Sunday 9 June 2013

All regimes try to develop poor people's parks

The stand-off in Ankara about the future of a public park that is about to be handed over to developers has been treated by the media for what it says about the Turkish government and its relations with ordinary people. What the story really demonstrates is the vital importance of green spaces in people's lives.

We are extraordinarily lucky in British cities with open green space, though the environments the poor have to live in are often unremittingly brutal - especially in the big cities and thanks to the architectural fantasies of the 1960s and 70s, a blot on the reputation of municipal housing.

What we forget is that, as in Ankara, it all has to be fought for.  I have commons all around where I live in South London, and every one of them has required campaigning defence and sometimes direct action - from tearing down the fences enclosing Sydenham Common in the 17th century to tearing down the fences enclosing Plumstead Common in the 19th century.

My own nearest park is Norwood Grove, which twice had to be defended from developers - in 1913 and 1924 - until it was bought by public subscription.  It is a major civilising influence on the area (though I expect some economists would complain that building on it would create economic growth).

So the defence of a park in Ankara may not actually mean that the regime is particularly brutal (though the police clearly are).  All regimes try to develop the parks used by poor people.  What it does show is that Turkey is politically mature enough for people to hang on to their park  for dear life.

What worries me is that we haven't learned the latest lessons of green space in UK policy either.  We already know from there that mental health problems are enormously higher in high-density concrete estates without grass or trees. But it is now also clear from research that:

  • 71 per cent in one Mind survey reported lower levels of depression after walking in a country park (22 per cent found an equivalent walk through a shopping centre made them more depressed).
  • 24 per cent fewer sick visits among prisoners in Michigan in cells that overlooked farmland and trees.
  • Shorter hospital stays, fewer painkillers, less medication for Pennsylvania patients when they had views of trees.

These are important findings, and the Netherlands now has 600 ‘care farms’ in the countryside to tackle depression, integrated into their health service (we have 42). They imply that human beings have a basic need for green, natural space and trees.

One study in Seattle even found that turnover in shops were higher when there were trees in the shopping street, so there are direct economic links as well.

All this also implies that the green movement, in the UK at least, is partly responsible for the rise in mental illness. Green campaigners have been at the forefront of calling for high density cities, and high density flats, over the past two decades, and high densities necessarily means less greenery.

The hideous results – at least for those who have to live in them – are all too obvious, just as they were two generations ago when environmentalists and architects last ganged up to raise urban densities. Then as now, it was the poor that suffered – without any obvious reduction in traffic either.

But the third implication is more urgent. There is a political opportunity here, because there is – hidden in this research – a note of hope. We can have an impact on the epidemic of depression that is undermining our society but not if we reserve the dullest, concrete environments from the people they are most likely to damage.

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