The necessity of urban green space for children’s optimal development
Green spaces can significantly benefit children’s physical, mental and social development – from infancy to adulthood.
A simple walk in the park can significantly improve a children’s ability to concentrate. Green views out of school windows correlate with improved academic performance. And children who grow up in greener neighborhoods are often less depressed, less stressed and generally healthier and happier.
‘Green space’ has not been universally defined and, as of yet, there are no internationally accepted minimum standards for green space in cities. At a minimum, green space is vegetated land. Examples of green space may include public and private parks, grassy lawns, home and community gardens, playgrounds, agricultural land, overgrown vacant lots, street trees, roadside verges, and green roofs.
Both greener views and surroundings, as well as time spent within green spaces, offer children numerous mental, physical and social developmental benefits and spur their growth into ecologically aware and responsible citizens. Moreover, when equally accessible, green spaces serve to reduce the health inequities suffered by socio-economically disadvantaged children.
Some of the benefits for children, from infancy to adolescence, include:
- Higher birthweight
- More physical activity
- Better balance and motor coordination
- Less likely to develop nearsightedness
- Improve cognitive development and academic performance
- Reduced parenting stress
- Increased concern for nature
- Stronger neighborhood social cohesion
- Fewer behavioral and social problems
- Increased mental health and well-being and reduced stress and depression, including in adverse circumstances such as humanitarian contexts
Increasing safe and accessible green spaces not only directly benefits a child’s holistic development, it has also been shown to convey a host of significant health benefits for adults and economic and environmental benefits to cities such as lower health care costs, reduced levels of violence and crime and flood protection.
And yet, children’s access to fields, woodlands and other green spaces is quickly diminishing. And children around the world, especially those growing up in cities, play outside considerably less often than their parents did – girls and children from developing countries less often still.
City living can have negative impacts on children’s development from early childhood through adolescence and beyond. Cities are often associated with higher rates of most mental health problems compared to rural areas. One study found an almost 40% higher risk of depression and over 20% more anxiety in urban vs. rural populations. Other studies show urban living can double one’s risk of developing schizophrenia.
Right now, approximately 55% of all children, almost 1.5 billion, live in cities. And the numbers are growing rapidly. By 2050, the number of children in cities will be close to 1.9 billion. Many will never experience the joy of playing in a river, picking fruit and flowers, or balancing across a fallen log.
In the current context, and with this new evidence in hand, caregivers, communities, institutions and governments can take immediate action to create new green spaces and improve existing green spaces in their urban neighborhoods, prioritizing places children naturally congregate, such as around schools and childcare centers.
Recommended actions for communities
- Organize regular clean-up events at local community green spaces.
- Establish non-discriminatory community monitoring in green spaces popular with children to deter individual or groups who my threaten their safety
- Partner with private entities to improve green spaces
- Form local groups and organizations that take joint outings or offer safeguarded nature education programmes for children
- Measure progress and keep local governments accountable.
- Build coalition of local stakeholders, including children, to map the situation, pool resources, and engage local governments and institutions, such as schools and child care centers, to preserve, improve, create and maintain safe and accessible green spaces.
Recommended actions for schools and child care centers
- Preserve, improve, create and maintain safe and accessible green spaces on the institute’s grounds
- Integrate environmental education into the curriculum, including both indoor and outdoor components.
- Set aside time for children’s outdoor recreation during the day.
- Advocate for support and funding from local governments and the private sector
- Partner with local communities to provide safe and responsible access to the institution’s green spaces outside of school hours.
Recommended actions for municipal governments
- Set child-responsible building and infrastructure regulations, land-use standards and plans, including standards for safe and accessible green spaces
- Support real estate developers to meet and exceed regulations on the inclusion of safe and accessible green space by new developments
- In consultation with local communities, including children, provide funds and expertise to identify, map, reclaim and redesign public green spaces as green spaces.
- Provide technical and financial support to create safe and accessible green spaces in and around schools and childcare centers
- Support community groups which maintain green spaces and organize properly safeguarded outings for children.
Recommended actions for national governments
- Set minimum national standards for safe and accessible urban green space
- Integrate standards for the inclusion of safe and accessible green space by new developments into relevant national policies.
- Set up a ministerial/inter-ministerial technical body to oversee and provide guidance on urban greening issues, including allocation and monitoring of resources.
Children and the local community should fully participate and be heard in any design process. Methods for involving children in planning and design processes include model-making, collective drawings and focus groups, among others.
Each child, no matter where they live in the city, should be in easy walking distance from a safe and welcoming public green space. To protect our children’s health and happiness, we must prioritize the preservation and creation of green space within our rapidly growing cities.
The evidence is compelling and the advantages are clear.
We need to act.