthens the body’s natural defences.
At the same time urban nature improves and maintains mental health. Time in nature has been proven to relieve stress, calm the nerves and help people handle their emotions. This should be taken into account as a preventative measure for many mental health problems. Also, local nature areas are beloved places to many. When neighbours use the same area, these places become a setting for social wellbeing. A significant natural area supports the local identity and creates a natural sense of community. Studies have also found that urban nature helps with the integration of immigrants.
Even though urban nature improves the quality of our lives, increases performance and productivity and in this way keeps the wheels of the economy turning, it doesn’t only exist for us humans. Cities with diverse land use provide habitat for numerous species that have become rare elsewhere. The decline of biodiversity is an even greater environmental problem than climate change. Cities have a significant role in securing and promoting biodiversity, if they are well designed that is.
Original text in Finnish: Joel Jalkanen ja Aino Assmuth. Translated & edited by Becky Hastings.