Our planet is going downhill fast.
Climate catastrophe is already upon us with wildfires, floods and severe weather, while world governments seem content to shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic.
One solution is to bring innovative technologies and environmental ideas into our cities and change the way we live in high-density areas.
How much hope do new ideas for urban greening hold in order to start turning things around?
Will city greening save the planet? Everything you need to know
City greening is all about flipping our ideas of cities upside down: instead of corridors of glass and steel paved over every square inch, they can become vibrant, growing places living in accord with nature.
Prominent permaculture teacher, designer, and speaker Penny Livingston-Stark says that humanity has the capacity to build a better future if we can just find the political will, and overcome the corruption and donor money plaguing politics.
“We could do it. We could, it’s possible. It’s doable at-scale to reverse the trends that we’ve created. But is the political will and education and moral compass there? No, it’s not,” Livingston-Stark said.
“There are still corporations and CEOs that are allowing the planet to burn in favor of their personal profits.”
The solution, according to her, lies in disentangling policymakers from corporations who are helping destroy the planet and begin to rebuild from the ground up at the local level and making cities greener.
One example of a potential step forward in Livingston-Stark’s view is the current infrastructure bill being proposed by the Biden Administration, which is being blocked from a passage by Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
“The bill has provisions which would pay people living wages to go out and do earth-repair work.
“That’s in that bill, and it’s probably going to get tossed out because Joe Manchin doesn’t like it,” Livingston-Stark says.
The bill’s funding for reforestation, greening cities and improving infrastructure is being halted by conflicts of interest, and it’s key to start pushing harder to get these kinds of bills passed if we want to see progress, according to Livingston-Stark.
Once the political will is found, the practical steps to make cities greener and better can proceed with full momentum.
The top 7 benefits of city greening
1) It helps the environment and saves money
City greening doesn’t just look good, it also does a lot of good.
In the European Union (EU) studies have shown what a great impact planting trees and putting in place environmental policies does for society as a whole.
“Results show that greening of 35% of the EU’s urban surface (i.e. more than 26,000 km2) would avoid up to 55.8 megatons per year CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions, reducing energy demand for the cooling of buildings in summer by up to 92 terawatt-hours per year, with a net present value (NPV) of more than 364 billion Euro,” writes Emanuele Quaranta.
That’s some big savings and some big greenhouse gas reduction.
The ability to green our cities exist and regulations to increase greening can be put in place growing forward.
All that’s needed is continuing support for innovation and public knowledge and literacy about the importance of urban greening.
2) It reduces the negative impact of climate change
The reduction in greenhouse gases caused by city greening is significant and it helps reduce the awful effects of climate change.
As we’ve seen, global warming has been wreaking havoc around the world from forest fires to flooding.
Planting more trees and greening up cities starts to alleviate and remedy those negative effects of climate change, building sustainable ecosystems that can begin to reduce carbon and its burden on our planet.
“The increase in temperatures, the rise of episodes of heavy rain and heat waves, and the spread of disease are some of the consequences of dreaded global warming in cities.
“The creation of a new urban green ecosystem mitigates these consequences, which directly affect the health and welfare of citizens.”
All of us want to live in cities that are designed for us, the residents.
City greening does just that, and it also helps the world as a whole.
3) It manages water in much better ways
Without water, there would be no life, and city greening is one of the ways that we can improve life for everyone.
By planting trees and changing the way that water is delivered, we can get rid of the run-off collecting pollution and dirt as it goes.
Instead, water can be filtered through plants and other methods as Livingston-Stark noted, requiring less toxic chemicals and exhaustive treatments later in the process.
The fact is that using water mains just isn’t that great of an idea for our environment and water cleanliness.
“Mains drainage has a low absorption capacity, and another adverse factor is the massive amounts of concrete covering the ground which prevents rain water from soaking in.
“Upstream run-off weakens the ground and pollutes rainwater which becomes charged with waste as it flows, requiring heavier treatments downstream.
“Green city planning using plants manages this water more effectively with a host of other benefits!”
4) It addresses the growing importance of cities
Another of the biggest benefits of city greening is that it deals with reality as it currently exists.
Instead of hoping for some low-population, idyllic agrarian future, we can accept that cities are increasingly important.
If we can clean the urban air, water and land, then we can enjoy a better life and work together for a better future.
Although there has been a growth in remote work during the pandemic, the fact remains that cities and suburbs are still where more and more people live.
“Whereas in the 1960s approximately one-third of the world’s population lived in urban areas, today this share has risen to over 55% and continues to increase.
“As more and more people gravitate towards urban areas it is important to re-imagine how these environments are constructed so that they are better adapted to a changing climate, provide adequate living conditions and also contribute to climate change mitigation,” writes Mike Swigunski.
As this fascinating BBC documentary shows, many cities are getting in on urban greening initiatives and doing their part.
This includes innovative things like building vertical forests in Milan, and the planting of 2 million trees in Singapore in the past four decades.
It’s all making a big difference, and it could be replicated in other cities around the globe.
5) It helps improve our society’s mental and emotional health
Numerous studies have shown that having greener cities with trees and plants around us makes us more mentally well.
In addition to the environmental benefits, greener spaces promote mental and emotional wellbeing.
Studies back this up as being true.
As the Ibex Earth’s Creating Sustainable Cities initiative writes:
“A recent study at Aarhus University in Denmark found that children raised in areas with the most restricted access to nature were up to 55% more likely to suffer from stress-related issues, depression and other mental health disorders than those in greener areas.”
6) It improves urban air
As C. Nick Hewitt writes about here, city greening can also go a long way to improving the air we breathe.
“More than half of the world’s population currently live in urban areas, most of which have outdoor air quality that fails to meet World Health Organisation guidelines for healthy living,” Hewitt writes.
“One increasingly promoted method for air pollution mitigation is the use of green infrastructure (GI): street and park trees, green walls, green roofs, and other means of introducing vegetation into the urban landscape.”
Air pollution is a very big problem in many large cities, and urban greening helps improve and reduce it.
That alone should have policymakers looking intently at any and all possibilities to green their cities to the max.
7) City greening tackles the heat island issue
If you’re wondering: ‘will city greening save the planet?’ then look no further than the issue of heat islands.
This is when temperatures in the city skyrocket up and stay high because of all the dense urban areas and structures.
Green areas reduce this, such as parks, trees and green corridors.
Making cities better
In terms of specifically making cities better, Livingston-Stark would like to see a lot of the way we zone land change so that we’re not so wasteful with space.
“Having multi-use live and work zones is important. When I go to the city I think about how much time and fuel is wasted driving around trying to find a place to park.
“Most cities are not very pedestrian-friendly,” Livingston-Stark said, adding that transportation and zoning are also very important along with designing buildings so that “taller buildings are on the north side in the Northern Hemisphere and designed for solar gain.”
Livingston-Stark also emphasized that city greening includes other important actors as well.
“Rooftop gardens are great for cooling. As the world is heating up, that’s going to become more of an issue,” Livingston-Stark said, also pointing to an example of a Korean city which started using a river as a bio-filter for the city’s water.
“There are also a whole lot of technologies around using plants to mine landfills and start reclaiming heavy metals.”
Livingston-Stark also suggested innovative ideas like clearing the plastic from our cities and oceans and compacting them into useful artificial islands.
“The model is having a greenbelt. Often cities are surrounded by suburbs. I think if the suburbs could be farmed and food for the city could be produced in the territory of the cities that would be good,” Livingston-Stark says, also referencing how concerns over meat-eating are often misfounded.
Initiatives like the Marin Carbon Project, for example, have found that grazing in a sustainable way can actually lead to recapturing and recycling carbon in an effective way and is good for the environment.
This is especially true when done in the “wholistic management” way as advised by Allan Savory.
Putting Mother Nature back together
One of the core parts of city greening is tree planting.
The city of Sydney, Australia, for example, wants to have one million trees planted in the city by 2022.
“Trees improve local character and enhance property values. They extend habitat, increasing the biodiversity of cities serving as a home for animals and birds.
“Air quality is improved by removing fine particles from the air and trees mitigate the impact of climate change, acting as a storehouse for carbon dioxide.”
For her part, Livingston-Stark said she started as a “back-to-the-land” type in the 1970s and had a longstanding interest in growing her own food and living in harmony with nature.
After getting into landscape design she eventually found her way into choosing clients who were interested in applying the principles of permaculture in their gardens.
In addition, Livingston-Stark also got the opportunity to start speaking on permaculture at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture and eventually started offering courses there as part of their ecological design program and permaculture certification.
Is sustainable urban living possible?
Livingston-Stark and her husband James started out on a small permaculture farm in the 1980s in Point Reyes, California and then took stewardship over the 17-acre Commonweal Garden site in Bolinas, California in 2003.
They restored it to good condition after it had fallen into disrepair and put in place permaculture agriculture, courses and solar systems.
Then, several years ago, she and her husband moved to their new home in the suburbs on Whidbey Island, Washington.
In her more urban environment, Livingston-Stark has been implementing permaculture principles including a 1,000-gallon water collection tank and a thriving garden.
“I’m still picking raspberries. We planted this garden about two years ago and it is just pumping,” Livingston-Stark says.
“We trade fruits. Other neighbors have peaches, and I’ll trade them strawberries and plums for peaches, and Asian pears.”
Optimizing suburbs around cities is also something that Australian permaculture pioneer David Holmgren also explores in his recent book RetroSuburbia.
‘If I could have my perfect world…’
Becoming environmentally literate is one of the main factors we’re currently missing as developed nations, according to Livingston-Stark.
The enormous potential of ideas like city greening is not being realized to their full potential because of misinformation and ignorance.
“If I could have my perfect world it would be that everybody who’s in a decision-making capacity should take a permaculture course,” Livingston-Stark says.
“It’s not just gardening tips. It’s about regenerative agriculture. It’s about cleaning water instead of polluting water. It’s about recharging our aquifers while we’re actually producing our food, building soil while we’re producing our food.
“Instead of pesticides and herbicides we want biodiversity, we want insects.”
Fighting noise and air pollution
One of the best things about city greening is that it accomplishes multiple things at once.
“Urban greening helps combat air and noise pollution, soaks up rainwater that may otherwise create flooding, creates a habitat for local wildlife, and has shown to lift morale in the people who see it, calming traffic and lessening urban crime.
“As climate change becomes a more prominent issue, architects and city planners alike have been exploring ways to create sustainable urban living.”
A greener tomorrow?
Livingston-Stark also recommends reading the new book from Kim Stanley Robinson entitled The Ministry for the Future.
Livingston-Stark also encourages people to watch her live stream coming up on Nov. 12 on Bioneers.
As she says in this interview with the Post Carbon Institute:
“I am a fixer. I’m one that has been trying to fix this thing for 30 years now through education… We’re coming out of this pandemic and remembering what happened when the world stopped.
“What happened to the air, what happened to the water, what happened to the wild creatures? They started coming back, the air started getting.
“I know we’re kind of going back to some form of ‘normal,’ but I think one of the things that could possibly go right is we’re not going to go back to normal, we’re not going to go back to the way things were.
“I think consciousness has changed.”
There’s no doubt that permaculture and city greening are going to become topics you keep hearing more about heading forward.
As Wageningen University in the Netherlands puts it:
“A green city improves the environment, ensures rich biodiversity, reduces air pollution, ensures water storage, dampens noise, and helps cooling down in warm periods.
“Green is also essential for a climate-proof and sustainable environment.”