Protect Our Community Green Spaces

Urban green spaces are critically underlooked in New York City, but their potential benefits are too great to ignore.

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Amid the dense apartment buildings in the Lower East Side lies Elizabeth Street Garden, a small community garden in the middle of a quiet block. Pastoral greenery and trees sprout up—their canopies providing shade on hot summer days. Families and individuals alike enjoy the garden and take refuge in a bright speck of urban foliage like they would an oasis in the desert. Recently, a New York court ruled that to make way for an affordable housing project, Elizabeth Street Garden has to be evicted. This decision deprives a neighborhood of a crucial space and highlights a greater trend of our city neglecting urban green spaces.

The Elizabeth Street Garden is one of many green spaces that have been disregarded in favor of other developments. The East River Park—a green space for the largely working-class Lower East Side—has been undergoing a major transformation as part of the $1.4 billion dollar East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, implemented in response to Hurricane Sandy’s destruction of significant portions of the Lower East Side. This construction aims to fortify the area against future weather events, but comes at the cost of robbing New York City residents of a precious and rare taste of nature. The park is now a barren construction zone, barricaded by a chain link fence. 

Although affordable housing and flood protection are important, they should not take precedence over green spaces as the city is doing with the Elizabeth Street Garden and the East River Park. Green spaces are critical pieces of urban infrastructure—just as important as buildings and roads. By relegating green spaces, we are losing out on a large aspect of city life. This is not a one-or-the-other situation, as green spaces and plentiful housing can coexist. In New York City, almost 30,000 rent-stabilized apartments are deliberately kept vacant. Furthermore, in the case of the Elizabeth Street Garden, alternatives to destroying the garden for housing have been identified, such as instead developing 388 Hudson—a city-owned, vacant lot. Green spaces can be much more than simply parks; sidewalk trees, roof gardens, and community gardens are all less obtrusive ways of integrating nature into a cityscape. In the fight for equitable housing, green space needs to stop being the first on the chopping block.

 This trend of destroying existing green spaces in favor of other kinds of infrastructure takes away green space from a city that already lacks it. A study comparing the green space of American cities found that New York has the lowest amount of green space per capita. In addition, the few green spaces the city does have are not equally accessible to all. Research finds that in New York City, access to green space is heavily tied to socioeconomic status and ethnicity. Those in low-income have access to 21.2 percent less park space per person within a 10-minute distance, and communities of color have access to 33.5 percent less park space within a 10-minute walk than white communities. Large parks also drive up property values, meaning only the wealthy have access. Housing along the borders of Central Park is significantly more expensive, making a space intended for all New Yorkers accessible only to those who can afford it. For this reason, smaller, community-based parks are essential to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to green space.

Green spaces such as parks provide numerous public and environmental health benefits. A study from England shows that within communities, the presence of green spaces increases physical activity levels by allowing people to partake in outdoor activities such as walking, running, and cycling. Additionally, green spaces play a valuable role in fostering a sense of community in neighborhoods by providing space for people to meet their neighbors, parents to play with their children, and finding common ground through gardening. Exposure to nature also improves mental wellbeing. A study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that those who spent time in nature during the lockdown had improved mental health and perceived well-being

Beyond simply making a city a better place to live, green spaces can be boons for the environment by reducing noise pollution, air pollution, and flood damage. Larger parks can act as reservoirs of biodiversity. Green spaces in cities facilitate bird migration by providing habitats. As habitat loss due to rapidly expanding metropoles becomes a greater problem, restoring native vegetation back into the city can alleviate some of the consequences. 

Green spaces also play an essential role in cooling the city.Since cities are predominantly made of dark, heat-absorbing materials, they are often warmer than their surrounding areas due to the urban heat island effect. Urban areas are on average one to six degrees Celsius hotter than the surrounding regions, but large parks can reduce the temperature of nearby areas by one to two degrees. Trees deflect more heat than roads, can release moisture back into the air, and shade the sidewalks, leading to a more enjoyable experience for pedestrians. Especially in a warming world, the presence of green spaces is more important than ever since they can alleviate energy bills for air conditioning, lower the number of heat-related deaths, and improve the quality of life. 

However, efforts to save such spaces in a city’s dense urban environment are still made, even in a society hemorrhaging nature. For instance, proponents of the Elizabeth Street Garden are not simply accepting the status quo. Advocates are raising money and urging the city government to reconsider the plan. Organizations such as the New York Restoration Project acquire land primarily to create and maintain green spaces and transform unused land into vibrant parks and partnering with communities to keep the gardens we do have safe and clean. The Trust for Public Land is another national organization that works to protect land for public use by transforming asphalt yards into green spaces and implementing a range of other green infrastructure projects. While organizations are making strides, both active community involvement and strong efforts to strengthen legislation are crucial. For instance, the city could implement stricter regulations on the development of green spaces and require new construction projects to include provisions for green areas. Above all, it is vital that we protect the green spaces we already have. We must save the Elizabeth Street Garden from its fate. As a city, we should strive to protect the spaces that play such a key role in our society.