23rd Oct 2016


The stress hormone and EU garden cities

  • Nightwalking: Part of London's fascination comes from its dark side. (Photo: Pedro Szekely)

When Syrian refugees in the Zaatari camp in Jordan lost hope of going home, they rearranged UN containers to make courtyards, where they put plants, running water, and song birds.

Being close to nature is one of the oldest human instincts and has proven health benefits.

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  • Artists' impression of Garden bridge in London, to be built by 2018 - a "perversion" of William Morris? (Photo:

The English word “paradise” comes from a Persian word meaning “enclosed garden”.

The earliest European cities, as seen in murals in Herculaneum in Italy, had gardens. The Roman writer Martial also talked about “rus in urbe”, meaning “countryside in town” - the idea that a good city had natural elements.

The London model

Modern London, which is, until Brexit, the EU’s largest and fastest growing city, has for a long time acted as a model for other towns in continental Europe.

It has preserved many green spaces: courtyard gardens and royal parks in the centre and a “green belt” around its core. In one new project, a private firm is creating a “garden bridge” on the River Thames.

But for Paul Cheshire, an urban economist at the London School of Economics (LSE), the green belt is making life harder for ordinary residents.

He noted that most of the belt, which measures 514,000 hectares, is privately owned and closed to the public.

Many of London’s city gardens are also privately owned and closed to the public.

Meanwhile, the retention of undeveloped land has driven up property prices, forcing ordinary people out and making their lives harder.

The EU estimates that there are 34 million urban residents at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and for Cheshire the “obsession” with green spaces in urban areas creates “huge welfare losses”.

“To try to create an urban utopia is a recipe for throttling the life out of cities,” he said.

Matthew Beaumont, a scholar of utopian literature at University College London (UCL), agreed.

“We’ve reached a tipping point in London, where the centre is being emptied because ordinary people can’t afford to live there,” he said.

Banlieue city

“It will become a 'banlieue' city like Paris, with tourist sites at its heart and working class people who have to commute from the periphery and who don’t live alongside middle class people.”

He said the garden bridge was a “perversion” of utopian visions.

“It will be privately owned land with access controlled by security guards and with constant CCTV surveillance. It won’t be a Londoners’ bridge for normal people,” Beaumont said.

He said that two 19th century books shaped London’s modern development.

The first, Looking Backward, was published in 1888 by Edward Bellamy, an American journalist.

It imagined Boston, in the US, in the year 2000 as a geometrical, iron-clad, and mechanised structure that was designed to produce an “industrial army” of workers. In one example, individuals had no umbrellas, but when it rained, huge canopies unfolded to convert streets into arcades.

The second, News from Nowhere, was published in 1890 by William Morris, an English artist.

It imagined a future London that was a cluster of green villages with artisanal economies and no modern transport. In a touch of satire, the Houses of Parliament had been converted into a dung market.

The books inspired the “garden city movement” - the idea that towns should be orderly and utilitarian, but with natural elements.

It still shapes EU thinking. Out of the European Commission’s last eight awards for EU “green capitals”, four cited access to natural places as a main reason for the prize.

The LSE’s Cheshire added that when Vienna tore down its old walls in the mid-19th century and replaced them with broad, leafy avenues, it added a new element to the European ideal - the green belt, a strip of undeveloped land engirdling the city.

New walls

Recalling Vienna, he said that green belts were like “new walls around our cities”. Pointing to Auckland in New Zealand, he said its London-inspired green belt had made its real estate among the priciest in the world - even though there is hardly a shortage of land in a country where sheep outnumber people.

There is scientific evidence that being close to nature is good for people.

Catharine Ward Thompson, a professor of landscape architecture at Edinburgh University, said that the instinct shown by the Zaatari refugees is part of the human body’s evolutionary history.

She said the hormone cortisol is an indicator of broader hormonal functioning, especially in response to stress. In healthy people, its levels are high when they wake up, then fall after half an hour.

When her staff collected saliva from people in deprived urban areas in Scotland, they found that cortisol patterns were more distorted in those who had little access to green space.

This may explain findings by other scholars that, for instance, women with access to nature have healthier babies.

Researchers in Spain have also found that children exposed to natural microbes have better immune systems.

Ward Thompson added that being in green areas appears to reduce stress through what she called “soft fascination”.

“If you felt stressed, where would you go? Not a busy street or a dark room,” she told EUobserver. “Trees swaying in the wind. Waves falling on the shore. Dappled light through trees. We find these natural variations in patterns fascinating. They engage us, but we don’t have to concentrate. We find them relaxing.”

Nowhere has William Morris’s utopia been built. But China, which, according to EU figures, has six of the world’s 30 largest cities, has gone to the other extreme, with unhappy results.

Chinese dystopia

When EUobserver asked Edward Ng, a professor of architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, what EU planners could learn from China, he said: “Maybe not to make the same mistake China is making with its rapid, but inhuman development that is environmentally and socially unfriendly.”

Ward Thompson echoed her LSE and UCL collegaues, saying that London’s “gentrification” is “a problem” and that deprived urban areas must have attractive green places.

Cheshire noted that some EU towns have adapted the old model with positive results.

Copenhagen, for instance, has “green fingers” (green spaces on radial lines toward the centre that do not block outward expansion) instead of a green belt.

But for Cheshire, the way that towns shape people’s financial lives is more important than soft fascination.

His views are backed up by an EU study, out in September, which said that most “discussions concerning the quality of life often turn to cost of living” instead of green spaces.

The report said that many EU cities had the “urban paradox” of a minority of increasingly well-to-do people who live beside “a large number of disengaged people who remain outside the labour market".

"The distribution of income and wealth in the EU has … become increasingly concentrated in the hands of global businesses and the very rich and these developments are particularly visible in urban areas," it said.

Beaumont noted that 2016 marked the 500th anniversary of the publication of Utopia by Thomas More.

People in More’s book, which established the genre, loved gardens, but their crowning achievement was eradication of financial inequality.

When asked which lesson from More could make EU cities better places to live, Beaumont took aim at the values of global business.

“More’s traveller [narrator] was astonished that Utopians didn’t value gold and made chamber pots out of it. I’d like to see some of the things that we value today - socially, politically - radically devalued,” he said.

Hard fascination

Cheshire added that more and more Europeans are swapping country life for city life for cultural reasons.

“The city is the single most marvellous invention of mankind”, he said. “People and companies become more productive if they go to big cities. There’s a richer choice for consumers, and much more fun”.

“If you live in a small town, you can watch the local football team play at the weekend. If you live in London, you can see the best football in the world or listen to the best music, but there has to be a large enough audience to support such things,” he said.

Beaumont went further, saying that some people loved even the stressful side of cities.

In his recent book, Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, about people, including writers such as Charles Dickens, who used to explore the British capital after dark, he said night-time London could be menacing.

But he also said it felt like home to “the lost, the lonely … the sleepless, the homeless - all the city’s internal exiles”.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Regions and Cities Magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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