June 21 (UPI) -- Researchers at Stanford University have designed open-source software to help policy makers and urban planners build more sustainable cities.
The new software, described Monday in the journal Urban Sustainability, allows planners to map and visualize human health and environmental benefits of green spaces.
"This software helps design cities that are better for both people and nature," study co-author Anne Guerry, lead scientist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford, said in a press release. "Urban nature is a multitasking benefactor -- the trees on your street can lower temperatures so your apartment is cooler on hot summer days."
"At the same time, they're soaking up the carbon emissions that cause climate change, creating a free, accessible place to stay healthy through physical activity and just making your city a more pleasant place to be," Guerry said.
As more and more of the planet's population gravitates toward urban centers, cities are expanding.
As cities grow to accommodate newcomers, policy makers and urban planners must work to protect local ecosystems and ensure city dwellers have access to the benefits green space.
Green spaces like parks and community gardens can offer residents both physical and mental health benefits -- relieving stress, as well as providing a place to exercise and access to healthy food.
Additionally, green spaces like marshlands can help protect neighborhoods from flooding, while grasslands can bolster pollination services.
The new software helps planners better understand the myriad benefits provided by green spaces.
"We're answering three crucial questions with this software: where in a city is nature providing what benefits to people, how much of each benefit is it providing and who is receiving those benefits?" said lead study author Perrine Hamel, head of the Livable Cities Program at the Natural Capital Project.
The software combines data from NASA satellites, local weather stations and census records to reveal connections between environmental conditions, such as temperature trends, with social demographics and economic data, including income levels.
Researchers used the new software, called Urban InVEST, to measure the benefits provided by nature in several cities all over the world.
The analysis showed that by soaking up rainwater and diverting floodwater, parks, grassland and forest in Shenzhen, China, would save as much as $25 billion in damages in the event of a 100-year flood.
The software models also showed the Chinese city's green spaces help reduce the average high temperature during the summer months by as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Scientists said they hope the new software, which they've made available for free, will help policy makers better understand environmental inequities. Several studies have shown the benefits of urban green spaces are not shared equally.
Lower income and minority city dwellers generally have less access to green space. As a result, these residents often experience higher temperatures and breathe dirtier air than their wealthier neighbors.
Efforts to bolster and democratize green spaces in urban centers can offer benefits to everyone, even rural residents.
Parks, grasslands and forests can reduce a city's carbon footprint and assist in the effort to slow climate change, as well as mitigate its negative consequences, according to the researchers.
"Cities, more than any other ecosystems, are designed by people. Why not be more thoughtful about how we design the places where most of us spend our time?" said Guerry.