COVID-19, Sustainable Urban Regeneration and Trees
Challenges of the Future
It has often been said that cities face major challenges in terms of the quality of life and the range of opportunities that urban environments can offer their residents, and there is no doubt that cities and metropolitan areas are, and will increasingly be, engines of economic growth and home to the majority of jobs. They also play a key role in the creation of new ideas, as centres of innovation and the knowledge economy. At the same time, they pose a whole range of environmental problems caused by pollution, urban heat islands, and face difficulties caused by social cohesion, gentrification, etc. They also have to deal with the challenges of the future.
In this regard, it seems that the new urban rhetoric of politicians, the media and, unfortunately, even some specialist journals, fails to fully grasp the reality of the new ‘urbanism’ and this is quite serious, as it does not fully grasp the fact that many of our cities are at a point in the urban system life cycle where there is a rapid shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy and, therefore, are beyond the stage of stable maturity and are entering a cycle of decline. A decline that may even be accentuated by the COVID-19 epidemic.
The global pandemic has, in fact, confronted us with all our mistakes, and once it is resolved and the economy starts to move again, we will also have to rebuild and regenerate the urban areas where over 70% of the population will be concentrated over the next twenty years, with waves of urbanisation that we will have to be able to cope with, not only in terms of housing supply, but also in terms of environmental supply.
For decades we have been urbanising huge areas as if there was no tomorrow. We have continued to consume land as if it were an inexhaustible resource. Thinking only of today and not of tomorrow, and often without learning from past mistakes. We have totally ignored the principle of sustainability, i.e. “ensuring that present generations can meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
It is as if we ate everything in the restaurant without thinking that there would be a bill to pay, not only financially, but also for our health. But, above all, without thinking that those after us would also need to “eat” and would find the larder empty.
Now we are running out of time, we have to regenerate our cities, we have to prevent further land consumption, we have to reduce air and water pollution. And we can only do this through a regeneration process that can only be based on the 17 objectives of sustainable development.
Three main challenges for sustainable urban regeneration can be identified:
- environmental (climate change, carbon emissions and resource use),
- social (inequality, cohesion and health)
- institutional (governance, understood as the set of principles, rules and procedures concerning the management and governance of a society, an institution or a collective phenomenon).
Above all, the reality of climate change presents and will present particular challenges for cities. Floods, heat waves, droughts and other extreme events have a physical impact on cities and urban infrastructure and, consequently, on the health and mortality of urban populations (think of the 4 million deaths per year worldwide directly or indirectly linked to pollution). These events can also have an indirect impact on urban communities and economies through the deterioration of key resources and the creation of uncertainty about the future, which together erode confidence in investments in both social and financial capital and can lead to socio-economic inequalities.
Socio-economic inequalities should also be seen as a major challenge for sustainable urban regeneration as, in a global context, increasing competition for resources can combine with the effects of climate change and disproportionately impact the lowest and most vulnerable in society. If this is already evident in certain areas of our planet, it is no less true in Italy where inequalities are intensifying due to a number of demographic and economic phenomena, in particular ageing (with many elderly people less able to cope with environmental impacts), increasing ethnic diversity and the number of people living in poverty and/or social exclusion.
We know that public spaces, and especially green areas, play an important role in shaping the way individuals and families live their communities and neighbourhoods. They are therefore key elements of individual and social well-being that intersect with the collective life of a community, highlight different expressions of common natural and cultural richness, and establish what we call a sense of identity or sense of belonging. Communities interact with places in many ways, and this is enabled through a community development tool called ‘Placemaking’, which is a multifaceted approach to planning, designing and managing public spaces in order to capitalise on the assets, inspiration and potential of a local community, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and well-being.
This is because urban green spaces in the sense of parks, urban forests, neighbourhood gardens and tree-lined streets are often not equally available to all. It frequently happens that the socially weaker classes do not always have access to quality green space that can improve their quality of life. This is why it is important to understand the link between urban nature, social equity and health in relation to factors such as income, age, race and socio-economic status.
Projects have been carried out to understand who benefits most from green space and, more importantly, who does not. And if green space is lost, are the affected neighbourhoods equally affected or are some disproportionately negatively affected?
To explore this topic, some studies have focused on emerging issues in urban ecology and have linked different types of urban green spaces and human health. What emerges is that parks and other public green spaces are often less available and/or have a worse design quality and maintenance condition in neighbourhoods with lower socioeconomic status or a high proportion of residents from other countries or otherwise in poorer social conditions.
Indeed, studies show social inequality in access to good quality green areas and fewer benefits for residents, so much so that unequal access to green space can be correlated with disparities in cardiovascular health, pathologies more or less directly linked to thermal extremes, obesity and psychological distress.
On the other hand, some research has found that the creation of new green spaces, by increasing property values and the cost of living, can raise concerns about gentrification, i.e. the transformation of a working-class neighbourhood into a high-end housing area, with consequent changes in social composition and housing prices and repercussions on the social problems that can result.
So we have to ask ourselves questions, because if we know that ‘green’ is good for health, it can also lead to gentrification:
- Do green areas really benefit everyone?
- Could the process of ‘green gentrification’ cause health outcomes that are better for some and worse for others?
It is therefore essential for urban social equity and improved health for all that public health practitioners and the social sciences work more closely together to better understand the complex interaction between existing social vulnerabilities, gentrification and the creation of urban green spaces.
These elements are interconnected and combine to produce different configurations of environmental vulnerability in a specific city, and the institutional challenges to urban sustainability are necessarily linked to the tensions between top-down technical and managerial approaches to urban regeneration and bottom-up or grassroots environmental needs, expectations and initiatives (i.e. those grassroots political movements created autonomously and spontaneously within a community). This term, which has become commonly used and is not directly translatable into Italian, refers to the concept of the spontaneity of a movement that is nurtured from below, as opposed to political or cultural movements created and sustained by traditional power structures and, therefore, nurtured from above. It is widely recognised that in democratic societies, urban regeneration processes should adopt multi-stakeholder governance approaches, including residents and other communities that may be affected.
However, too often we see unresolved clashes between what local communities want for their neighbourhoods on the one hand and the plans of city administrations on the other. In addition, the interests of private investors and speculators add to the mix and this often creates long-term blockages in the decision-making process or win-lose situations that then lead to discontent.
It should be emphasised that urban regeneration is a way of reorganising and updating existing places rather than planning new urbanisation and it mainly concerns urban centres undergoing regeneration, former industrial areas, neighbourhoods more or less close to the centre built in the post-war period and which are facing a decline due to changed environmental and, above all, social conditions.
Factors underpinning the adoption of urban regeneration design policies include pressures arising from major short- or long-term economic problems, deindustrialisation, demographic change, underinvestment, infrastructure obsolescence, structural or cyclical employment problems, political deprivation, ethnic or social tensions, physical deterioration, and physical changes in urban areas. In general, urban regeneration actions involve measures of economic, social and physical/environmental improvement in the areas in which they operate and contribute to the realisation of sustainable development through the ‘recycling’ (understood in terms of recovery) of land and buildings, reducing wasteful demolition and the use of new construction materials, reducing the demand for peripheral urban growth and facilitating the intensification and compactness of existing urban areas. Accordingly, we understand sustainable urban regeneration as a set of regeneration actions, policies and processes within a city that address interconnected technical, spatial and socio-economic issues in order to reduce environmental impacts, mitigate environmental risks and improve the quality of urban systems, lifestyles and resources.
Environmental actions in urban regeneration are embedded in complex economic, political (meaning by the adjective political both the theory and practice of constituting, organising, administering the state and directing public life, and party politics), social, cultural and geographical contexts. In this workflow, it should be emphasised that, in order to be successful, environmental actions should not only be technically effective; they must also respond to a set of sustainability conditions that address the aforementioned contextual factors on a local scale and be calibrated to achieve the necessary impacts to ensure sustainability on a global scale. Furthermore, we believe that this specificity should be taken into account when assessing the relative success of concrete actions in specific contexts, which depend to a large extent on different starting points.
What role do trees play and should they play in urban regeneration processes?
Trees are important to people and the answer regarding the future of cities could simply be: “Increase tree cover!”. Trees are also important to politicians. Recent political manifestos often contain pledges to protect the amount of trees in urban areas and increase their number wherever possible. Commitments that almost never translate into real action, but are often just pandering proclamations aimed at winning over voters.
There is no doubt that we need to encourage more planting in our country too – to help achieve the oft-repeated goals of reducing pollution, mitigating temperature, influencing the amount of carbon stored in the medium to long term, improving collective wellbeing, etc., and every tree can be important in achieving these goals as part of a renewed national effort to increase the overall tree cover of our individual cities and the country as a whole.
In order to achieve the goal of quantitatively but also qualitatively increasing the proportion of greenery, we need to look at factual reality and research results combined with practical examples and try to persuade all those involved in planning city development and management policies to think positively about trees – and to become their advocates and supporters. I also hope that this will inspire many people and organisations to have a voice and be directly involved in planning their local environment in a more sustainable and, hopefully, greener way. The development and growth of the space in which we live and work represents an opportunity for change that cannot be postponed for many years. Making the right decisions at these crucial moments can influence people’s sense of place, health and well-being for generations. So, after the planetary emergency, we need to up the ante on sustainable urban regeneration and trees must play a key role in making the world a better place, one tree at a time.