I am currently being assailed by a variety of ailments and illnesses, and it is therefore necessary for me to take some time off to recuperate. I’m hoping this will only be about a week or so, and then be back at it again. There may be the odd post, but nothing much and nothing is certain. Anyhow, have a break from me and we can get back together in just over a week perhaps. Thanks.
Urban bushland has health benefits beyond being a great place to go for a walk. It filters our air and water, helps cities avoid extremes in temperatures, and is linked to lower rates of chronic disease.
But these and other health benefits are virtually never accounted for in local and state land development processes.
Urban planners need to consider these health benefits when making decisions about the future of our cities.
What do we mean by urban bushland?
Urban bushland ranges from a bush park of native trees, to wetlands – in fact any native vegetation characteristic of the local region. With its undisturbed soils and associated wildlife, urban bushland is more diverse than other types of green spaces in our cities, like parks. So it adds significantly to neighbourhood biodiversity.
The more unfragmented the landscape, or unaltered the bushland, the more likely it will be to retain its biodiversity. Hills, watercourses and gullies, or a mixed forest, have greater biodiversity than flat land or a plantation of trees. Landscapes that change by the season add to that diversity.
The health benefits of green spaces (and urban bushland) partly comes from this biodiversity.
In cities, health benefits work at two levels. Not only do local residents receive health benefits when they use urban green spaces, the wider urban population also feels the health effects.
The closer residents live to green space, particularly if it is accessible or usable, the better they report their health.
For an individual, access to green spaces contributes in multiple ways: it reduces stress, it helps us recover from illness or injury, and our thinking abilities improve when we are more contemplative and mindful of our green surroundings.
The quality of green spaces plays a role in the health benefits for locals. For example, views of diverse vegetation more effectively lowers stress compared with less-diverse vegetation.
Exposure to biodiversity from the air, water, soils, vegetation, wildlife and landscape, and all the microbes associated with them (the sort retained in uncleared bushland and wetlands) enhances our immunity. This is thought to be the key to the health benefits of nature.
Wealth and health
The relationship between health benefits and living close to urban green spaces, including urban bushland, might be interpreted as being an effect of wealth. We know wealthier people tend to live in greener suburbs and wealthier people tend to be healthier.
But many studies take wealth into account, with the weight of evidence suggesting a direct health benefit from exposure to biodiversity.
So if the health benefits are due to the urban green spaces itself (and not related to wealth), they should be spread more evenly across the population.
Perhaps the health of poorer city dwellers will improve by living near to diverse green spaces, like bushland. Failing to provide access to nature entrenches health inequalities.
Urban bushland provides health benefits not just for local residents but for the whole city.
Forests and woodlands clean our urban air by removing particles and absorbing carbon dioxide. This reduces premature death, acute respiratory symptoms and asthma exacerbation across the city.
A recent review highlights the host of physical health problems that are reduced in urban areas with more nature, including less heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Mental health is also improved in urban areas where people are living with more green space.
Urban bushland improves city water. Wetlands and the vegetation around them clean our water by filtering, reducing exposure to pollutants carried in groundwater or surface water run-off.
Vegetation also moderates extremes of temperature providing shade when it is hot and less exposure when it’s cold and so reduces heat- or cold-related illnesses.
Shrinking urban bushland
Where new suburbs are developed on the outskirts of cities, the end result is usually near-complete clearing. Urban bushland is replaced with smaller, fragmented, more sanitised, open and neat spaces.
These are designed for a narrower (but still important) set of usable attributes, like a bike path, lawns and a playground. But the original values of the bushland are lost. This pattern is repeated in the expanding suburbs of cities across Australia.
If some urban bushland, wetlands or other landscape assets have been retained, the pressure on them from development is relentless, as seen recently in Western Australia where a highway is due to be extended through the Beeliar Wetlands.
Planning for better planning
Planning processes need to use ways to assess what we might lose and what we might gain from clearing bushland.
This could involve asking what types of services existing bushland provide for local residents and the city in general. These will include their role in providing clean air and water, controlling floods, cycling nutrients, as well as their recreational or spiritual services.
These could be compared with services the proposed development offers. The comparison should make decision makers, and more importantly the public, better able to judge the true worth or cost of a development.
Such cost-benefit analyses are usually used somewhere in planning processes but rarely, if ever, are the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services considered, or the cost savings from health benefits of bushland.
These sorts of cost-benefit analyses can also be used to account for the health effects associated with local bushland. Such health assessments (or health impact assessments) need to be more widely used. And where land subdivision, road building and suburban housing developments are planned, health assessments may need to be compulsory to better account for the contribution of urban bushland to health.
See also tomorrow’s article on green spaces in our cities
It’s remarkable how little we know about Earth. How many species do we share this planet with? We don’t know, but estimates vary from millions to a trillion. In some respects we know more about the Moon, Mars and Venus than we do about the ocean’s depths and the vast sea floors.
But humans are inquisitive creatures, and we’re driven to explore. Chasing mythical or mysterious animals grabs media headlines and spurs debates, but it can also lead to remarkable discoveries.
The recent photographing of a live night parrot in Western Australia brought much joy. These enigmatic nocturnal birds have been only sporadically sighted over decades.
Another Australian species that inspires dedicated searchers is the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. A new hunt is under way, not in Tasmania but in Queensland’s vast wilderness region of Cape York.
Other plans are afoot to search for the long-beaked echidna in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
In the case of the thylacine, old accounts from the region that sound very much like descriptions of the species raise the prospect that perhaps Cape York isn’t such a bad place to look after all.
But in reality, and tragically, it’s very unlikely that either of these species still survives in Australia. For some species there is scientific research that estimates just how improbable such an event would be; in the case of thylacines, one model suggests the odds are 1 in 1.6 trillion.
The study and pursuit of “hidden” animals, thought to be extinct or fictitious, is often called cryptozoology. The word itself invites scorn – notorious examples include the search for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or Victoria’s legendary black panthers.
Granted, it’s probably apt to describe those searches as wild goose chases, but we must also acknowledge that genuine species – often quite sizeable ones – have been discovered.
In some cases, like the giant squid, these animals have been dismissed as legends. The reclusive oarfish, for example, are thought to be the inspiration for centuries of stories about sea serpents.
Technology to the rescue
Finding rare and cryptic species is self-evidently challenging, but rapid advances in technology open up amazing possibilities. Camera traps now provide us with regular selfies of once highly elusive snow leopards, and could equally be used with other difficult-to-find animals.
Environmental DNA is allowing us to detect species otherwise difficult to observe. Animal DNA found in the blood of leeches has uncovered rare and endangered mammals, meaning these and other much maligned blood-sucking parasites could be powerful biodiversity survey tools.
Acoustic recording devices can be left in areas for extended time periods, allowing us to eavesdrop on ecosystems and look out for sounds that might indicate otherwise hidden biological treasures. And coupling drones with thermal sensors and high resolution cameras means we can now take an eagle eye to remote and challenging environments.
The benefits of exploration and lessons learned
It’s easy to criticise the pursuit of the unlikely, but “miracles” can and do occur, sometimes on our doorstep. The discovery of the ancient Wollemi pine is a case in point. Even if we don’t find what we’re after, we may still benefit from what we learn along the way.
I’ve often wondered how many more species might be revealed to us if scientists invested more time in carefully listening to, recording and following up on the knowledge of Indigenous, farming, and other communities who have long and intimate associations with the land and sea.
Such an approach, combined with the deployment of new technologies, could create a boom of biological discovery.
I’m currently in the midst of a break from the Blogs at the moment – I’m simply exhausted and need a rest. So, taking a break. Back soon.
Hi all – I’m on a period of extended leave and during this time I’ll be doing a bit of travelling and having a break obviously.I don’t expect to be back Blogging until the start of September. Enjoy the break – I know I will.
I will be taking a short break from Blogging over the next week or so in order to sort out a few things. So I will return in a week or so. Enjoy the break 🙂
Hi all – yes, it’s that time of year again. We are all busy, whether we want to be or not. It can be so at work or just with family and friends. Whatever the cause (usually associated with the silly season of course), it impacts on what we normally do. It is, of course, the case with Blog posting also. I’ll still be posting, however, I can’t be sure just how often I’ll be able to do so. So the ‘moral’ of the story – there may not be as many posts over the next couple of week, until at least the 4th of January 2016. I’m also hoping to take a short break or two – so that will also impact on posting.
Anyway all the best to you all at this time of year and may it be safe, healthy and fun.