Commentary: UD undergrad explores benefits of pocket parks, gardens

More plants and trees amid the steel and concrete of cities can improve health of inhabitants.
More plants and trees amid the steel and concrete of cities can improve health of inhabitants.
Submitted photo/Ryan DeRosa
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Editor's note: This Q&A is one of a series of articles exploring the research University of Delaware students have been pursuing. Though COVID-19 has shaped some plans, students still can participate in hundreds of remarkable projects, in person and remotely. Follow our “Frontiers of Discovery” series as UDaily highlights some of these scholars.

Cities with throngs of people, buildings and roads can be hot. Green development, or the addition of green spaces within an urban area, is a promising solution that might help.

Ryan DeRosa, a junior environmental studies and public policy major in the Honors College from East Meadow, New York, is working to understand the importance of pocket parks in reducing local temperatures in urban spaces, enhancing public health and representing the different cultures in the region. An Honors Program student and community engagement scholar, DeRosa also is pursuing a minor in sustainable infrastructure with a concentration in planning and design.

He was recently named a 2022-23 Newman Civic Fellow by Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities that encourages civic education through community development. The fellowship recognizes next-generation changemakers who are committed to improving their communities. Newman Fellows are nominated by their university’s president or chancellor based on their potential for public leadership. DeRosa expects to graduate from UD in 2023.

Q: What are you studying, where and with whom?

DeRosa: I am studying the use of urban gardens to counteract the urban heat island effect in northern Philadelphia, with Professors Dana Veron and Paul Jackson. Urban heat islands (UHI) are areas that are significantly warmer than surrounding areas due to human modifications of the landscape and can have detrimental impacts on human health.

Pocket parks are dispersed throughout an urban area to create a cooling effect. I am concentrating on a cluster of gardens known as Las Parcelas that seeks to reintroduce culturally significant green spaces in Philadelphia. I am modeling different garden compositions and running simulations to understand if there is a benefit to certain compositions and focusing on how to pose my results to policymakers and politicians.

Q: What motivated you to study this topic?

DeRosa: I am very interested in the ways in which areas can become more equitable, economically sufficient and environmentally friendly in accordance with one another. Many cities in the United States prioritize only one of these three areas, often at the expense of the other two. I hope to determine the benefit of gardens on a climatic, economic and social scale, so that the surrounding environment, market and population alike can thrive.

Q: What have you found most surprising about this work so far?

DeRosa: Many studies have been conducted on the benefit of urban agriculture and green spaces, yet I was shocked to learn that such dense studies sometimes falter in finding concrete solutions. Now, however, I understand that research is not a straight path to a definite conclusion. For example, I hope to determine a causal relationship between urban gardens and health benefits for citizens in northern Philadelphia, as these gardens are said to reduce heat stress. While there might be a correlation between these two things, the main driver of better health conditions also could be factors such as health care availability and proximity. I must account for these factors when conducting my research, so that I do not draw a biased conclusion.

Q: What are the possible real-world applications for your study?

DeRosa: There are many instances where attempts to add green spaces fail to create an impact on cooling the surrounding climate and helping disadvantaged communities. The High Line in New York City is a stark example of a revitalized green space that is a popular tourist attraction but has led to the increased property values around it, driving away those who used to live there. What is the point of installing green spaces if the citizens are no longer around to enjoy them? My research can be used to determine what is the best composition for an urban garden to reduce heat discomfort and surrounding temperatures, while also engaging disadvantaged communities in the area.

Q: How would you explain your work to a fifth grader or someone’s grandparent?

DeRosa: Cities are very crowded with many residents, roads and buildings, which makes them warmer than more rural areas. When open park spaces and plants are put into these cities, it can make these areas much cooler, since heat can circulate better and reflect rather than be absorbed by dark streets and tall buildings. In addition, pocket parks offer habitat for animals, plants and insects, and places for recreation, and enhance the look and feel of neighborhoods. I hope to find which types of parks, whether they be filled with gardens, trees or just grass, will work best in making cities cooler and most enjoyable for everyone.

Q: How does this experience align with your career goals?

DeRosa: I hope to pursue a career in urban planning and sustainable city development where I will work alongside policymakers, environmentalists, architects and engineers to construct more sustainable and efficient city spaces. This is especially important as society attempts to cut back greenhouse gas emissions to limit the effects of global warming and to create a safer and cleaner environment for the sake of public health. I’m specifically interested in how urban gardens can be integrated into city landscapes in an organized and efficient manner to achieve these less polluted city standards.

Q: What do you do when you are not doing research?

DeRosa: During the school year, I serve as a teaching assistant, first-year seminar peer mentor and as vice president of CresHENdo A Cappella, where I learn and perform music alongside some of my greatest friends. I also work with Sunrise Newark to educate the greater Delaware community about climate justice issues and political candidates. Outside of school, I enjoy running, hiking and photography. I also never turn down going to a nice coffee shop or park and reading a good book — it is in places like these that I do some of my best work.

Q: What advice would you give to your fellow students who may be considering or are planning to pursue undergraduate research?

DeRosa: Be flexible and patient. Speaking from experience, it is not uncommon to run into barriers during the research process, and you may go weeks at a time trying new techniques with no results. Even if you do not get as far as you’d like in a certain time frame, you will still know more than you did at the start, which is worth a whole lot.