Half of the earth’s 7.5 billion people now live in cities. In 2030, McKinsey & Company say this number will rise to 60%. In every country, on every continent, people are migrating to urban centers. In Montréal, where the urban sprawling is one of the highest in Canada, we are witnessing the occurrence of new environmental issues like air pollution, destruction of agricultural zones, and a globally higher energy consumption. These issues have enormous health consequences such as COPD, asthma, obesity and many secondary cancers.
In response, many initiatives are flourishing in the city to ensure that the risks associated with urbanization don’t overcome the positive impacts: proximity to health centers, access to active transportation, local facilities and shops. Urban agriculture and green spaces offer a tangible example of initiatives born out of necessity and creativity. One project in particular, Quartier 21, funded in part by the public health department and the municipality of Montréal, has been put in place to encourage experimentation and provide support for locally-driven greening and agriculture projects in the city.
Within the UN’s recently established sustainable development goals (SDGs), cities have their own category. The SDGs (particularly SDG#13) state that by 2030, cities should:
- diminish their per capita environmental impact;
- promote an inclusive and sustainable urbanization with integrated human settlement planning; and
- make green public spaces accessible, safe and inclusive.
From a public health perspective, we have to understand health as a multifactorial concept. We cannot ignore the environmental, social and economic determinants of our physical and psychological health. Chronic diseases, or non-communicable diseases (NCDs) include conditions such as cardiovascular disease, COPD, diabetes, cancers. On that matter, causal relationships with the environment are impossible to forget. But what is the link between green spaces and NCDs? Trees and nature are much more than symbols of vitality and abundance. In fact, we are seeing more and more scientific medical research on the impacts of greening cities on chronic diseases. The results are tangible and useful.
Health benefits of green spaces – not just a feeling
One recent study from a group of Japanese researcher looked at the link between access to walkable green spaces and the 5-year survival probability of elders in residences. Unsurprisingly, they concluded that there was a positive association between availability of green spaces and longevity. This correlation seems to increase for children and for the elderly. This study sheds light on some of the health benefits from greening. The authors discuss the multifactorial benefits of green spaces and emphasize on the stress reducing effect and the increases in physical activity.
The name is inspired by Agenda 21, a universal plan of action on development and environment adopted in 1992 during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Since 2005, Quartier 21 in collaboration with the City of Montreal and the Public Health department supports local initiatives in line with the city’s sustainable development plan.
City of Montreal development plan
- Improve air quality and lower GES
- Assure quality of residential neighborhood
- Responsible management of resources
- Adopt good practices of sustainable development in commercial and industrial sectors
- Improve the protection of biodiversity, natural habitats and green spaces
Every year, there is a call for applications. Once a project has been selected and is accepted, it is provided with a 3-year financing plan (30 000 for the first year and 50 000 for the next 2 years) with the objectives of it becoming financially independent and thriving after the end of the partnership. Quartier 21 always puts emphasis on the importance of creating strong partnership between municipalities, institutions, community organizations and citizen engagement.
Trees, the lungs of our cities, but how?
That’s what we learn as a child; trees and forest are for the earth the equivalent of our lungs. But how?
First, they use sunlight and water to convert carbon dioxide in different compounds such as sugars. Oxygen is a by-product of this reaction. It is now understood that trees have the amazing power of removing some important air pollutant like ozone, nitric acid, nitrogen dioxide, ammonia and sulfur dioxide. The 10 microns particles like dust and the fine particles of <2,5 microns[i] are also reduced by trees because of their retaining power. These particles are partly responsible of causing asthma, COPD and lung cancers. It has also been proven that groups of trees, or forests impact more on the air quality than single trees.
Greening and gentrification
Things are rarely black or white. Having neighborhood filled with trees and parks may promote health, but also has demographic and social consequences. The presence of trees on a property or in a neighborhood, partly because of its aesthetic effect can raise real estate values, subsequently raising municipal taxes and resulting in gentrification. Gentrification is a term that was first used by Ruth Glass, a sociologist from England, in 1963. He said that it occurs when “working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class … until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.” Without digging too much in details, this issue raises a lot of social concerns mainly regarding the unaffordability of in-town housing and access to services (healthcare). We end up with poorer people being pushed out of the city centers and the development of suburban neighborhood i.e. car-land! This is why urbanization programs can’t be conducted without having in mind other issues like social housing of access to food and goods.
Quartier 21 is the perfect example of collaboration between municipal institutions, urbanism and public health officers. Having studies conducted about this subject also serve this kind of initiative because it helps organizations to advocate with governments on urban planning and implementation of green spaces. Evidence-based associations give a leverage effect to change the vision on urban greening so it can become related to health issues and become a municipal responsibility. Possibilities are infinite. Every empty lot can become a green space, and every green spaces can be turned into a garden. Quartier 21 also serves as an example of how countries can simultaneously address SDG #13, climate change, and NCDs.