Lessons from Denmark: Enhancing Human Well-being with Urban Green Spaces


Rachael Rosenstein
Summer flowers in Denmark’s urban green spaces.

In a world of rapid urbanization, communities are losing green spaces to concrete jungles. Without green spaces, the economy, the environment and society are compromised. Imagine taking a walk through a modern city. You could be on your way to work, to run errands, or just to get some exercise. You are making your way along the sidewalk and to one side of you there are massive buildings towering high above you. To your other side you see loud, fuming cars whizzing by you on the street. The air around you is thick and foggy, making your breathing heavier as you walk through the dense city. How do you feel?
 

Rachael Rosenstein
Urban garden plot in Ø Haven, the largest community garden in Denmark.

Now, imagine you are on the sidewalk in the city of Aarhus, Denmark. On one side of you, there are still buildings. However, these buildings are topped with green roofs and community gardens which provide better water quality, less runoff, reduced air pollution and greater biodiversity. To your other side you see a street with cars, but it is not busy. Even during rush hour, you have plenty of room on the sidewalk. There is an abundance of bike lanes with cyclists happily making their commutes. As cyclists move through the city, they are getting physical activity while simultaneously reducing air pollution. You continue down the street and you see an inviting, green oasis – another park amongst many in Aarhus. People are congregating, picnicking, exercising or just taking a break from the day.

Which of the two cities we describe above would you rather be taking a stroll through? We spent four weeks on the ground in Denmark, exploring why the country is consistently ranked happier and how green spaces in Denmark play a role in promoting well-being. Denmark has been successful in creating beautiful green spaces on three grounds: municipal planning, national legislation and community engagement. In fact, the public played an integral role in ensuring the implementation of green spaces became a reality. By being involved at every step of the planning and legislation process, greenspace creation has been tailored to meet the unique design preferences of Denmark’s diverse communities. During the planning process, workshops and meetings were facilitated to engage local communities in developing their vision for green spaces. These events resulted in hundreds of innovative ideas being generated. Not only was public involvement an important part of the planning process, but it continues to be vital for the maintenance of these green spaces today. Volunteers remain dedicated and engaged by continuing to help care for their community green spaces. When locals cultivate relationships with their communities and green spaces they not only have the opportunity to improve their environment, but their quality of life as well.
 

Rachael Rosenstein
Ø Haven, the largest community garden in Denmark.

While green areas promote sustainability and biodiversity1, they also contribute positively to human quality of life2. Without the presence of urban green spaces, individuals are more susceptible to poor mental health such as depression and anxiety3. Inaccessibility to green space can also cause social isolation, induced stress, feeling unsafe, and create limitations on physical activity4. As a result, it is necessary to promote the creation, revitalization, and use of green spaces to foster healthy well-being.

Across the globe, solutions are needed to move toward a sustainable and happy future. Green spaces can serve as solutions to address our quality of life. Some countries are better than others at maintaining or including green spaces while developing – Denmark happens to be one of those countries. According to the World Happiness Report, Denmark is also frequently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. The United States has never been ranked in the top ten. We also explored the link between access to greenspace and human well-being in Aarhus, Denmark, especially for women. Finally, we observed and interviewed park users to provide more insight on the effects of green spaces. Drawing on Denmark as a case study, this paper promotes a vision of why and how the prevalence of green spaces might be increased in other countries like the United States. Specifically, we consider the potential for green spaces as sustainability solutions through four lenses: planning, design, well-being, and gender.
 

Rachael Rosenstein
Community garden and open green space in Denmark.

Well-being
Increasing access to green spaces can serve as a solution to enhance well-being, including aspects of emotional, physical, mental and spiritual health. In a world of violence, increased depression, anxiety, and obesity, cities can take an active role to promote enhanced well-being for all of humanity. During our time in Aarhus, we considered how green spaces might promote the well-being of park users. While many cities around the world lack access to green spaces, it is easy to access multiple green spaces from most locations in Aarhus. When it comes to physical activity, it is important to have access to green areas. Over 73% of women we surveyed said they would rather use green spaces than any other location for physical activity. Research also indicates that physical activity is necessary for a happy and healthy life5.

Green spaces also promote a sense of calm and reduced levels of anxiety6. Over 93 percent of survey respondents we surveyed said that on a calmness scale of one to ten (ten being extremely calm), they were at least an 8. In city life, many people are not able to escape the chaos of cars, noise pollution, air pollution and busy streets. In these green areas, respondents self-reported they feel relaxed rather than stressed and anxious. We also found that green spaces were a wonderful place for park users to access social interaction, and most respondents reported consistently high levels of happiness. Overall, green spaces in Denmark seem to have a significant, positive impact on the lives of their users. Therefore, if other countries learn from their examples, potential solutions exist to improve mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.

 
Gender
Within this piece we want to recognize the nuances of how different people are affected by accessibility to parks. Our research in Aarhus focused specifically on women. We discovered however, that no matter what gender (if any) one identifies themselves as, all people want to feel safe and included. The way that we build spaces can make people feel more or less comfortable depending on their interpretation of the local environment. Not only should these spaces make people feel comfortable, but they should actually decrease the likelihood of feeling unsafe (e.g. assault, crime). Safe green spaces can be designed with open lines of vision, with windows facing toward them, and by making them interesting and engaging enough for people to hang around. Given that Denmark is one of the safest countries in the world, we were not surprised when interviewees reported they felt neither more or less safe in urban areas versus green spaces.

We can build safety into our shared spaces and must take the perspectives of all city dwellers into account.

Even though interviewees reported feeling moderately safe in parks, safety is an area we identified for improvement. Out of the 50 women we interviewed, 3 women detailed stories of how safety is not always associated with parks in Denmark. More specifically, there have been safety concerns attributed to the botanical gardens. In 2003, there was an attack and attempted rape that gave these gardens a negative reputation. As a result, women express concerns with venturing alone in green spaces at night. Today, the memory of this incident continues to be present in the minds of those who use the parks. Safety throughout all green spaces is a necessity to ensure positive experiences for park users. Implementing blue light emergency alert systems may be an effective approach for improving park safety. These lights can be seen from anywhere in the park and allow park users to contact emergency services with the simple touch of button.

 
Urban Planning
Urban planning plays a fundamental role in the way that residents interact with their city. Currently, four out of five United States residents live in cities, and, as development continues, the proportion of city dwellers will only continue to grow7. In the face of rapid urbanization, planning and developing cities that include green spaces will be an important step in developing solutions to improving societal well-being.

In Aarhus, accessibility to green space is growing, as green spaces are never far out of reach. In fact, the city of Aarhus has aggressive plans to make green spaces accessible to 90% of the population within just 500 meters of their homes. The United States could take similar strides. Policy for new development could require planners to incorporate a certain percentage of green space (e.g., parks, rooftops, community gardens) into new developments. For example, there are an estimated eight billion parking spots in the United States, amounting to about eight parking spots for every car in the country. Small changes like reducing the amount of pavement and asphalt in our cities and replacing these areas with grass, native plants, community pavilions, picnicking destinations, or playgrounds will help us reintegrate green space into places that are already developed.

Urban green spaces bring life into cities. Other countries like the United States can look to Denmark’s ambitious approach for expanding green space and develop policies to incorporate high quality green spaces that are accessible for all members of society.

 
Design of Spaces
We visited three different green spaces during our time in Aarhus, with varying layouts and designs: (1) Marselisborg, (2) the Botanical Garden, and (3) University Park. Marselisborg was open, allowing for a clear line of sight from one side of the park to the other, and included a play area for children. The Botanical Garden allowed for a stroll along an intimate path shaded by trees, secluded from the city. Finally, the University Park provided a green space for pause within the middle of the city without complete isolation from the urban environment.
 

Rachael Rosenstein
Garden plots nestled within Denmark’s public parks.

Each park allowed for different experiences and connections. While one design cannot be hailed as a universal design for parks everywhere, it is important to acknowledge the opportunities these spaces afford the users. Within Marselisborg, families are given the opportunity to connect and meet other young families. In the Botanical Garden, couples are provided with intimate spaces where they feel secluded, but not socially excluded. The University Park provides users with an escape from the city, supporting a long stay or a short repose.

On a global scale, there are many megacities that could benefit from better park systems. Regardless of location, however, we should emphasize the importance of quantity and variety within park systems. A space designed for children is not a space that young couples would want to go for a romantic picnic. Design has the ability to shape the way people feel in a space and can be used as a solution to evoke feelings in support of a sustainable future. By creating sustainable designs we can hope to inspire sustainable behavior in the users. Sustainable behavior can be characterized by virtuous characteristics. This behavior is altruistic and equitable. If our designs can inspire this behavior in the users, the users will be able to connect better and focus on actions that benefit the community instead of individuals. The green areas will be able to create more meaningful social interaction through their design.

 
Conclusion:
Now more than ever, our cities are plagued by poor health and well-being. We can move toward a future that sustains our happiness, health, and environment. Green spaces are a potential solution that affect more aspects of the human experience than just well-being; they benefit our overall quality of life. Access to more green spaces not only helps us take care of the environment, they also support our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

Aarhus’ green planning sets an example for cities around the world to promote healthier and more sustainable lifestyles for their residents. No matter where in the city a person lives or how much money they have, they are able to enjoy and use green spaces. We can learn from Denmark’s example because their green spaces provide all residents more places to be physically fit, socially engaged, relaxed and healthy. Aarhus has been able to create beautiful locations for residents to have meaningful relationships with their communities and their environment. In the midst of the urban chaos, green spaces in Denmark do not disappoint in fostering a truly healing escape from the stresses of everyday life.

The way that we build our environment elicits varying emotions, and designing smarter spaces promotes positive mindsets. It is important to not only design our cities to allow for better, easier access, but to also design spaces that people feel comfortable in. Overall, cities and parks should work together to enhance benefits for urban residents.

Denmark is a mecca of urban greenspaces. The urban oases throughout Denmark are accessible on a large-scale, providing residents with spaces that benefit health and community cohesion. Even though policymakers played a pivotal role in Denmark’s reintegration of green spaces, the movement is not entirely dependent on bureaucracy, as residents have played a significant role. With goals of sustainability and well-being, the cities in Denmark have been able to not only make urban planning efforts that benefit the biodiversity and resiliency of the city, but also provide spaces for increased physical activity and improved mental health. In Aarhus, if you are to walk out of your residency, you can quickly access fresh air, trees, space for exercise, space for your children to play, and space for social gathering all while connecting with nature. The combination of municipal planning, policy change and volunteer/advocacy work by the public has transformed visions to reality in Denmark. This work has driven the design of spaces that benefit all residents, giving way to an equitable and sustainable city.

 
References

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