Garden cities: can green spaces bring health and happiness?

The Guardian
Oliver Balch

They’re healthier, more prosperous and safer but how can the benefits of a garden city be experienced by all its residents?

Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire.
Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire is England’s second garden city, bringing together the best of both urban and rural. Photograph: Graham Turner

“A void south of Swanscombe.” That was this paper’s verdict on Ebbsfleet eight years ago. Things have picked up a little for the Thames estuary town since then. Springhead Park, described as a “modern reinvention of the traditional Kentish village”, has now gone up. A new high-speed rail line will also get you to central London in a fiendishly fast 19 minutes.

Even so, would you choose to live there? Beyond the neat cloisters of new builds, much is still brownfield scrub. As for entertainment, a trip to Bluewater shopping mall remains the week’s highlight. That could all change. Last year, the UK government unveiled plans to convert the town into a flagship garden city.

Garden cities – or ‘eco cities’ or ‘green cities’ as they are sometimes branded – are all the rage in environmental circles. Replacing concrete high-rises and log-jammed roads with energy-efficient buildings, green spaces and car-free zones promises cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Better for our health

What’s good for the planet is good for us too, urban planners insist. According toresearch by global engineering firm Arup, green cities are healthier, more prosperous and safer. With more than two in three of the world’s populationprojected to be living in cities by 2050, such claims merit attention. So do they stack up?

The clearest evidence centres on health. As humans, we’re hardwired to enjoy nature, says Tom Armour, director of landscape and urbanism at Arup: “We’ve only really had mass urbanisation for the last 200 years, say, out of our hunter-gather experience of 100,000 years.”

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