Urban green spaces (UGS) serve as an important natural resource for cities. They provide a variety of social, economic and environmental benefits which enhance the health and well-being of urban dwellers and the overall sustainability of cities. This article by Romanus Opiyo reflects on the benefits of urban green spaces and the opportunities for the deliberate provision of such spaces through urban planning interventions given the improved well-being and health aspects associated with the UGS.
City dwellers tend to enjoy green spaces, but they seem to be dwindling and the few which are existing are unkempt and poorly managed, especially those provided by the public agencies as part of standard neighbourhood planning. The recent Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions such as lockdowns gave prominence to the importance of these spaces as part of the urban fabric to enhance urban residents’ health and well-being.
The rate of urbanisation is estimated to have increased from 27 per cent in 1950 to 40 per cent in 2015, leaving little space for UGS, despite their immense benefits. Studies have shown that UGS are important for sustainable urban development due to their ecological, health, economic and social benefits. However, green spaces are poorly managed and inadequately planned and provided for in many African cities. The resultant effect has been widespread destruction of many of Africa’s urban green spaces. Moreover, rapid urbanisation puts intense pressure on UGS due to growing demand for land use for various human activities such as housing, commerce and industry resulting in their persistent deterioration in most African cities. The dysfunctional nature of urban planning regulations, bureaucratic processes involved in issuing development permits, and weakness of the planning institutions in Africa further aggravate the situation and limit the attention given to these spaces in urban planning and development. UGS are therefore losing their values and are covering small proportions of the total city landmass hence compromising the health and wellbeing of city dwellers.
To understand the scope of Urban Green Spaces (UGS) in this article, the term is used to cover all areas including all natural and semi-natural spaces in urban areas that are primarily covered by vegetation, which are either publicly or privately owned and are easily available for human usage. It is not only limited to urban parks and gardens. It covers also land that is made up mainly of unsealed, permeable surfaces such as soil, grass, shrubs and trees which are privately or publicly accessible or managed.
Challenges of Urban Green Spaces (UGS) in African Cities
The provision and management of UGS in African cities have faced some challenges which have limited their access, use and prominence in literature. The challenges may not be different, but literature has shown that cities in South Africa as a country and North Africa as a region are doing better than Sub- Saharan African cities. Some of the key challenges associated with UGS provision and management are as followed:
a) Inadequate provision in most cities’ land use planning proposals: Most city plans either ignore or give little attention to UGS as part of new or revitalisation plans.
b) Lack of political goodwill and support: UGS are normally seen as idle land and the political class and leadership often see them as low-hanging fruit for either personal or public gain, allowing them to be allocated new land use without hesitating or being appreciated by the urban residents.
c) Lack of limited financing: At times the UGS lack budgets for their management, acquisition or for expansion, especially the public-operated UGS which rely on the public exchequer for their acquisition and management.
d) Inadequate legislation, policies and enforcement: Some African cities have inadequate legislative and policy frameworks guiding the provision of UGS and have had challenges in the enforcement of the existing policies and legislations.
e) Informality: informal economy and informal settlements due to rapid urbanisation which is commonly associated with the urban poor who are unable to get employment in the formal sector or can afford to live in a planned formal settlement. The rapid urbanisation outpaces the city planning and development hence threatening the existing UGS, especially the public-managed UGS which are seen as a public good and are prone to informal economic activities invasion such as hawking and as habitat for the homeless city dwellers. This makes it a little hard and complicated to regain and maintain the use of UGS as planned. It also reduces the access and use of the UGS for the intended purpose as it comes with other negative socio-economic and cultural barriers such as insecurity and other forms of moral concerns such as abuse of drugs which cumulatively affects the health and wellbeing of the city dwellers.
Urban Green Spaces (UGS) and Wellbeing
Studies have linked Urban Green Spaces (UGS) with public health benefits and improved social cohesion which are key determinants of urban residents’ wellbeing. Recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions in Nairobi, many residents were able to jog, walk and interact in few provided green spaces in response to travel restrictions and as a space for taking a break from the long working hours associated with working from home which was a new concept for many of the city dwellers in Nairobi and other cities in the global south. Various World Health (WHO) reports have already contributed evidence and guidance on access to green space in relation to public wellbeing and health benefits. A WHO report on urban planning, environment and health published in 2010 stated that green spaces can positively affect physical activity, social and psychological well‐being, improve air quality and reduce noise exposure; however, they can also be associated with an increased risk of injury due to increased recreational and sport‐related use. Drawing from WHO and experience during Covid-19 restrictions, UGS’s role in affecting urban residents’ quality of life and wellbeing cannot be overemphasised as their well-being value shot up in African cities. However, the well-being of people living in the informal settlements was negatively affected by limited access to UGS due to their unavailability or scarcity in such settlements which are also known to host the largest portion of cities in the southern population.
Urban Planning Intervention
In the context of urban planning interventions, there is the opportunity to embrace the concept of nature-based solution (NBS) as part of a planning strategy to integrate elements of nature (greenery) into the physical landscape. This may be drawn from traditional planning concepts of “Garden City” associated with Ebenezer Howard which are seen as the original champions of the green city movements. The Covid-19 pandemic experience should help to retrofit UGS in neighbourhoods and plan for expansion and management of the existing ones through new city plans and revitalisation plans. Moreover, they should be accompanied by proper a budgeting and implementation framework. It is therefore concluded that UGS has an important role in defining the well-being of the African urban residents and also in the attainment of national, regional and global commitments such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), hence their provision and management should be factored in the city’s urban plans and management and funding strategies. Through Public-Private partnerships (PPPs), the private sector can be encouraged to collaborate with the public sector, which can take the form of Rehabilitate-Operate-Transfer (ROT) in the revitalisation, of UGSs in African cities. They are one way to support the city with a proper legal, policy, and implementation framework including clear enforcement strategies which cumulatively will enhance the urban living conditions and wellbeing of the city residents.