Public parks, filled with trees, walking paths and grassy knolls, are more than just nice places to take a stroll. In major cities around the globe, they help improve the quality of life for citizens otherwise living in concrete canyons. And as more people flock to urban areas, these green spaces are becoming even more important.
“Well-managed, programmed and stewarded, urban parks are not only safe and beautiful, but also serve as green engines to help address nearly every critical urban need from health to housing, education to environmental justice, and from countering sprawl to combating crime,” says Catherine Nagel, executive director of City Parks Alliance, an independent organization dedicated to urban parks.
London boasts an impressive 35,000 acres of public green space, according to Green Spaces: The Benefits for London, a 2013 report for the City of London Corporation. This is roughly equivalent to 40 percent of the city’s surface area. In comparison, about 14 percent of New York City’s surface area comprises green space. Shanghai? A mere 2.6 percent. But Hong Kong residents are perhaps the most space-deprived, averaging 2 square meters of open space per person—around the size of a standard toilet stall.
“As cities become denser, the demand for outdoor recreation increases,” Nagel says. “Many families don’t have the luxury of a backyard and rely on public parks where their children can play, where they can get daily exercise, find a bit of relief from the intensity of urban life, and get to know their neighbors.”
Further findings from the London green space report show that the benefits of public parks are fourfold. There are environmental benefits, such as improved air quality through pollutant absorption; physical and mental health benefits, including lower obesity rates and reduced stress; the social benefit of improved community interaction; and economic perks, including higher property values and increased tourism.
Despite these obvious benefits, public parks weren’t always an important mainstay in urban societies.
“While the city has a deep commitment to public parks, this wasn’t always the case,” says Margaret Dyson, director of historic parks for Boston Parks and Recreation. “The pressure in urban areas for building sites is real and substantial. The old saying ‘land, they aren’t making it any more’ holds true.”
“It’s vital for the health of cities that the value of open areas is recognized and protected.”
Dyson notes that during the 1960s and ’70s, everything from schools, to malls, to churches were built on former parkland. While this is less common today, the development proposals haven’t disappeared completely.
“Parks were not protected in order to landbank construction sites. It’s vital for the health of cities that the value of open areas is recognized and protected,” she says.
Today, common park development proposals seek to maintain the park’s integrity, while incorporating more usable housing or public space. The most recent Central Park concept, for example, included dropping the park a quarter mile into the ground to create underground park-facing apartments.
“It will be extremely important to not only protect the parks that exist today, but to set aside land for the future to maintain a good quality of life for all urban residents,” Nagel says.