Some years ago, when I lived in Bogotá, one of my favorite plans was to hike the mountains near the city before the sunrise. It’s a strange feeling to leave behind the high-rise buildings, the noisy streets and the polluted environment, by taking just a few steps into the mountain. Once you get into the trail, the air immediately changes, you can hear the birds singing and the wind blowing through the trees.
A few minutes after starting climbing the hill, you cross a small transparent and clean stream where you can drink fresh water directly from the mountain.
Finally, after 30 minutes of hiking, you arrive to the viewpoint where you experience the city awakening. At the distance, you can see a growing gray cloud that starts to cover the space in-between the buildings and the sky, and you start to hear -in the distance- the frenetic movement of cars.
As you go down the mountain, the air feels denser; the sound of nature is transformed into traffic, and the clear stream is colored and packed with garbage. No longer can you drink the water and breathe the fresh air from the mountain. Nature is occupied by a dense gray urban space. You arrive to a city that has only 4 mt2 of green space per inhabitant and one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
But it’s not the city that changes this amicable environment. It’s us –humans- that transform clean water to polluted water, and green spaces to concrete. Could this experience be different? Can nature and the urban world coexist in the same space?
Let us forget about Bogotá and think about Stockholm, where we can live this magical mix between nature and the urban life. Stockholm has more than 1.000 parks, and 90% of its citizens have access to a green area within less than 300 meters to their homes. Not only are these green areas accessible, but also surrounded by non-polluted flows of water.
With this network of parks Stockholm has 86 mt2 of green areas per inhabitant, going beyond the 9 mt2 recommended by the World Health Organization. Thanks to this availability of green space, among other elements, Stockholm was selected as the first European Green Capital in 2010 .
This dream city that brings nature and quality of life back to the city is not only a reality in Europe. We can go to the well-known case of Curitiba in Brazil, which for the past 4 decades has built an extensive network of green parks, with rivers that make the city more sustainable, livable and resilient. After a consistent work of creative park interventions at low cost (originally designed to protect the city from floodings), Curitiba today has 53 mt2 of green areas per inhabitant (Green City Index Latin America).
Video (Minute 7.30 Parks)
Curitiba and Stockholm show how cities can coexist with nature through sustained policies and political will. It’s not only about the environment; it’s about building happy cities that improve the quality of life through public space.
It’s never too late to start this green revolution. We can reference more recent changes such as the Cheenggyecheon Restoration Project in Seoul or the Manzanares River project in Madrid (6 examples here). Also the future projects in Hamburg (Green Network Project) and Medellín (Parques del Río) aim to connect nature with the urban space.
To succeed in these initiatives it’s not enough to build green spaces. There must be an integral approach that involves sustainable transport; proper waste and water management, clean energy usage and citizen participation. Governments must be able to envision large circuits of green parks where people could walk and bike. Citizens must participative actively to demand more green spaces. It is thus, in our hands, to transform the gray city into a green city where we won’t have to hike to the top of a mountain in order to breathe fresh air, but rather, where we would only need to walk a few blocks from our home.
Twitter – @juanmrestrepo