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The Value of Open Spaces to Disadvantaged Poor Communities

By Michelle Simon - 24 Mar 2011 15:31:0 GMT
The Value of Open Spaces to Disadvantaged Poor Communities

It is without a doubt that nature offers us survival resources which we as humans have abused, misused and taken for granted. As access to natural resources become economically defined in an unfair society, access to survival resources such as water and food is an issue of affordability and economic status, thus consigning the poor to a life of dire straits.

Already impoverished and unable to pay for formal access to water and other services, the burden on the poor increases with a lack of access to once traditional natural resources such as healthy clean abundantly flowing rivers providing water for entire villages.

Modernisation, industrialisation and the impacts of apartheid pushed communities into areas with low soil fertility, limited water supply and located far away from economic activities. The situation has been exacerbated with neoliberal economic policies that have also disregarded the protection of the environment as a priority. The survival of humans is directly dependent on the protection of natural resources. Therefore within a development paradigm, the maximum integration of natural resource protection is critical to sustainable livelihoods.

Water Resource Protection

Where developments are planned and designed in proximity to rivers, streams and wetlands; protection of these water bodies must be a 'development priority'. The value of open spaces is paramount to the quality of life providing an array of goods and services such as sources of food (e.g. food gardening), material for survival crafts (e.g. weaving), flood protection (e.g. buffer between homes and rivers), filtering of water pollutants (e.g. wetlands); etc. The tiny streams, drainage channels and rivers are the veins that supply our drinking water and while we often forget this when dealing with rivers in isolation. If we pollute, destroy, build upon our rivers, we are recklessly cutting off our very own supply of clean, drinking water.

In addition, open spaces provide the following functions:

Green Lungs - in urban areas and formalised townships, very little greening is available or set aside. One of the most critical roles of plants and trees is that of Oxygen Provider or Green Lungs, supplying necessary oxygen for our survival. The more trees, the greater the expanse of open space the greater attention to climate change abatement and biodiversity protection. Vegetation also provides habitat to fauna that are often decimated with irresponsible development that does not include greening or open space allocation.

Climate Change and Carbon Sequestration - carbon sequestration is the process of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it long-term elsewhere in order to slow the increase of carbon dioxide which is trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere and causing temperatures to rise across the globe (NYS OSP, 2009). Trees are natural sequestrators and their role in open spaces is heightened.

Flood Protection - open spaces provide important buffers and absorb the impact during flooding episodes especially if there are well vegetated. Floodplains are critical to flood attenuation.

Stormwater Attenuation - vegetated zones slow down the velocity of runoff from increased stormwater flows on hardened surfaces which are indicative of formal development, this role as an attenuation space is vital.

Water Retention - green spaces allow for the storage and infiltration of water.

Soil Protection and Erosion Control - hardened surfaces and stormwater flows lead to loss of soil either by replacing the natural ground cover or causing erosion and scouring of the available open spaces. Vegetation and open spaces as a whole serve to protect soil resources which are just as valuable as clean air and water. Without fertile clean soil we cannot grow healthy food crops.

Biodiversity Belts - the connection of riverine environments in a catchment and green corridors as a whole is necessary and significant in providing biodiversity belts and natural resource belts.

Habitat Protection - watercourses and their associated floodplains form significant 'green corridors' providing habitats for a rich diversity of terrestrial and aquatic life.

Natural Equity - during apartheid access to conservation areas and the most sought after green spaces were held in check and access to them was based on racial privilege; the post apartheid scenario while having addressed marginal equity issues in nature reserves, still perpetuates inequalities with class-nature access such as the eco-estates. While informal settlements are often located in the worst possible developable land, the location to natural resources albeit damaged is a huge benefit in that rehabilitation and protection of these natural spaces which provide communities with access to nature.

Food Security - as is the case traditionally most communities engaged in food gardening make use of the floodplains due to the rich fertile soil composition that produces good crops. Whilst the immediate critical buffers should strictly be rehabilitated and maintained to include indigenous riparian vegetation and must have a riverine forest tree line which ensures flood protection and habitat preservation; the buffers beyond may be used as food gardening spaces. On one of the government projects we designed and planned; the provision of basic shelter and services to an informal settlement, food security, poverty alleviation and environmental protection is being integrated. Open spaces therefore provide an important food security resource to poor communities.

Recreational - open spaces also fulfil an important recreational, cultural and social function where children use floodplains as informal playfields.

Educational - retaining open spaces, rehabilitating these resources and ensuring their continued protection is directly dependent on community participation and education. Once a community assigns a value to nature and understand the critical role that the open space plays, this value becomes integrated into the life of the community and will ensure future protection.

Quality of Life Indicator - green spaces are aesthetic, socially, ecologically and economically valuable and reflect that society is integrating human and natural elements in a sustainable manner reflecting a better quality of life.

Last but not least Environmental Economics, a language new to the economic fraternity but one having an impact on the way economists value the environment thereby affecting development thinking. It would cost the local municipality and society at large a huge financial burden to allow the continued destruction of natural zones, rendering an economic loss estimated in 2003 at R 3.1 billion per annum (EMD, 2003). It is both cost effective and safer for human habitation to develop in locations that do not pose a flood risk rather than engaging in flood defence work and risking human lives and infrastructure (Earth Consulting, 2004). The modifications to natural watercourses require a long term commitment to maintenance.