Water on the Brain

clear creek 3

The creek that runs a block from my house is bordered by open space, parks and trails. It makes for a nice transition into our old neighborhood with its large trees and established landscaping. It also makes the neighborhood feel more relaxed — casual and friendly.

We’ve known that the presence of vegetation in nearly any amount provides a calming, healthy influence. It doesn’t take a forest (Forest Bathing), but flower beds or even house plants will help. Urban and suburban areas alike are beginning to focus on the amount of green space readily accessible. Street trees, pocket parks, parklets — all manner of things are being tried to green up our cities. According to a Denver Post article, “Denver ranks nearly last among major U.S. cities, including New York, in park space as a percentage of total area.”

Planners have pushed for greater density of our cities so to ease sprawl and transportation issues following the precepts of New Urbanism. However, the increased density in established areas can lead to traffic and storm water problems, and impact the sufficiency of other municipal services. Increased densities can also create ‘gentrification’ and the resultant concerns about affordable housing and discrimination. And, fundamentally, when structures are more dense, there is less room for green space.

It is a problem that many municipalities contend with — how to create green space. As noted for Denver, greater densities increase the value of vacant or under-used land, making it more expensive to obtain properties for green uses. Low hanging fruit may exist along drainages, transportation corridors, and other spaces not suitable for residential, commercial or retail use. However, the cheaper land is also available in ‘poor’, often racially different, areas, leading to displacement and sometimes, homelessness.

Older industrial areas may also be suitable for less expensive purchase; however, they can come with a pollution burden. ‘Brownfields’ programs can be used to redevelop some contaminated industrial properties, but regulatory cleanups are often fund-limited and directed towards a given land use, which may not be compatible with a subsequent use concept.

Visiting Europe after college we tended to walk in the cities and towns, getting the feel of the neighborhoods and seeing the non-touristy bits. (It was also the cheapest entertainment we could get.) However, we always ended up at one of the plazas, where the open space was dwarfed on the fringes by churches or public buildings and usually by cafes, tables and benches. The center area was almost always a fountain, sometimes surrounded by a park-like circle of trees and flower boxes. It was generally peaceful in spite of the traffic, and offered a respite from the crowded streets.

Historically, the town plaza may have started with the city well, available for everyone’s use. The plaza would have hosted market stalls and served as an outdoor community center. Over time, piped water replaced the well and ponds or troughs served water to thirsty residents and their animals. Buildings evolved and fountains began to replace the spigots, and the troughs became more elaborate pools, suitable for coin tosses to satisfy wishes or bring good luck.

Everyone seems to be cognizant of the calming effects of a body of water. Todays Mama reported on recent studies that documented some of the beneficial effects of time spent in ‘blue space’. They reported:
1. It reduces depression.
2. It makes you more creative.
3. It de-stresses you.
4. It changes your perspective on the world.

So, along with the creation of green spaces, cities are trying to create “water amenities’, spaces adjacent to or utilizing water features. My home town of Fort Worth created a water garden in downtown on over four acres of formerly developed land. My current home, Golden, took advantage of an existing creek to create a water amenity, in partnership with the county Open Space, Trout Unlimited and Coors pollution funds. Besides providing blue space through downtown (and my neighborhood), the creek has become a draw for locals and tourists alike with park facilities, picnicking, tubing and kayaking.

So, looking for relief from depression and stress? Need a new perspective and greater creativity? Sounds like a beach vacation to me. But it may only take a walk to the nearby park and a few minutes gazing out at the fountain or pond to get your sanity and clarity back.

It’s probably a lot cheaper, too.

Additional information:
Bruce Finley, The Densification of Denver, Three Part Series, The Denver Post, January 13, 14 and 15, 2019
Ephrat Livini, The Japanese Practice of ‘Forest Bathing’ Is Scientificially Proven to Be Good for You, March 23, 2017, Quartz, Published in World Economic Forum in collaboration with Quartz.
Rebecca Jane Stokes, Science Shows How a Trip to The Beach Actually Changes Your Brain, January 3, 2019, todaysmama.com
Steve Tarlton, Small Green Spaces, 6/01/2017, Writes of Nature
Steve Tarlton, Tree People, 8/24/17, Writes of Nature
The Nature Conservancy, Planting Healthy Air, A Global Analysis of the Role of Urban Trees in Addressing Particulate Matter Pollution and Extreme Heat, August 25, 2016

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