More than 80% of the U.S. population live in cities, and this is a figure which is growing year on year. As our world becomes more urbanized, we have to make more of an effort to create and treasure our green and natural spaces. Naturally occurring greenery becomes less prevalent, but you can still create green spaces and tranquility in busy urban areas with the right approach.
Spending time outdoors is proven to be good for our health. In urban environments with high pollution levels, it is even more vital we make the most of our green and outdoor space and find ways to incorporate it into the design of our cities and towns.
Exploring the links between neuroscience and urban environments
The field of neuroarchitecture has developed as an exploration of measuring the changes in the body and brain due to the built environment. With scientific disciplines dedicated to the way urban development impacts our neurology, it’s clear this is an area where we need to act to ensure people are able to live happily and healthily. The design of urban spaces is a balance of science, technology and art, and incorporating outdoor features into urban design is vital for the health of the population.
Effective landscaping and hardscaping techniques can combine to create tranquility in even the most urban and built-up environments.
Noise reduction through landscaping
The sound of rustling leaves or running water is much more enjoyable than the roar of traffic and urban noise pollution. The chance of a little peace and calm in busy urban areas may seem impossible, but you can develop and incorporate noise reduction into your outdoor environment with the right techniques.
First, it’s important to consider the science of noise reduction. Sound travels in waves which are absorbed, reflected, and transmitted by the materials in our environment. Hard surfaces such as concrete and brick will reflect sound while softer materials such as fabrics, leaves and foliage absorb it.
If you consider any outside space, sound waves approach different elements in different ways. When they encounter a dense material such as a wall or fence, they have to find an alternative route, and this reduces the noise level on the other side of the wall or fence. Water features can also help to mask noise by creating soothing background sound and limiting the overwhelming volume of urban noise.
Foliage for noise reduction can be selected intentionally. Plants suitable to create a tranquil space in an urban environment should have large, broad leaves to easily absorb sound waves. Trees such as oaks and maples are particularly effective, as well as shrubs like holly bushes and boxwoods. Climbing plants can also be effective for noise reduction, as they can help to absorb noise as they climb the walls and fences. The density of foliage is also an important factor to consider, with thick hedges providing more effective noise reduction than sparser shrubs and plants.
Using hardscaping as a noise reduction technique
Hardscaping elements can be pivotal in the design of your outdoor space and can also form part of your approach to noise reduction. Walls and fences are clear and obvious elements of your landscaping design which can help to minimize noise pollution but there are also other ways. Rockeries and water features can also help when positioned well.
The urban heat island effect
Higher temperatures are an unfortunate byproduct of built-up areas. The Center for Disease Control estimated that exposure to excessive heat contributed to over 8,000 premature deaths between 1979 and 1999. When we consider that the earth’s temperature continues to rise, then these figures too have the potential to increase. The urban heat island effect and the density of people in cities make them very vulnerable to heat waves.
To counteract this, investing in the development of green spaces is vital. The shading effect of trees, for example, can help to cool the air generally and create spaces that are more comfortable to live in. Research published in Landscaping and Urban Planning found that urban greening could cool urban areas by approximately 2°F during the day.
Promoting green streets and open space in urban areas
We should not and cannot underestimate the value of open, green space in urban areas. Beyond the health benefits, the EPA assert green spaces attract buyers into an area and have multiple economic benefits.
Green street development is another focus of the EPA. Green streets are stormwater management approaches that incorporate vegetation and engineered elements such as permeable payments. They help to slow, filter, and cleanse stormwater runoff from surfaces such as sidewalks and streets. Green streets have socio-economic benefits as well as driving cleaner water supplies and can become an economic hub for businesses. The EPA encourage the use of their G3 approach to create urban green infrastructure for a better future and more sustainability in our cities.
Creating green spaces in cities
Generating sufficient green spaces in urban environments takes creativity and innovation, you need to look at things a little differently. While you can ensure your hardscaped parking lot has greenery incorporated, or you don’t always pave over the outdoor space you have, to deliver the greenery we need requires a truly creative approach. Below are some of the ways you can develop effective green spaces in urban environments:
Cultivate green buildings
There is a shortage of ground space in many urban environments, which means we sometimes need to think vertically. Many buildings are unappealing and offer no positive benefits to the environment. However, the development of green buildings allows for the growth of plants and shrubbery on the exterior of buildings, creating habitats for wildlife and boosting the air quality in the surrounding area. If greening an entire building isn’t possible, you could consider green rooftops or utilizing balcony space to cultivate plants and flowers.
Community gardens and parks
While getting the permission to have parkland in an area may not always be straightforward, if you already have areas of green space which are unloved and unused, they can easily become a community gardening project. A few planters and shrubs are a great starting point, and anyone can get involved.
Sustainable energy choices
Smarter energy policies also contribute to the environmentally friendly nature of our cities. Smart and green energy policies encourage green space development, and renewable energy sources do not pollute the environment as they generate the power we need to keep the city running.
Investing in solar panels for your premises helps to cut your use of fossil fuels and is a step towards a more sustainable future.
Innovative car lot gardening
While your car lot may not be a place you can make particularly attractive or eye-catching, it can be used practically for cultivating plants and herbs in planters in empty spaces. Raised beds and planters can be packed with herbs and plants which make the space much greener and contribute positively to the environment.
Under the recent Inflation Reduction Act the Forest Service was given a huge $1.5bn for its Urban and Community Forestry Program. The aim of the program is to support urban forest planning, tree planting and management of urban tree populations. Caring for urban trees and plants helps to improve the green credentials of any city. Trees help to contribute to cleaner air, and as we’ve discussed, when planted strategically, can be instrumental in creating calm, quiet green spaces in even the busiest areas.
Natural forest is decreasing across the country, so government initiatives to boost tree populations are extremely welcome. Even private businesses and commercial organizations can support the government programs by looking at how they can incorporate trees into their outdoor space.
Creating functional outdoor spaces embracing nature
For most businesses, their outdoor space has more than one function and this needs to be kept in mind when designing. If your yard space is both where employees relax and eat their lunch and a space for outdoor meetings and ideation sessions, then it needs to reflect this.
Once you have committed to maximizing the green potential of your outside space and creating a calm environment, you have to ensure it is fit for purpose. Some easy ways to create a functional yet tranquil inner-city sanctum include:
Gazebos and garden rooms
If you’re 100% committed to making your outdoor space a functional work environment, then you need to consider comfort. A gazebo or garden room allows you to enjoy the benefits of being outside regardless of the elements. Come rain or shine you can enjoy your outdoor meetings and working groups.
The natural light available in urban spaces may not be as bright and vivid as you need, especially if pollution levels are high. Investing in some lighting features and elements can help illuminate the space and maximize its functionality. You do not want to overpopulate your outdoor space with interior features, but well-placed lighting can help make the space more useful.
The flow of running water can be extremely calming and therapeutic. We’ve already discussed how it can also minimize the impact of loud noises and sounds outside of your space. You could opt for a simple pond or a more elaborate water feature; whatever feels the best fit for your environment and adds to the sense of calm.
A lot of urban outdoor space is very public, and this may not be suitable for your business or create that sense of tranquility and calm you’re looking for. Fencing and walls may make the space feel smaller, but it does add that element of privacy which you might need. Walls and fences are also among the most useful ways of minimizing noise and keeping out the sounds of urban chaos just outside your space.
Balancing the perfect business location with the perfect work environment
For many organizations, having a city center office is essential. This is prime real estate and essential if you want your business to be seen and heard by those who matter and have the potential to help your business grow. However, a location in the heart of an urban metropolis comes with its downsides and they often center around greenery, fresh air and a sense of calm which is hard to achieve in a bustling urban environment.
Maximizing the potential of your outside space, however large or small, can be one of the most effective ways to counter the downsides of being based in a central location. Even hardscaped yards or small balconies can be brought to life with the right shrubs and plants.
Finding a sense of calm in the hectic fast-paced urban world is completely possible with the right design approach. Transform empty and unused outside space into a functional and calm oasis with the advice we’ve provided above.