Green spaces: A Matter of health or where have all the flowers gone?

Published November 23, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Raymundo W. Lo, MD, FPSP


Dr. Raymundo Lo

In early September, Mayor Isko Domagoso announced the redevelopment of the Arroceros Forest Park, saying it will be “a place where citizens of Manila can breathe fresh air” and “none of the trees will be cut in the process of redeveloping the park.” On, Nov. 21, 2021, those statements have been proven a lie. Photos showed a cemented path snaking around the park, obviously necessitating the cutting of many trees. It will also have a children’s park and an adult recreation area which from previous experience will be mostly cemented spaces. Again, more trees would have been cut. Arroceros Forest Park has often been called the “Last Lung of Manila” but with this alarming development, it may be heaving its last breath.

Why does development, redevelopment or improvements have to mean pouring more cement on our few and precious green spaces? Is it because public works projects like this are a rich source of corruption with kickbacks from the construction companies selected to undertake these projects? I’m guessing the average reader will have an answer like mine.

The same thing is happening to the Quezon Memorial Circle. Increasingly, formerly green grass and trees are being replaced by cemented areas. An amusement park has sprung up. More commercial spaces are put up. There seems to be no end to the cementification of public spaces.

It’s also seen in open spaces in subdivisions/villages. Usually, open spaces and streets in subdivision developments are turned over to the city government so the homeowners/village associations don’t have to pay real estate taxes on these common areas. There is no problem when the LGU steps in to fund the “development” of these open spaces. But more often, the idea is to put in children’s playgrounds, paths and picnic spaces covered in cement. Increasingly, trees and greenery are taking a backseat to park “improvements.”

There is very little open space in Metro Manila amounting to only 0.3 percent of the total area compared to Singapore (47 percent), Rio de Janeiro (29 percent) and even New York City (14 percent).

What relation has all these have to do with health? Plenty. We’re already experiencing the worse effects of climate change with increasingly ferocious typhoons battering the country regularly and temperatures on the rise. We need all the trees and vegetation we can muster to clear our severely polluted air of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that are driving climate change. Our air quality in the metropolis is so bad that it is aggravating pre-existing respiratory diseases like allergies, asthma, chronic obstructive respiratory disease, not to mention cardiovascular diseases and inducing cancer. Three of the top 10 causes of death in the Philippines are causally related to air pollution, chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and pneumonia.

In addition, the large amount of paved spaces lead to the heat island effect where the urban areas have temperatures one to seven degrees F higher than outlying areas and night time temperatures are two to five degrees F higher. Extreme heat creates conditions worsening respiratory diseases and heat stroke which can be life-threatening.

More green areas with trees, bushes and other vegetation can curb the heat island effect by reducing surface and air temperatures in addition to removing carbon dioxide, smog and pollution from the air.

Based on some studies, the economic cost of air pollution in terms of days of work missed due to illness, hospitalization costs and an estimated 27,000 premature deaths is approximately 1.9 percent of GDP annually.

A Lancet Planetary Health review found a lower risk of premature deaths in urban dwellers living near a park or garden based on a vegetation index, the denser the greenery, the better the correlation. It was also found to be dose-dependent, the more time spent in green spaces, the greater the health benefits.

Don’t you feel so much better when in a green area while imbibing the fresh(er) air and sunlight? Doesn’t it make want to play ball or run around? Those are the more intangible good effects of being in green spaces which includes being more physically active and socially connected (sharing a beautiful green environment in a village park) and creating a sense of community.

Other research shows that green spaces are inherently good for us. The attention restoration theory holds that the stimuli nature provides relief from attention fatigue we experience in everyday life. I can attest to that when I work in my garden and come away feeling refreshed and full of new ideas to write about. The more time you spend outdoors in a nature setting, the higher the level of physical and mental wellbeing you will experience.

Regular visits to parks can lower depression, improve sleep, reduce stress and bring about greater levels of happiness, especially in this pandemic era. Witness how almost everyone seemed to have become a plantito/plantita and try to bring the greenery indoors while in lockdown.

The effects cross socioeconomic levels so rich and poor alike benefit from a green environment. Come to think of it, if you live in a green environment, it might not be necessary to flee the city every weekend just to commune with nature.

With all the health risk reductions, improved physical and mental wellbeing that a greener environment brings, shouldn’t we be planting more and cementing less? It’s time to move away from a “Build, Build, Build” mentality and go to a “Green, Green, Green” mindset. Time to patronize our plant nurseries more than construction firms. Time to plant more trees in our cities in every available space, break up unnecessary cemented spaces and let the earth breath and absorb the rain water instead of it running off to flood our streets and homes, creating more disease-inducing conditions like leptospirosis, gastrointestinal diseases and others.

But will the movers and shakers in our society heed this call to forego easy immediate self-gratification in favor of the general good? I’m not holding my breath though perhaps with a more enlightened administration, we may yet see the sunlight through the trees.