One summer I was walking around my neighborhood and passed by a beautiful garden on 132nd St. The gates were open so I wandered in and sat on a beach watching the fish in the koi pond. The gentleman who tended to this garden was kind enough to answer my many questions about this space. He explained that it was a community garden that Harlem residents volunteer to manage.

The next day I brought my mother to join me in the garden. While it was a small plot of land, we stayed there for hours. It was so refreshing and pleasantly surprising to see a garden in the middle of Harlem. Just a block down was a busy street corner congested with traffic and the smell of McDonald’s. It felt like a secret oasis. I signed up to help maintain this garden which was a wonderful way to spend my summer.

Since then I’ve stumbled upon a variety of gardens in Harlem, many of which belong to a group called Harlem Grown. Harlem Grown is a youth program dedicated to teaching young people in the community about the wonders of urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition.

Why are green spaces important?

Research tells us that we should be working to incorporate more green spaces into cities and that we need nature in our surroundings. Humans thrive when we are around trees, plants, flowers, really anything that grows. Whether you live in a rural area, a suburb, or a city, nature should be your favorite neighbor. We have a responsibility to nurture and cultivate green spaces. The benefits to our health, well-being, and the planet are abundant.

city skyline under blue sky during daytime

During times of stress, spending time in nature is an important way to reduce anxiety and improve overall well-being. Particularly for city dwellers, parks serve an important role as they are an easily-accessible slice of nature. Green spaces provide areas for recreation and are proven to promote overall public health. Additionally, they reduce air pollution by generating cleaner air and reduce flooding by boosting stormwater collection. They are an important public utility that benefits the community at large.

Mental Health and Wellness

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 50% of Americans reported experiencing feelings of loneliness. That number has only increased under these circumstances. Now more than ever we are struggling with feelings of isolation. Feeling connected to nature and to the world around us enhances our mental health and well-being by reducing feelings of isolation. Time in nature has also been proven to help individuals dealing with mental health conditions such as attention disorders, mood disorders, and various forms of anxiety. Environmental psychologists argue that when we spend time outside, our senses are enhanced because we tend to be more mindful. Mindfulness also provides us with insight into how we are feeling, boosts attention and concentration, and improves relationships.

woman walking on pathway during daytime

The Urban Heat Island Effect

Green spaces in cities reduce the effects of pollution and can lessen the urban heat island effect, which refers to heat trapped in developed areas. The heat generated by people, transportation, and infrastructure is trapped in the roads and concrete, unable to escape to the atmosphere. This can drastically increase temperatures in cities higher than in the surrounding countryside.

Hotter temperatures in the summer lead to an increased demand for cooling. This escalates energy consumption, which in turn intensifies fossil fuel consumption, increasing pollutants in the air, and harmful smog on our streets. Heat on the pavement also damages the water cycle. In summer, surface temperatures rise and that heat is transferred to the rainwater that then drains into our sewers.

In 2018, The Los Angeles Times reported San Diego’s surface water reached its highest temperature in 102 years, at 78.8 degrees. That hot water is eventually released into streams, rivers, and lakes. This can be harmful to aquatic ecosystems, as changes in water temperature can be fatal for marine life. Also in 2018, Palm Springs had its warmest July on record, coming in at an average of 97.4 degrees. Park rangers reported the heat was not sustainable for some native birds who ended up dying under these conditions.

While we cannot expect green spaces to single-handedly solve climate change, we also cannot ignore the many benefits of green spaces. Incorporating more green spaces into cities would help reduce surface temperatures, improve air quality, reduce pollution, provide recreation, increase biodiversity, and would have numerous mental health benefits.

bird's eye view photography of buildings

Environmental Justice

Oftentimes green spaces are located in predominantly white and affluent neighborhoods. Communities with higher Black populations are barred from the health benefits of green spaces due to physical distance. This is one way we see environmental racism manifesting in our communities. Deciding whether or not to incorporate green spaces in cities is an environmental justice issue. Many cities are occupied by communities of color who often have relatively low access to safe and well-maintained parks.

According to an assessment conducted by local youth as part of the National Health Foundation’s participation in the BUILD Health LA Initiative, the few parks there are in South LA are not well maintained. The research looked into criteria such as “points of entry, bike routes, restrooms, trash cans, lighting, excessive litter, vacant buildings, and poorly maintained properties, as well as the condition of playgrounds, sports fields, athletic courts, swimming pools, and open spaces.”

Cities are hubs of industry, but the resulting pollution is filling our lungs and making us sick. Particulate matter refers to airborne particles of dust, smoke, and soot that are released when we burn fossil fuels. Inhaling particulate matter has been shown to cause asthma and can even enter our bloodstream, causing strokes. It is estimated that outdoor air pollution kills over 3 million people a year.

low angle photo of high-rise building


Planning cities to include green spaces is one important step in making our cities healthier. Adding a layer of vegetation to your rooftops can reduce the urban heat island effect. Having soil, plants, and greenery on our rooftops can reduce surface temperatures and serve as insulation by reducing the energy needed to heat and cool the buildings. Green roofs also help to regulate rainwater by trapping and filtering out pollutants. Similarly, green walls or vertical gardens are often found in cities. Like green roofs, they add a layer of insulation and help to reduce the overall temperatures of the building.

Planting trees is another simple solution to the not so simple problem of air pollution. Trees act as a filter, removing particulate matter as it is blown onto the leaves instead of into our lungs. Furthermore, trees cool temperatures by providing shade and releasing water through photosynthesis.

What you can do to help

We encourage you to continue educating yourself on environmental racism and environmental justice. Urge your elected officials to incorporate more green spaces in your city. In response to the pandemic, local governments have had to redirect their resources into battling the virus and as a result parks and recreation funding has decreased. Engage with your community by attending town halls and advocating for more investment in parks and recreation.

If you do have green spaces in your city, take the time to appreciate your local parks, organize clean up events with your neighbors and friends, and be better stewards of your local community. We must be proactive in the struggle for environmental justice. There are so many ways to be involved within our own communities through organizing, holding elected officials accountable, or demanding better environmental protections. We must remember that there is power in collective action and we must choose every day to be the change we hope to see in the world.