Put a Little Green in Your Life
Beirut's dwellers and occasional newcomers are surrounded by a concrete jungle. Around every corner, there is an abundance of buildings and construction projects that are breathing life of corporate and modern times, but what is lacking are trees giving oxygen to most of its residents who are choking from air and noise pollution. Now with the #YouStink protests and a wake up by citizens, residents are demanding cleaner streets, a cleaner environment, and cleaner air to breathe. But time and time again, the demands for a greener Lebanon seems like too much to ask a government who is on a vacation more than it's actually working.
Living and working in an urban area that doesn't have a place to step away from work, go for a walk or sit on a park bench has its effects on the average person's mental health, studies have shown. Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School found that individuals who moved to a green space versus a metropolitan city with little to none public green space had a sustained positive effect towards their overall mental and physical well-being. In Beirut, each resident has 0.8 meters of green space per person when the minimum amount should be 9 meters according to the World Health Organization. The green spaces Beirut does have are either in run-down condition, is limited on space and services, or it's on the way to become the next lot for prime real-estate.
Co-author Dr. Mathew White, from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exter, UK explains that people living in environments with more green space displayed more positive emotions and had a healthier lifestyle overtime.
“The most convincing evidence showed that people in England moving to an urban area with (on average 16% green space) led to a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression in the first year following a move and that this improvement was maintained for at least the three years we followed up with them,” says White.
Dr. White and his team used data from the British Household Panel Survey to analyze their data. It is a large database that includes information from surveys given to 40,000 households throughout the UK. White says when they looked at the data, after three years, mental health was better, which reverberates to other areas such marriage, education and work.
With a growing body of evidence that green space is beneficial for a person's well-being, public officials are feeling the pressure to make more green spaces available to the public. White predicts that urban planning will be a topic among businessmen, politicians and companies when planning for a future space. One of the organization trying to make the lives of Beirut's residents a little greener is the non-profit organization, Nanhoo. Its Executive Director, Mohammad Ayoub, wants to create green public spaces for Lebanese living in Beirut to come together for the common goal of recreational activities and relaxation.
“In general, there are is a lack of public space. There is no park. There is no public beach. There are no natural spaces. We do not know anything about our financial statements or what is happening in our cities. Also, because there is no transparency of information, there is sectarian division and stereotypes,” says Ayoub. “Public space is a need and it is a right. We can't build a healthy community without having public green spaces where people can break stereotypes and meet together."
Ayoub says public green space is few and far between mostly due to private management of land, which is meant for public enjoyment and uses. “The people in the municipality are business men, they come from the private sector. Those people are only interested in money. Actually they are interested in the green stuff, but I don't mean trees. I don't want to generalize because of course there are good people, but in general these people are business oriented,” says Ayoub. The desire among residents for green space is vast, but most are unable or unwilling to protest new development projects and renovations because many believe their voices will not be heard because of government corruption.
“After the war, half the population living in Beirut are not originally from there. They came from outside beirut. They don't work in beirut, and don't pay taxes so because of this system, they don't feel like this is their city. They go to their villages for vacation to enjoy the green spaces. Of course they need green spaces, but they don't think of Beirut as their city. The people who work in Beirut, they went outside the city because all the buildings are new after the war and very expensive. So you end up with many people not thinking it is their city,” Ayoub says.
In the study conducted by White and his colleagues, there were unable to explain how the brain responds to green space. While acknowledging that further research is needed to look at long terms effects of green spaces in other areas such as work, economic benefits and the changes that occur when a person lives in a greener city, the study suggests that aid policy makers and urban planners will become more interested in green infrastructure.
Unlike many other changes in life that are often short-lived, moving to a city that values green space is associated with sustained mental health gains. As a population, such as Beirut residents, get a taste of what green space does for their bodies and minds, they too will feel empowered to demand more from their government. A country without green space is a country essentially without people because two need each other to coexist.
“I think there is a lot of activism in Lebanon now.A lot of people are understanding that we are going to a place where we will all feel sorry for. A place of silence. There are a lot of voices. In a way, we are succeeding in stopping many development projects, but we still have a long way to go,” explains Ayoub.