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How Green Does a City Need to Be?

One scholar thinks we have carried our penchant for urban tree-worship a bit too far, giving nature too much credit for city-dwellers’ mental health.

Central Park
New York’s Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted designed it as a green refuge for overburdened, overstressed urban workers.
One simple thing we might expect of famous urbanists is that they like cities — or at least have some appreciation of their good qualities, the life that flourishes on their streets and sidewalks. The perplexing reality is that many of them don’t — the leading urban planning gurus and architects of the 20th century in particular.

Le Corbusier was so disgusted by the turmoil and congestion of New York and other modern cities that he promulgated a new pseudo-urban complex of skyscrapers in parks, built mainly for automobiles and devoid of street-level vitality altogether. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City wasn’t urban at all. It was the concept for a sprawling collection of small prairie cottages connected only by a freeway. Lewis Mumford professed to be fond of cities, but he hated virtually every present-day city and looked back fondly to the villages of pre-modern Europe.

Bizarre as it may seem, these ideas were part of the “urbanist” consensus of the mid-20th century — at least they were until Jane Jacobs came along in 1961 and deflated them in her brilliant book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs described her work as an attack on “current city planning,” but it was much more than that: It was a testament to the joys and comforts of ordinary life in her neighborhood of lower Manhattan and an acceptance of the noise, congestion and grime that a meaningful urban existence entailed.

A long list of scholars has amplified Jacobs’ ideas in the 60 years since she wrote, some with more success than others. But one of the most interesting is a new entry, The Living City, by Des Fitzgerald, a social science professor at University College Cork in Ireland who provocatively subtitles his book “Why Cities Don’t Need to Be Green to Be Great.”

“We have given too much weight,” Fitzgerald writes, “to people who don’t actually like cities very much and probably never did — people who maybe don’t even like the modern world itself very much.” Fitzgerald believes in the modern city, “even with all its jaggedness, its hardness and its capacity for awfulness.”

Fitzgerald isn’t primarily going after Lewis Mumford or Frank Lloyd Wright, although he mentions them. His target is the group of 21st-century urban thinkers who insist that the present-day metropolis can be saved only by a massive injection of nature. City dwellers, they argue, must experience a vast array of trees, grass and planned forestry in order to repair the damage to their overstressed brains. These thinkers seem to be wishing, Fitzgerald argues, for “a place that hides its own citiness, embarrassed, beneath a canopy of trees.”

Fitzgerald has nothing against nature — he enjoys a trek in the wilderness about as much as anyone. He just believes that it is not a panacea for the most serious problems that the modern city encounters. “From the most avant-garde science fiction to the most banal planning documents,” he writes, “a shared agenda has emerged: for the good of humanity, the future of the city must be woody and green. … It’s as if, all of a sudden, there is no problem of the built or physical or social environment that cannot be fixed by leaning into a sturdy yew or beech.” In Fitzgerald’s view, this is a fantasy without hard evidence to back it up.

THE NOTION THAT CITIES ARE INEVITABLY CHAOTIC, STRESSFUL PLACES goes back to the early years of the American republic, to Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau, and to Frederick Law Olmsted, who in the mid-1800s designed Manhattan’s Central Park as a green refuge where overburdened, overstressed urban workers could escape for refreshment and renewal.

Urban disrespect reached a sort of peak in the 1920s. The prominent financier Simon Straus declared that “in our great cities, people break down in health or reach premature senility because of late hours, loss of sleep, fast pleasures, and headlong, nerve-racking methods of existence.” A popular advertisement portrayed urban life as “24 hours of noisy crowded streets. Of dust and gas-ridden air. Of machine-made speed. Of strain. Of nervous tension.”

But the urban pessimism that Fitzgerald chronicles is largely a product of the 1970s, when big cities were in the midst of a crisis of rising crime, dirty streets and annoying congestion. Neuroscientists began connecting crowded cities to actual human depression and anxiety. They are still doing it. “Today,” Fitzgerald writes, “a lot of urban thinking derives from this notion that the city is a space that produces mental illness, not only because of its hectic or worrisome social life but because of its actual physical structure.”

A study conducted in Mannheim, Germany, for example, concluded that growing up in an urban environment changes the human brain, generating fearfulness in the stress-driven amygdala and areas of the cerebral cortex. Research from the city of Aarhus, in Denmark, found that the more vegetation one experiences as a child, the smaller the risk of mental problems in adulthood. And a study at Stanford University reported that excessive walking in a crowded urban corridor increases dangerous rumination and activates a part of the brain linked to emotional problems.

The conclusions drawn from these studies have led to a neurological idea called “attention restoration theory,” which posits, essentially, that simply looking upon nature boosts human concentration powers in a positive way.

IT’S QUITE A MOUND OF DATA. How seriously should we take it? Fitzgerald believes that there is a placebo effect at work here, that we are told so often as young people that nature gives us a lasting sense of well-being that we are programmed to tell researchers that it does that. In truth, placebos aren’t worthless. If we are trained to believe that cities make us depressed but that nature makes us permanently and biologically happy, and we continue to feel that way, perhaps something good has been accomplished.

But are these feelings permanent or transitory? I am no scientist, but I live across the street from a very nice park, and I walk through it a couple of times a week. It’s a pleasant experience. Does it make me a happier person over a significant length of time? I have trouble accepting that notion, as does Fitzgerald. “We’re overinvesting in nature,” he writes, “as a panacea for what are actually fairly mundane urban problems — that we have mistaken what is really … a sideshow to the wider sense of melancholy that has often accompanied the modern world.”

If cities were as toxic as much of modern neuroscience is telling us, then we ought to be seeing some bad numbers in our biggest places. But they are not that easy to find. The opioid addiction crisis is a more serious problem in many depressed small towns than it is in the largest cities. In 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic reached us, life expectancy in New York City was 82.6 years, compared to the national average of 78.9. Once COVID-19 took hold, rural residents were more than 35 percent more likely than urban residents to die within 90 days after hospitalization for the virus. Urban death rates were higher for minorities and lower-income people, but this, however regrettable, is a different issue.

Moreover, as Fitzgerald argues, to portray cities as totally deprived of greenery is a bit of an overstatement. “The truth,” he writes, “is that urban spaces are festooned with vegetation. Wanted and unwanted, useful and annoying, pretty and ugly. Once you start looking there’s green stuff everywhere in cities.”

IN ANY CASE, THERE IS NO SIGN the urban greenery onslaught is slowing down, in the United States or overseas. New York’s Nature Conservancy wants to classify the city’s 7 million trees as a single forest system, “to sustain New York City for decades to come.” Madrid has plans to construct a “green wall” around the city featuring 500,000 new trees. And perhaps most consequentially, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has declared her intention to make half the city’s surface area “vegetative” by the year 2050.

Fitzgerald seems rather dismissive of these efforts. I wouldn’t go that far. I think a major tree-planting campaign in Paris would add to the iconic beauty the city has long possessed. What I agree with is his skepticism that thousands of acres of new vegetation would make the inhabitants permanently calmer, saner or healthier. “I just wasn’t at all convinced,” Fitzgerald explains, “that the simple presence of grass and trees could truly have what sounds like, in all truth, a quasi-religious, even transcendental effect on nearby humans.”

Fitzgerald’s amiable contrarianism will earn him his fair share of detractors, but that is what Jane Jacobs faced when she blew the whistle on city planners in the 1960s. In challenging the conventional wisdom of nature-based urban panaceas, while confessing to his “resolutely affirmative view of city life,” Fitzgerald has placed himself quite firmly in the Jacobs tradition.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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