Urban greening should focus on equity, not nature

April 19, 2023

Urban greening is gaining importance in city planning and European legislation. Take the EU’s 2030 biodiversity strategy, or the Green City Accord initiative. Both demand that nature gets a place in cities by the enhancement of biodiversity and the quality of green areas, to preserve the value of nature while “improving the wellbeing of all citizens”. Green spaces have been shown to be especially effective when it comes to promoting the wellbeing of communities with low socio-economic status. Yet these communities often lack access to such spaces. Public green spaces only represent a small portion of total green areas in European cities (on average 3% of the total city area), and the quality of these spaces is generally low. Furthermore, housing prices increase when houses are close to or in green areas, making access to these areas difficult for those who need them the most. It begs the question: What has led to this disparity in access to green spaces?

It is safe to say that legislation and urban planners are not putting enough emphasis on the social context in which green areas should be located. Rather than focusing on what communities in such areas need the most, legislators and planners are attempting to preserve the value of nature as something external to human beings and the social systems they operate in. The externalization of nature essentially reduces nature to fit the capitalist paradigm, making it fall prey to its emphasis on self-interest, competition, and private property. However, we should realize that the value of nature depends on the relationship we have with it. Value systems are human processes that depend on the social and geographical context in which the system is embedded. It is the role green areas play in communities with low socio-economic status that give them their value, this value is not intrinsic to the green area itself. Valuing nature should therefore essentially be about cultivating values that prioritize an equitable relationship between humans and nature.

This does not mean we cannot value nature as part of urban planning and Green City legislation. Rather, the focus should primarily be on the social context in which nature is valued. Given the fact that urban greening is prioritized to increase wellbeing, planning and legislation must target communities with low socio-economic status. Thus, rather than trying to capture nature’s intrinsic value, urban greening should be about cultivating equitable access to urban green areas.

Burning questions
  • In what other ways can urban planning enhance an equitable relationship between humans and nature? To what extent is that its responsibility?
  • How can the number of urban green areas grow in increasingly dense cities?
  • What financial interventions must be done to keep housing prices from rising when nearby green areas increase?

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Vivian Elion is an Advisor for Regional Approach at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). In this role, she supports provinces, municipalities and entrepreneurs in adopting national sustainability policies concerning construction, the environment, and society. Vivian studied Global Business and Sustainability at Erasmus University Rotterdam, specializing in sustainability tensions. During her tenure at FreedomLab, she developed the Deep Transitions Framework into business services.

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