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Parisians in fact will seize just about any spot in their city for park or garden: tiny balcony, abandoned auto plant, bankrupt parking garage, derelict railway, even the giant curved facade of a new museum. They will sacrifice broad boulevards for the sake of bike paths with leafy canopies. They will argue for community gardens over apartments or media centers. They will relinquish a busy city expressway along the Seine for a temporary beach park, and will see in every shabby lot a prospective cathedral of green.

Why are citizens of the City of Light so intent on finding space for parks and gardens, for street trees and nature strips? For that matter, why would any city go to the bother and expense of growing green space in the stone and steel of an urban environment? At a time when half the world's population lives in cities (a proportion expected to grow to 60 percent by 2030) and funds may be scarce for urban housing, schools, social services, fire and police protection, this is no trivial question.

It's true that in Paris, as in many other cities, parks and gardens are a luxury. "But they are also essential," says Martine Petelot, a member of the Jardin Nomade, a small community garden on a vacant lot in the congested 11th arrondissement. "Our garden allows us to work the earth, to watch things grow. People need to scratch about in the soil, breathe in the scent of plants and flowers, let off steam, and meet other people. For many, it's almost like therapy."

If the recent renaissance in urban parks and public spaces is any indication, many city residents and planners share Petelot's perspective. The past five to ten years have seen an explosion of tree planting in cities and the creation of new parks and public gathering spots—a revolution inspired in part by new science. A growing body of research suggests that spaces filled with leafy vegetation filter pollution and trap tiny particles of dirt and soot: Street trees can reduce airborne particulates from car and bus exhaust. Large groves of trees may have an even more profound green-lung effect for cities, cleansing the air of dangerous chemicals. In Chicago, scientists found that each year trees removed some 234 tons (212 metric tons) of particulates, 98 tons (89 metric tons) of nitrogen dioxide, 93 tons (84 metric tons) of sulfur dioxide, and 17 tons (15 metric tons) of carbon monoxide.

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