Michael Moynihan: Insidious threats to city residents require pre-emptive measures

Lack of access to parks and green spaces along with squeeze on affordable housing by short-term rentals are threats to citizens' health and wellbeing that are slow to materialise and take time to become evident. Is that not all the more reason to take pre-emptive steps?
Michael Moynihan: Insidious threats to city residents require pre-emptive measures

The health benefits associated with green spaces are numerous — trees reduce pollution, lower stress by acting as a barrier to traffic noise, and cool their areas, while an open area which helps city dwellers access nature also provides a space for exercise and social interaction.

MANY thanks for the feedback on my brave exploration of the Cork City pothole last week.

Metaphorical exploration, that is — I don’t like small places that may or may not contain spiders — but with a pothole the threat is visible, at least.

This week, I wanted to look at a couple of threats that may not be as obvious to the naked eye.

For instance, the importance of green spaces for everybody’s health is a statement bordering on the obvious if not for one word: everybody’s.

Recently The Lancet’s Planetary Health section published a study that sifted through data from 1,000 cities in Europe to determine the impact of green spaces in those cities, with one specific objective in mind — the health impact of not being able to access those spaces.

Some of the recommendations are striking, like the notion that 43,000 people could avoid death every year if their cities followed the WHO’s recommendations on access to green space (that recommendation, by the way, is 0.5 hectares or 1.25 acres of green space within 300m, or 984ft, of every home).

What was interesting is that glamorous cities such as Trieste scored badly, while among capitals, Paris had the fourth-highest level of mortality connected to a lack of green space of any European capital. Copenhagen came second. Not what you’d expect from places with famous green spaces such as the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Tivoli Gardens, maybe.

Why?

It’s because, while those cities have plenty of parks, those parks aren’t distributed around the city to give access to all. In Copenhagen or Venice, they have a lot of water, which by definition cuts down on the amount of room that’s available for green spaces.

This is a pity because of the number and variety of health benefits associated with green spaces — trees reduce pollution and lower stress by acting as a barrier to traffic noise, and cool their areas. Additionally, an open area that helps city dwellers access nature also provides a space for exercise and social interaction.

(By the way, if you’re pointing out that having a lot of water in the city — like two channels of the Lee enclosing a central island, for instance — is surely good for you, I’m sure you’re right. It’s just that, as far as I can see, the exact benefits don’t seem to have been recognised in formal studies to the same extent as those generated by green spaces. A job for a busy postgrad, perhaps.)

At this point, readers are free to acknowledge a fundamental reality. While they are no doubt interested in the placement of cities such as Rybnik (coming in at nine in the Europe-wide rankings) and the metropolitan area of Upper Silesia (number five), their focus is surely on one particular urban space.

Where does Cork figure in these rankings?

The city by the Lee comes in at number 834 — which is good, given what’s being assessed.

One of the key criteria being used is an avoidable-deaths metric — specifically, the number of deaths that could be avoided annually if the city met new WHO recommendations on air quality in all its areas.

For Cork, that amounts to 10 avoidable deaths a year, according to the WHO 2021 recommendations. (In comparison, Rybnik, mentioned above, comes in with 154 annual avoidable deaths.)

What’s interesting to me is these much-needed green spaces can also have unintended consequences, which are acknowledged in the study — unintended but unsurprising, you might say.

Large parks can create what’s now called ‘green gentrification’, driving up local house prices and displacing the less well-off.

This can’t be a surprise — there’s a reason, after all, we refer to ‘leafy suburbs’ — but it reinforces the point at the outset about a problem that is less than obvious (or less obvious than a pothole at any rate).

Not only is a lack of public parks a health issue, existing public parks may become even harder to access as people who need to use their facilities are forced out of the neighbourhood.

This is a process that takes years and, therefore, is difficult to detect while it’s actually happening, but that needn’t mean acquiescing to the inevitable.

Among the recommendations designed to counteract this are reclamation projects, such as green roofs and small parks. These projects offer not just a health dividend, but a sense of community ownership and participation.

That’s all the more important when considering another insidious threat, one articulated in a recent slate.com piece featuring Peter Holley, a senior editor at the great Texas Monthly.

Mr Holley was talking about Galveston, which to my surprise exists as a resort off the Texas coast and not just as a Jimmy Webb song. He described a “really strange” experience he recently had in the city.

“On the one hand, when you walk around these neighborhoods, they’re really beautiful. The flip side of that is that there’s a sense of complete emptiness.

“We went to a particular neighborhood where there were maybe 20 short-term rentals in two blocks. And as we walked around, I didn’t see any people, but I did see maids scurrying from one short-term rental to the other, as if on some sort of timed clock, carrying cleaning supplies.

“It was like being in a big open-air hotel, except it was outside and in the middle of the day. It was a really strange experience.”

The island Galveston is on has about 30,000 houses, about 5,000 of which are short-term rentals.

“Since 2019, there have been about a thousand new short-term rentals in Galveston each year,” Mr Holley said.

“So at the current pace, about a third of the island’s housing stock would be short-term rentals within the next five or six years. That is a really startling fact, the idea that a third of your city’s housing is essentially empty.”

Dereliction widespread in Cork

Readers will be well aware of the sterling work of Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry of Anois in chronicling the dereliction that is so widespread in Cork and the staggering number of buildings that have been left to moulder away.

The lesson to be learned from Galveston is that a community can also be hollowed out from the inside in a far less visible way. One third of Cork’s housing stock may not be made up of short-term rentals, with all that it implies, but the corrosive effects of the short-term rental industry have been acknowledged in many European cities, with places such as Barcelona legislating specifically to rein it in. The squeeze on affordable housing is bad enough without taking potential long-term accommodation out of circulation.

The pothole announces itself with a nasty crunch unless you’re wary, but these threats are far harder to detect. By definition they’re slower to materialise and take time to become evident.

Is that not all the more reason to take pre-emptive steps?

Existing parks may become harder to access as people are forced out of the neighbourhood.

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