Why Innovation in Public Parks and Green Space Matters

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August 6, 2019

Cities across the nation are developing innovative public projects, merging the benefits of green space with ambitious infrastructure reuse. There are a number of reasons why these features are so important, and why there should be more as places continue to densify.

What is green space?

To begin, let’s define Green space. Green space is undeveloped land that is partially or completely covered with a variety of vegetation. This includes, but isn’t limited to grass, trees, and bushes. Parks, walking trails, wetlands, meadows recreation fields, and gardens are all considered green space.

Oftentimes, you’ll hear “open space” and “green space” used interchangeably. It’s a square and rectangle dynamic; green space is open space, but not all that is open is green. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be discussing green space specifically.

Why should cities include green space?

Environmental Benefits

Like many southern cities – east coast, west coast and midwest – parts of Dallas, Texas suffer from the urban heat island effect, when roofs, parking lots and streets absorb the sunlight and heat up their surroundings.

Many cities are beginning to use a natural solution to combat that effect; planting trees. Relatively easy to plant and popular to hug, trees can help cool cities off and clean the air.

A study of Dallas in 2017 revealed that parts of the city were up to 15 degrees warmer than nearby rural areas. More than 30 percent of the city is covered in rooftops, parking lots, and streets. The report put out by the Texas Trees Foundation said that by planting enough trees, Dallas could help reduce the temperature in certain areas by almost 15 degrees, which could play a pivotal role in mitigating the climbing heat.

Trees also scrub the air that surrounds it. So as cars, buses, trucks and trains belch out the greenhouse gas, nearby trees take it in. They also can take in sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. In return, oxygen is released back into the air. Additionally, dust, smoke, dirt and other pollutants can be removed from the air when they are stuck on leaves or bark.

Impact on the individual

Beyond the environmental benefits, green space impacts urbanites in a number of ways. Let’s start with the person themselves.

According to the WHO, green spaces can have positive impacts on mental health. A short stroll through a park, sitting on a bench, or just taking in a few flowers can reduce anxiety and stress. Urban areas with green space can contribute to the greater well being of both permanent residents and the 9 to 5 office population.

Nature has a restorative effect on people, and so increased green space in cities can provide calming settings. Quality landscaping and vegetation near where people live, work, and study is a good investment in their health, according to research put out by the University of Washington.

“Both visual access and being within green space helps to restore the mind’s ability to focus,” the report said. “This can improve job and school performance, and help alleviate mental stress and illness.”

Impact on the community

Picture this: you’ve hit the midafternoon slump at your desk. The white-tiled ceiling, gray walls, and dull fabric of your cubicle have lost their luster. Even the coffee is lukewarm and boring. Walk out the door and two blocks down for a quick walk through the park. Maybe you run into a coworker, an acquaintance, or an old friend.

Or, on the weekend, a game of soccer comes together at the local park a few blocks down from a cluster of apartment complexes. New friends are made, and connections grow stronger.

Green spaces also provide social value, as they give communities a public meeting area. Walkable neighborhoods, parks and other green spaces draw people outside and foster social interactions, says the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Playgrounds offer children and parents a place to connect, parks offer groups of people a place to meet, picnic, or even play sports. The possibilities are endless.

Essentially, these green spaces can build social capital; important social gatherings occur here. Well maintained landscape generally makes residents more satisfied with their neighborhoods. Even community activities that involve maintaining these spaces – such as restoration and clean-up projects – can help strengthen ties.

Examples of innovative green projects

It’s clear that these spaces benefit the public in numerous ways. Some communities have gotten particularly innovative with how they’ve turned underutilized public space into

The High Line in New York, is widely regarded as one of the most successful urban, green space projects in the country. It went from an old rail line to an elevated park and greenway that features art installations and an abundance of vegetation. Reclaiming this underutilized infrastructure was an approach so innovative, it spurred the High Line Network. In short, it has become an inspiration for infrastructure reuse projects around the world. The network connects projects similar to the High Line, as well as the leaders and organizers making them happen.

Another innovative, successful urban green space project based on community engagement is the Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, Texas. It is a five acre park constructed over an eight lane highway, which gives both bikers and pedestrians an easier connection to downtown. Additionally, it provides a quiet, calm green area directly above the hustle and bustle of the highway below.

In Toronto, the Bentway project transformed space under an expressway, and offers year-round artistic, cultural, and recreational activities. Events even include communal dining and tai chi. This space is kept fresh and exciting for the surrounding community, in part due to its constant engagement with users.

Its CEO, Julian Sleath, was recently featured on an episode of our Transforming Cities podcast, which you can find here.

It’s imperative that the creation of these innovative green spaces continues. Available open space in cities dwindle as the population rises, which means projects on abandoned railways, highways, and in other underutilized infrastructure are becoming better options than traditional parks. As urban areas continue to densify, these green space projects that break the mold of classic parks and spaces are crucial in providing green, open space for all residents.

Transforming Cities

Abundant green space is an important component of increasingly urbanizing areas. Technology and innovation are reshaping the way these areas are planned. Authentic Form & Function interviews leaders, movers and shakers that are heading the charge on this transformation on its podcast, Transforming Cities. You can explore and listen to Seasons 1 and 2 here.

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