Prove your humanity

The Healthy Benefits of Neighborhood Greenspace

This story was originally published on July 14, 2017.

People gravitate towards green spaces and trees. In cities, trees could prove to be more than just nice, but necessary, when it comes to people’s health. One Pittsburgh neighborhood is trying to hold on to its green space.  (Photo: Kara Holsopple)

On Rosetta Street, in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, someone has posted signs that read, “Nobody wants to look at your garbage” and “Have some respect.” They’ve used all capital letters for emphasis. This block is a haven for illegal dumping.

Waterlogged couch cushions, broken plastic toys, and even plastic water bottles filled with urine are just some of the treasures Meg Graham and a handful of other volunteers found during a community cleanup there earlier this spring. The hillside is covered in trash, but Graham, who is a landscaper, sees other possibilities when she looks around.

“You could have so many cool native plants growing in this area, that would be practically no maintenance,” she says.

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Meg Graham wants to preserve parcels of vacant lots that have kind of gone wild. (Photo: Kara Holsopple)

She and other neighbors organized the cleanup as part of a much larger project to turn this city block, and others connected to it, into a neighborhood greenway.

Graham and business partner Jen Lazarro want to preserve parcels of vacant lots that have kind of gone wild. Garfield has hundreds of vacant lots where houses have been torn down, as well as steep, wooded properties that were never developed.

“I kind of just want it to be a space where anyone in the neighborhood can feel interested or invited,” Lazarro says. “They can just walk in the woods, or look at a tree for a second.”

A handful of volunteers participated in a community cleanup in Garfield earlier this spring. (Photo: Kara Holsopple)

A majority of the properties are owned by the city, and a whole swath of them cuts horizontally through over 11 acres of the neighborhood. This green space is one of the things that attracted Graham when she moved here ten years ago. She says it feels special and unique in an urban setting.

The fact is, a lot of houses in Garfield don’t come with trees or greenspace. The housing stock is dense and there’s an absence of street trees on many blocks. Rick Swartz, executive director of the community development organization Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, says it’s a luxury, in a sense, to be able to go outdoors and enjoy your backyard.

“We want to create a larger backyard for everybody to use,” Swartz says.

Through a multi-year planning process for the neighborhood, the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation found residents were concerned about a lack of affordable housing. But they also wanted more opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. There are already a couple of playgrounds, community gardens and small parks in Garfield. But Swartz says they needed some help to figure out what to do with the mostly wooded space connecting them.

Gavin Deming is community specialist for gardens and greenspaces at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He says maintaining the wooded areas in Garfield would take some modest investment in terms of funding and a whole lot of volunteer hours. (Photo: Kara Holsopple)

They got in touch with Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The conservancy worked with a local architecture firm, EvolveEA, to map out a plan for what’s possible in this space, like trails and improved lighting. Gavin Deming is community specialist for gardens and greenspaces at Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He says maintaining the wooded areas in Garfield would take some modest investment in terms of funding, but a lot of volunteer hours. The tops of many of the trees are covered in vines.

“That’s when it gets unsafe and unhealthy,” Deming says. “Because it clouds out the sun from that tree.”

It’s unsafe because the vines can actually pull trees down. There’s a lot of poison ivy in the greenspace as well.

But Deming says investing in keeping it green has all kinds of ecological benefits. It’s habitat for birds and wildlife. Some neighbors have even spotted turkeys and foxes. Plus, Deming says the trees here capture a lot of rainwater, so it doesn’t end up contributing to the city’s combined sewer overflow problems.

A map by evolveEA shows a plan for Garfield’s green zones

An Unexpected Value

The greenspace idea underway in Garfield could have even more value for the people living here.

Mark Berman is an environmental neuroscientist from the University of Chicago. He looked at green space in Toronto, and residents’ own perceptions of how healthy they were. Berman found that if you had 10 more trees per city block, it positively impacted people’s perception by 1 percent.  

“That sounds modest, but to get those equivalent benefits with money, you’d have to give every single household on that block $10,000 or have them move to a neighborhood $10,000 wealthier,” Berman says. “Or make people seven years younger.”

Berman doesn’t know why yet. It could be because trees clean the air, or that greenspace encourages people to get outside and exercise. There’s evidence that people benefit by just looking at trees.

Berman also found that street trees had more benefit than the ones in people’s backyards, because everyone has access to them.

Highlighted sections show the proposed area for Garfield’s greenway, or green zone. (Satellite image: Google. Overlay: evolveEA)

Community Needs

Bob Jones would like kids in Garfield to have more chances to explore, both inside and outside the neighborhood.

He’s a lifelong resident of Garfield, and president of Brothers and Sisters Emerging, which offers afterschool programs and a summer camp. You can also probably catch him wearing a blue Garfield Gators T-shirt. He founded the youth football league and cheerleading program that’s a neighborhood institution.

Jones went to an initial meeting about the greenway.

“If we’re going to provide opportunities for young people to enjoy the landscape then I’m all for it,” he says. “If this is going to be developed in a way that even older folks can can sit somewhere and read and be be at peace within the trees and the shade? Then I’m all for it.”

Bob Jones is a lifelong resident of Garfield. He would like kids to have more chances to explore, both inside and outside the neighborhood. (Photo: Kara Holsopple)

But Jones says there’s also a crucial need for other amenities that build community for families here, like a YMCA or more ballfields.

Especially since he sees health issues here firsthand. He says many young people in the neighborhood and his programs suffer from asthma.

According to the Allegheny County Health Department, black children in Pittsburgh experience higher rates of exposure to air pollution and asthma than white Pittsburghers. Eighty-five percent of Garfield’s residents are African American.

Some recent studies have shown there’s a relationship between respiratory diseases and green space.

Peter James at Harvard Medical School looked at 100,000 female nurses over an eight year period, and found those living near the most green areas had a 12 percent lower mortality rate than nurses living in the least green places. This was true even after accounting for age, economic status, race, and behaviors like smoking.

“And then when we looked at specific causes of death, we found that the association between greenness and lower mortality were strongest for respiratory disease and cancer mortality,” James says.

The findings were even stronger for people who lived closest to green space, and who were more physically active.

Jodi Simms walks her dog Mukwa, along the proposed greenway. She’s lived in Garfield for over 35 years, since her daughter was born. She’s tired of people from outside the neighborhood dumping their trash here. She’s even confronted some of them.

Simms says she can’t wait for the greenway project to get started, so that people start seeing this area as a place where people care.

“One person can start it, another person see you starting it, and might come and help you. And that’s how it gets started. That’s how anything gets started,” she says.

Jodi Simms is tired of people from outside the neighborhood dumping their trash near her home. (Photo: Kara Holsopple)

Going forward

Meg Graham and Jen Lazarro are calling their group the Garfield Greens Guild. They’re hoping to survey as many Garfield residents as possible about how they might want to use the greenspace.

“I can guess what other people want for their neighborhood, but it’s not going to be accurate. It’s not going to be a real picture,” Graham says.

With enough community support, one idea is to go to the city and propose the land be designated an official greenway. City council would have to approve it, and the land would be taken out of the running for any residential development.

Andrew Dash with the Pittsburgh City Planning office says they’re revamping the city’s definition of a greenway. There are 13 greenways in Pittsburgh, and traditionally they’ve been wooded hillsides that aren’t really suitable for any other use. They’re passive spaces. Dash says the city is coming out with a new guide this fall for residents who want to take charge of them.

Another option the Greens Guild is considering to keep the greenway is partnering with a parallel initiative in Garfield to form a land trust, an effort to preserve affordable housing in this neighborhood surrounded by upscale development.

Christine Mondor from evolveEA, who worked on the initial plan for a greenway in Garfield, says the conversation about a balance between open space and affordable housing is an important one to have. Many of the vacant properties that were identified as being part of the proposed greenway either have subsidence or are steep slopes. Some are unbuildable, and others would be too expensive to build on.

She hopes the legacy of the plan she and others worked on, with community input, will be that residents see the connections between the spectacular view from the top of the neighborhood, the tree-lined alleys and even a natural spring on the hillside.

“And to come up with a strategy to take care of them as a community asset, and not just extra space that needs a cleanup every now and then.”