City Park Soundscapes
December 16, 2013
Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO
The up close sound of a flock of Canadian geese landing on thin ice is a rare and marvelous experience. As they come in for their landing approach, they are just overhead, each honking to the others in formation. One can hear a creaking sound with each wing beat, though from exactly where the sound emanates is not immediately clear. After careful consideration, this listener thinks it comes from the flight feathers as they bend to the force of each wing stroke. I imagine a wooden mast on a sailing ship would creak in a similar manner with the force of wind filling a ship’s sails. Behind the creak, creak of wing beats there is also the rush of air over feathers. Both the honking and the wing beats become stronger just prior to impact, feet extended each individual goose touches down and feet slide for a moment but then break through the thin ice.
At first it seems that each foot will makes its own hole in the ice and the geese will come to an abrupt stop but then the belly and breast crash through as well. Momentum carries each goose forward creating a channel of ice slivers. The sound of these slivers striking one against another makes a kind of music, a tinkling sound make of thousands of glassy, a water born chimes of glass.
I lack a simile to adequately describe this tinkle sound, nothing I can think of is quite ‘like’ it. It isn’t a sharp crack and crash as when a window breaks. The ice is thin, and the sound sweet to the ear. It persists for a few moments as the water beneath the ice jostles the fragments against one another and is slowly muffled both as the water calms and the sharp edges of ice melt.
In the book Peter Pan perhaps Tinkerbell makes a sound like this ice tinkle.
City Park at Sunrise
Having heard such an enchanting near magical sound first thing on a clear cold morning, I find myself awoken to other sounds, usually ignored. Dead and dry cottonwood leaves make a sound of their own not duplicated by other trees. Boots walking over frosted grass produce a crackling footfall in itself hard to describe. A wind slipping through pine needles differs from the sound of other trees. How rarely we devote our attention to the sounds around us.
How often, caught up with some internal dialogue, I forget to listen to the world outside my own head. A jogger passes me, her earbuds leak out a soundtrack that she matches her stride to. If I can hear it so clearly, how loud it must be inside her head. I fear she is missing the morning’s soundscape.
My own internal dialogue starts back up to full speed after she passes and I return to thinking about a proposed project to remodel City Park. It’s called City Park Loop and will replace the existing wooden play structure with an array of blue loopish structures that are apparently quite the latest in play structures. It sounds a bit too close to an amusement park for my liking:
Community groups are making a clamor about this remodel, fussing about parking, maintenance costs and a host of other details.
I worry about something else, whether these changes will deprive people of the benefits of having an accessible green space?
According to epidemiological research there is a positive relationship between the amount of green space in the living environment and physical health, mental health and overall longevity.  Exposure to ‘Green Space’ improves health but the extent of this effect has been underappreciated. The impact of exposure to nature is so powerful that it may negate harmful influences on health. Most strikingly, exposure to green space erases the harmful influence caused by disparities in income.
A study published in the 2008 issue of Lancet, tells us that exposure to green space may cut the detrimental effect poverty has on health by as much as half. 
In this paper two researchers, Mitchell and Popham, questioned if exposure to green space would reduce the expected effects of socioeconomic status on health. They classified England’s population that had not yet reached retirement age, some 40,813,236 individuals, into groups based on income and exposure to green space. They then looked at mortality records of 366,348 people who died from 2001 to 2005, and looked for associations between what they call ‘income deprivation’ and mortality to see if they varied with green space exposure.
The researchers found a statistically significant benefit of green space; it decreased mortality from all causes and also from circulatory disease. No benefit was seen against lung cancer by the way. This makes sense: those who smoke a cigarette while taking a walk in the park still get lung cancer.
Comparing all-cause mortality between poorest and richest (most income deprived versus least income deprived) people produced results similar to other studies. The poor who had the lowest exposure to green space had an incidence rate ratio (IRR) of 1.93, almost twice as high as the rich. Those ‘poor’ with the most exposure to green areas had a significantly lower IRR; it dropped to 1.43. A similar though larger benefit was seen for circulatory disease. In simple words, the more someone is exposed to ‘green environments’ the less detrimental the effects caused by poverty are on their health.
Here’s how Mitchell and Popham sum it up:
“Populations that are exposed to the greenest environments also have lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation. Physical environments that promote good health might be important to reduce socioeconomic health inequalities.”
This is a significant argument for creating more green spaces in our cities especially in low-income areas and for providing opportunities for those living in cities to get out of the city into even greener space. Theoretically one could calculate a dollar value of nature in terms of health care savings. It certainly confirms what many of us have known instinctively. There is enormous value in nature, something that we should treasure. Activities that despoil the natural world rob all of us of something precious.
The scientists have yet to define exactly what qualifies as green space. Looking at the architects rendering of blue loopy structures for the proposed City Park remodel, I am hard pressed to think that they will invoke anything in our cores that will make us think we are in nature. Rather they look more reminiscent of an indoor play area in a fast food restaurant chain.
Henry Meryweather designed the initial layout of the park back in 1882 combining the traditional English pastoral gardens with the modern casual design of New York City’s Central Park. Perhaps I am old fashioned but I think these traditional landscape designers knew to preserve some key elements in their designs that evoked a sense of the natural world. Will the blue tubes of the new design still trigger the same benefits?
[Note: Parts of this newsletter were copied directly from a still unpublished chapter written with my good friend Ian Bier ND a few years back.]
1. Groenewegen PP, van den Berg AE, de Vries S, Verheij RA. Vitamin G: effects of green space on health, well-being, and social safety.BMC Public Health. 2006 Jun 7;6:149.
2. Mitchell R, Popham F. Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. Lancet. 2008 Nov 8;372(9650):1655-60.
Poppy and her friend Flynn