Updated on May 31, 2024

Want to enjoy nature but don’t have a backyard oasis? Turn to urban green spaces to see native plants and wildlife in your city.

Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Host Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant didn’t grow up surrounded by forests or grasslands. She spent her childhood in big cities, yet she still found nature all around her. How? Through the power of urban green spaces.


Urban green spaces

An urban green space can range from a small park in a traffic intersection to city parks with hundreds of acres. It’s a place where both people and animals can benefit from nature.

These spaces are built through great urban planning, something Dr. Rae has been interested in since childhood. With her father working as an architect and her own background in environmental science, Dr. Rae learned how better urban planning is a solution to helping our planet.

“The solutions are there with the power of greening urban spaces,” Dr. Rae said. “When we say greening, we’re talking about plants. That can change a space so much.”


Green spaces reduce urban heat effect

One way greening can change a space is by lowering temperature of an area.

“A scientist walked around their neighborhood and they took the temperature of the sidewalk where there was no greenery or trees. And then they took the temperature of the sidewalk that had a little bit of shade from greenery. And it was a 20-degree difference. This was only a city block in difference,” Dr. Rae said.

This is the urban heat effect — the sheer volume of asphalt and concrete and lack of shrubs, plants and trees. Cities, such as Los Angeles, are taking steps to combat this effect by creating green spaces. A recent study said if every elementary school in Los Angeles replaced their asphalt with grass, it could drastically reduce the heat in those neighborhoods, changing the city as we know it.

“In Los Angeles, they are starting with the elementary schools in the most underprivileged part of town to pull up all that asphalt, all that blacktop and put in native groundcover,” Dr. Rae said. “Then they make the elementary school playgrounds open on weekends, so community members have access to a green space that wasn’t there before.”


Urban green spaces essential for wildlife

But humans aren’t the only ones who benefit from access to green space. Wildlife needs green space to thrive.

Take New York City’s Central Park. In the middle of bustling Manhattan are 843 acres of woodlands, streams, lakes and lawns for New Yorkers to enjoy. Though Central Park is a great place for human recreation, it also serves as an amazing home and stopover for wildlife, such as birds.

When birds are migrating from one place to another, they need a place to feed and rest, Dr. Rae said.

“Urban green spaces can be a deal maker or breaker for migratory species like birds that need stopover habitat as they travel widely,” Dr. Rae said. “Central Park is a great example of a place that is a temporary home to many migratory birds, including some endangered species.”

Additionally, green spaces can offer insects, mammals and other animals food, shelter and water.

“The more biodiversity an urban space has the better,” Dr. Rae said.


Your part in urban green spaces

Ready to enjoy green spaces in your city? Here are a few tips from Dr. Rae on things you can do to help.

Talk to lawmakers

Find places in your community where some permanent greenery could be placed, such as an elementary school playground. Speak to your local school board or city council about creating a green space there.

Look for environmental initiatives on your ballot

Vote in your local, regional and federal elections. Often, there’s an environmental initiative that could help wildlife in your city.

Create green spaces in your home

You don’t even need a yard to make an impact. The simple act of placing a potted plant on your balcony or windowsill does make a difference. Or next time you chop off a carrot top, keep it instead of throwing it away. Put the top in some water and watch it grow roots. It’s like growing your own vegetable garden without needing a lot of space.

“Most of your fruits and vegetables you can regrow,” Dr. Rae said. “It’s fun and could be very educational for kids as well.”

“This improves environmental health, but also your mental health improves by having something beautiful to look at that is natural as opposed to man made,” Dr Rae said.

Get the next generation involved

“Exposing kids to urban wildlife and green spaces makes healthier kids who live in healthier spaces. And that helps create a healthier society and a healthier planet.” Dr Rae said.

Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant is a wildlife ecologist, a National Geographic Explorer and research faculty at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Watch Dr. Rae host Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild with Peter Gros, starting Oct. 7 during NBC’s “The More You Know” programming block.


Learn more about Dr. Rae by watching a Q&A or discover more about her background here and her role as a guest host in the pilot season here.

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