The Importance of Landscaping in Urban Environments

Photo of a blue spruce supporting the argument for urban landscaping
Photo by Christine John

My favorite place to go as a child was my grandparents house. My grandmother, a fabulously nurturing woman, always had plenty of hugs to give out. And although my grandfather was arguably one of the most intimidating men most people have ever met, I loved the way he was always puttering in the yard. And it was a fabulous yard. Neither of my grandparents were what I would call a green thumb, but the yard was still magical. And the thing that made it magical was the abundance of trees, shrubs and flowers.

A Tree Built for Climbing Graced the Front of the House

The front yard had a lawn that rolled down toward the street and a gigantic blue spruce in the corner that you could hide out under. Across from the rolling lawn was a pocket park that provided an excellent place to run or throw a ball. Another tree, built for climbing, graced the front of the house. I notoriously got stuck in this tree, probably more than once, as I was brave enough to climb up to the top but afraid to climb back down. But the best part of the front yard was a large planter box that ran across the front porch. My grandmother always allowed me to plant her petunias in the planter every spring. The backyard was equally enchanting with large trees, grass and a lilac bush that filled with heavenly scented flowers every spring.

What made things even better was that the entire neighborhood had similar landscaping. And it seemed that people took great pride in making their yards look nice. I still look back at those times with a bit of grief and sadness as I look around me today. I’ll never forget the first yard to go. A younger couple moved in across the street. Busy with work and life, they chose to replace the green landscaping with desert cacti. My grandmother could not keep from commenting every time she looked out her kitchen window at the sharp edged plants about how the neighbors just didn’t want to spend time outside.

Photo of a tree supporting the argument for urban landscaping.
Photo by Christine John

Spiky Sun Loving Plants Replaced the Old Landscaping

Most of the residents in my grandparents neighborhood were older people who had purchased their homes after WWII. Naturally, the neighborhood began to shift and by the time I was in college, a large number of younger couples had moved into the area. There was a growing awareness that sprawling lawns and thirsty trees may not be the best choice for a high desert climate, so more and more households began to put in xeriscaping. The large climbing trees came down as people planted drought friendly cacti and natural grasses. Spiky sun loving plants filled the old planters. And rolling lawns became desert rock gardens.

My heart sank every time I drove by. I longed for the large climbing trees and the rolling lawns. While I fully supported the need to cut back on water use where I live, something just didn’t seem right. Whether it be by coincidence or not, children stopped playing outdoors. Many families had two working adults and kids became absorbed with weekend sports and video games. What started out as xeriscaping, slowly became what I call ‘zeroscaping’ as most front yards became all rock, or simply a space filled with dirt and weeds. Many families laid down plastic under the rocks to keep the weeds from sprouting. Others simply pulled or poisoned the weeds in their dirt yards to keep from having weeds take over the space.

The Importance of Landscaping to Combat the Heat Island Effect

With new water restrictions in place, businesses have now followed suit, filling their open spaces with rocks or a few cacti and calling it landscaping. The city I grew up in now feels like an expanse of concrete and rocks with little to no plant life anywhere. Although any form of nature can be beautiful and healing, I often find myself wondering how difficult it would be to just plant a tree. So what happens when we landscape with rocks instead of plants? Something called the heat island effect.

Heat islands are urbanized areas that have higher temperatures than outlying rural areas. Structures such as buildings and roads absorb the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes and cause temperatures to rise. Research studies and data found in the United States show that the heat island effect results in daytime temperatures in urban areas that are about 1–7°F higher than temperatures in outlying areas. Hard, dry surfaces in urban areas – such as roofs, sidewalks, roads, buildings, and parking lots – provide less shade and moisture than natural landscapes and therefore contribute to higher temperatures. Increasing tree and vegetation cover can lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and cooling through something called evapotranspiration. This is a process where water is transferred from the land to the atmosphere by evaporation from the soil with the help of plants.

Photo of shrubs arguing for urban landscaping.
Photo by Christine John

Landscaped Environments Can Help Children Reduce Stress and Build Confidence

Landscaping not only helps reduce increasing temperatures in urban areas, but recent studies continue to show the benefit of spending time outdoors for both children and adults. Most of these studies agree that children who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors. Not only does spending time outdoors provide physical benefits, but it can also increase confidence, teach responsibility, and reduce stress and fatigue.

How does nature help? When children play outside, the play has a lot less structure than most types of indoor play. Because there are infinite ways to interact with outdoor environments, children are given the power to control their own actions, helping them to build confidence. Spending time in nature also teaches responsibility. Living things die if they are mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting a child to take care of the living parts of their environment means they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant, or pull a flower out by its roots. Spending time in nature also reduces stress and fatigue. Urban environments require directed attention, which forces us to ignore distractions and exhausts our brains. In natural environments, we are able to relax and alleviate fatigue.

Photo of a tree supporting urban landscaping
Photo by Christine John

The Importance of Landscaping in an Urban Environment

Landscaping a yard means tending to a yard. So if you plant some trees and shrubs, your weekends might become filled with activities outside such as pulling weeds or pruning, which could be very beneficial to your health. And by planting mostly native plants, you can provide a habitat for wildlife while allowing yourself less time spent forcing things to grow. You don’t necessarily need a high maintenance lawn, but consider planting a tree or some flowers outside your front door. You just might encourage the children to put down the video game and go outside. And perhaps your neighbors will follow suit. If you live in an urban area, you will be helping to cool the air, while improving the value of your property all at the same time. Now if that isn’t a good reason to plant a tree, I don’t know what is.