A Green Park Reaches New Heights

Parks-Trees-New York CityNew York City may be known to be a concrete jungle, but new environmental designs give New Yorkers a chance to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. High Line Park takes the conventional idea of a park and transforms an unconventional outdoor space into one of the most popular summer public areas in the city. With the help of progressive and creative ideas, High Line Park raises a park to new heights.

Located in the Chelsea neighborhood, High Line Park is known for its innovative way of taking unused space and changing it into a public park. The High Line was originally created in the 1930s as an elevated railway system. Trains have not run on the High Line tracks since the 1980s. The area was threatened to be destroyed, but with the collaboration of the City of New York and an organization called Friends of the High Line, the historical structure was saved. Not only was it spared from demolition, the area turned into New York City’s famous elevated park.

Ideas for High Line Park took off beginning in 2001. By 2003, the “Designing the High Line” competition was created to generate ideas from around the world. Teams from 36 countries entered for a chance to have their plans put into the park. It wasn’t until 2006 when construction began. The first section of the park, stretching from Gansevoort street to West 20th street, opened in June of 2009. Just recently in June of 2011, the second section of the park opened, now extending upwards from West 20th street to West 30th street. 

The literal steel to nature transformation shows how creative visionaries can create an environmentally friendly space where one previously didn’t exist. The park has had extensive designs in terms of plants, which have been selected based on sustainability and inspired by the landscape that had sprouted over the years when the railway had not been used. Just in the first section of the park, visitors can find over 200 types of grasses, shrubs, and flowers. Developers were able to keep history alive by leaving the old railroad tracks in place, while plating around them. For night time visits, LED lights are placed around the park for energy efficient ways of enjoying the space when the sun goes down. 

The unique structure of the elevated park has drawn large amounts of visitors since its opening, and continues to grow with its recent expansion. The High Line hosts an array of events where people can enjoy the outdoors in the middle of the thriving city. Saturdays at the High Line bring tours of the park, including a walking guide that points out historical and horticultural highlights. Tuesday evenings after the sky has turned dark, visitors can take part in star gazing with high tech telescopes. The park, in collaboration with the Amateur Astronomers Associated of New York, brings the sometimes rare sight of stars to New Yorkers’ eyes. An upcoming June walking tour around the park with gardeners will showcase how the gardens of the park are taken care of. Live entertainment and musical performances are also a popular option for anyone visiting the park.

Aside from all the programs happening at the High Line Park in upcoming months, many visitors simply enjoy spending leisure time at a new and unique park. With views of the Hudson River, the innovative park brings a new perspective on green spaces. In a city where every square inch of space is highly valued, designers have been able to successfully create a large, environmentally conscious park above the busy streets. The first design of its kind has become a hit for New Yorkers who want to escape the hectic city life to be part of nature at new heights.

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Green Space Shown to Help Humans Thrive

parks-green space-natural areas-healthNature lovers and green-minded individuals have long insisted exposure to the natural world leads to a greater sense of well-being and health.  Now researchers at the University of Illinois say they have found quantifiable evidence that this is indeed the case, and that green surroundings make people healthier.  According to Frances E. Kuo of the university’s Landscape and Human Health Laboratory, research methods have improved enough over the last ten years to strongly suggest the health benefits of nature are real.

Though many environmentalists are already convinced natural areas make people healthier and happier, these personal convictions are often based on anecdotal stories that are hard to quantify scientifically.  However in the last decade more and more researchers have taken time to conduct carefully designed studies that compare the health of groups of individuals regularly exposed to green space to those in a more artificial environment.  To assess the mental and physical health of communities, researchers have used variables like blood pressure, immune system performance, and police reports of crimes in the area.  Overall, the studies show individuals who live close to nature are likely to be healthier than those who don’t.

Reports featured by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory include a study suggesting that trees near residences decrease the likelihood of domestic violence, that greener play areas reduce ADHD symptoms in children, and that views of natural landscapes can help young girls develop self-discipline.  The reasons for such links between the surrounding environment and social health might seem difficult to fathom at first, but not once you understand the scientific rationale for why humans may be hard-wired to react to a green environment.

As early as 1984, Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson formulated the Biophilia Hypothesis, which predicts that the natural world holds an innate attraction for humans because it is the environment where our species first evolved and flourished.  According to Wilson, green settings that somewhat resemble the landscapes where early humans evolved satisfy a need encoded in our DNA.  The Biophilia Hypothesis has been used as an incentive for preserving natural areas and global biodiversity. 

Over time the link between green surroundings and human health has become increasingly clear.  However scientific skepticism demanded researchers test for other variables that might be affecting the results of studies.  For example, while families living in close proximity to parks and other semi-natural areas clearly have better health, this could be because those living in bleaker, more artificial settings tend to have a lower income and less ability to afford first-rate medical care.

According to Kuo, recent studies have shown variables like socio-economic status can’t account for observed benefits of living near green space.  No matter their income, people exposed to natural landscapes seem to be healthier physically, mentally, and socially.  This raises questions about how urban areas might be designed to maximize exposure to nature. 

More and more people around the world are predicted to move to cities in the years ahead.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing from an environmentalist perspective.  After all, city residents tend to drive less and have a smaller carbon footprint than individuals who live in the suburbs or country and use a car to get around.  However urban areas should be designed with parks and natural areas in mind; incorporating numerous small parks throughout a city could provide residents with the benefits of having nature close to hand.  Finally, as awareness of nature’s role in human health spreads, the need to protect natural ecosystems both inside and outside cities will become clearer than ever.

If there is one thing findings of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory seem to show, it’s that people separated from green and semi-natural surroundings are less likely to reach their full physical and cognitive potential.  It appears nature really does play an important part in feeding the human soul.  In other words, one of the central arguments environmentalists have made for decades turns out to have been right all along. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/amo-designare/5368379777/

National Park Week and Earth Day Coincide for a Natural Celebration

America is currently in the middle of National Park Week. Running from April 16 through the 24th, National Park Week is a national celebration of one of our country’s greatest treasures– our National Park system. During National Park Week, admission to all National Parks is completely free. The theme for this year’s National Park Week is “Healthy Parks, Healthy People.”
The National Park system is comprised of 394 individual National Parks in the United States, covering over 80 million acres of land. Throughout National Park Week, there will be a series of celebrations at National Parks throughout the country. From special Earth Day events on April 22, to Junior Ranger Day, the activities are educational and exciting. To access a list of specific events at different National Parks this week, check out this online resource
President Obama, in celebrating the start of National Park Week, declared: 
Every day, America’s national parks — from the smallest historic sites to the largest natural spaces — contribute to our Nation’s collective health and spirit.  These places preserve our unique history and iconic symbols.  They protect ecosystems and serve as reservoirs of biodiversity.  They are sources of natural sounds, clean water, and fresh air.  Our parks provide accessible, safe, and affordable places to appreciate the bounty of our land.  They offer opportunities for wholesome outdoor recreation, which can improve the health and vitality of all Americans.
During National Park Week, we reaffirm our need to maintain connections to the natural world.  Whether on the open range or in the heart of a bustling city, each of us can work to conserve our lands and reinforce the importance of setting aside beautiful places for inspiration, relaxation, and recreation for all people.

Photo credit: rst.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sect6/Sect6_7.html