As far back as the 19th Century, the health benefits of time spent in nature were already well known. Providing a respite to working-class city dwellers was the impetus for the visionary creation of New York’s Central Park in 1858 and many subsequent city parks across our newly industrialized nation. (Trachtenberg,1980). This was the beginning of our collective understanding that green space is more than just a luxury, and that it should remain a priority for planners and policymakers. Studies that began in the 1970s traced how access to green space improves long-term health and well-being (Journal of Planning Literature, 2015), and is particularly beneficial to children from low-income families, improving their cognitive functioning (Wells, 2000), and combating what has more recently been labeled “nature deficit disorder”. (Louv, 2008) New research from Finland and Japan has proven that even short walks of as little as 20 minutes in an urban park had positive effects on mood, blood pressure and stress levels. (Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2014). At the same time, we have learned that urbanization is associated with increased rates of mental illness and depression, so countering these effects in our cities via natural experiences is of paramount importance. When the brain has a chance to rest from the over-stimulation of the urban environment, this “restorative state” boosts creativity and problem-solving skills, and improves focus. (Louv, 2008)
The established need for urban green space is also heightened within low-income communities because they lack the flexibility of more affluent residents, who have the time and financial means to escape regularly to other natural areas. For those tied close to home by necessity, local parks are often their only contact with nature. Fortunately, research has shown that one does not have to travel to remote or pristine natural settings to extract nature’s rewards. In fact, the good news for our Mile Square City is that the salubrious effects of green space are particularly significant for those living within a 3-kilometer radius of urban parkland. (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2006). The most important factor — especially for children, the elderly and those in poverty — is the chance to interact with local, native species of plants, birds, insects and marine habitats, to cultivate their sense of wonder and escape the immediate stresses of urban life with regularity. (Louv, 2008) Employing this kind of scientific data to underpin policy decisions offers an opportunity for Hoboken to benefit underserved residents, and all residents, while serving as a model for sound urban planning.
Those of us in the public and non-profit sectors who are committed to addressing the quality of life concerns of communities in need have an obligation to articulate soft concepts such as ‘the human need for a sense of rootedness in nature’ (Louv, 2008), making those ideas manifest through policy decisions and direct action. In the face of rising real estate costs and gentrification, Hoboken must struggle to protect the health and well-being of its underserved residents. An unfortunate consequence of the influx of affluent families in Hoboken and along New Jersey’s “Gold Coast” has been declining quality of life for low-income residents, greater income disparity, and more families living in poverty in real numbers. Since the turn of the millennium, Hoboken’s already dense square mile has swollen to accommodate over 53,000 people, including a 42% increase in low-income households, and a 66% increase in families with children under 18. (city-data.com; hopes.org) Census data covering 2000-2014 bears this out, showing population growth of over 36% in Hoboken, compared to 4.5% for NJ as a whole through roughly the same period (2000-2010). As of 2010, 11.1% of Hoboken residents and 16.5% of Hudson County residents were living in poverty, with particularly disheartening statistics for children poverty, as compared to the rest of New Jersey. Specific to Hoboken, the actual number of children in poverty below age 5 rose by over 44% in the decade between 2000 and 2010. (hopes.org) These statistics illuminate a hidden story within Hoboken’s population explosion: that along with the increase in wealthy residents, there has been a concurrent increase in low-income and underserved residents. Although it may certainly be said that everyone benefits from the presence of public parks, access to green space in urban environments is nothing short of critical for these communities.