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Green infrastructure: Two words that don’t go together very often, but when they do, the results are extremely advantageous.
“Green infrastructure can be anything from parks to arboretums to backyards to green roofs,” Carly Ziter, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said. “We really need diversity from our green spaces in our cities if we want to get multiple benefits; variety is really key here.”
Ziter’s research suggested that green spaces, such as parks and backyards, can provide many benefits to urban areas. Ziter explains that these “benefits” are often called “ecosystem services.”
In more developed areas, neighborhood parks and people’s yards store very high amounts of carbon, which helps reduce carbon emission levels in cities.
“It's really important is to keep your yard green,” Ziter said. Instead of paving an area, keeping green space and plants in your yard “is really important because your property is part of a much bigger ecosystem and is part of that proven fabric of the city,” Ziter said.
By keeping your yard green, you provide your city with the ecosystem services that urban green spaces provide. Here are four little known ecosystem services that urban green spaces provide to cities.
Urban heat island effect
Urban heat island effect is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “built up areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas.”
Replacing pavement with green spaces is beneficial because pavement holds onto a lot of heat, according to Ziter.
The urban heat island effect has many effects on the health and efficiency of cities, including increased energy consumption, increased air pollutants and greenhouse gases, impaired water quality and compromised human health and comfort.
According to the EPA, the average annual temperature of a city with 1 million people or more can be 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than its surroundings, and during the evening the difference can be as high as 22 degrees.
Increased temperatures and higher air pollution levels can be dangerous and contribute to respiratory difficulties, heat exhaustion, non-fatal heat stroke and heat-related mortality.
The urban heat island effect also exacerbates the impact of heat waves, which are periods of abnormally hot and humid weather. Heat waves can be extremely dangerous and even fatal to the elderly, children and those with pre-existing conditions.
Green rooftops can provide shade and actually remove heat from the air through evapotranspiration, a process in which water is transferred from the land to atmosphere by evaporation from soil and by transpiration from plants.
Soil can absorb carbon from the air, which helps reduce carbon emissions and in turn makes green spaces an important aspect in battling climate change.
Ziter’s study showed that backyard soils can capture even more harmful carbon emissions than soils in native forests or grasslands. Urban backyards and green spaces contribute to reducing carbon emission levels in cities, which makes air cleaner and healthier for its residents.
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Green infrastructure can aid in urban water regulation. One aspect of green infrastructure is green roofs, which can reduce combined sewage overflow. “Green roofs act like a giant sponge,” Anastasia Cole Plakias, the vice president of Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm, said.
The soil on a green roof will slow the rate that water moves into the sewer system, which helps regulate the process.
As cities become more paved and less green, there is more water entering the sewage system, which can overwhelm it. When the system is not able to be route the runoff to a sewage treatment plant, it can often be discharged directly into local waterways, untreated, according to Plakias.
“That, of course, is devastating for marine ecosystems, it is a human health issue and it’s a very expensive issue,” Plakias said.
Green infrastructure is not only extremely beneficial in aiding in the economics of water regulation but actually add economic value to a city, according to Mike Houck, director of Urban Green spaces Institute in Portland, Oregon.
Urban green spaces increase property value in cities, according to Houck.
“If you look at New York City and Central Park, the first thing the designer did was figure out what the increased taxes would be around the park's edge,” Houck said.
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