City living can be a major obstacle to enjoying the outdoors, but urban designers and civic planners are pushing to change that.
Say hello to innovative and sustainable mixed-use urban green space projects. Or you could just call them parks.
What makes a few acres of grass a worthy investment? Time and time again, urban green spaces have been shown to improve public health outcomes, protect water quality, and decrease violence. Parks can also alleviate some of the emotional symptoms of urban life, including stress and anxiety.
Children, in particular, can reap huge benefits from an open place safe for play and exploration. One recent study points to improvements in attention and memory for young students with more green space around their schools. And some pediatricians are opting to hand out “park prescriptions” for overweight or obese patients.
Furthermore, public green spaces can revive abandoned parts of the city, converting brownfields, vacant lots and former industrial sites into vibrant areas for community activities, ranging from free symphonies to good old pick-up soccer games.
Unfortunately, green spaces don’t always bring about positive change. With more aesthetically pleasing urban landscapes comes inevitable gentrification. This usually takes the form of higher property values driving out longtime residents and disproportionately impacting low income populations and people of color. Neighborhoods with community gardens are a prime example.
But that’s not to say we shouldn’t continue to implement green space projects. One strategy to combat this sort of resident turnover lies in making neighborhoods “just green enough” to reap the benefits, while still deterring greedy developers. Regardless of scope, green space projects should strive to take a participatory approach that accounts for a diversity of stakeholders. Genuine local involvement remains the key to longterm positive impact.
Here are several standout examples of green space successes:
The Atlanta BeltLine has gone from master’s thesis to tourist attraction in an impressive span of just 17 years. The greenway inhabits an old railroad corridor encircling the city’s downtown and connects 45 neighborhoods and a number of parks. Most notably, the BeltLine boasts an affordable housing program to protect vulnerable residents from displacement. Free exercise classes, a lantern parade, and an arboretum are just a sampling of the BeltLine’s many attractions. And you certainly can’t miss the abundant murals and street art courtesy of projects like Living Walls and Tiny Doors ATL.
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Brooklyn Bridge Park is quite the sight. 85 acres of waterfront property offer breathtaking views of Manhattan that you can enjoy while playing volleyball or fishing. Bocce and the infamous carousel add to the park’s charm. Oh, and there’s free public kayaking too. On the educational side of things, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy operates an Environmental Education Center that reaches more than 10,000 students each year. Children can get a firsthand look at local ecology with the Center’s seining program.
Railroad Park graces Birmingham, Alabama’s downtown with its 19 acres of green space. The park distinguishes itself by integrating the industrial history of the city while featuring sustainable design elements like a bio-filtration wetlands area. Over 600 trees, three skate bowls,and the Birmingham History Wall also coexist here. Camille Spratling, the park’s executive director, notes that Railroad Park acts as a unifier, “a place where people of all walks of life in the city come together.” And with Birmingham’s rich legacy of civil rights activism, that might just be its best feature.
Klyde Warren Park
Klyde Warren Park is one of the more imaginative green spaces out there. The park was constructed as a five acre deck over an eight lane highway. Klyde Warren helps connect downtown Dallas by allowing for pedestrian and bicycle traffic between Uptown and the Dallas Arts District. Dallas’ city parks manager John Reynolds reports that Klyde Warren has transformed the surrounding urban environment: “Being out there now, it has changed from an inhospitable, no-man’s land to a pretty comfortable space. It was almost overwhelming how much noise and traffic was there. It’s a lot calmer than I ever anticipated.”
Millennium Park might be most well-known for “the bean,” an irresistibly shiny sculpture actually entitled Cloud Gate. But details aside, Chicago’s world-class public park is impressive for a number of reasons. The park, designed in part by legendary architect Frank Gehry, used to be an untouchable industrial wasteland. Now it’s anything but with a five acre perennial garden and a state-of-the-art concert venue. The Boeing Galleries offer outdoor viewing of public art exhibitions, ensuring that art is accessible to everyone. Beyond that, Millennium Park boasts the title of world’s largest green roof–24.5 acres of it!
The High Line (and the Lowline?)
Nowadays a trip to New York City seems to be synonymous with a visit to The High Line. The park inhabits a preserved railway formerly threatened by demolition. Garden designer Piet Oudolf found inspiration in the wild vegetation springing up from the abandoned train tracks and let this tiny bit of urban wilderness dictate the style of future plantings. That means native and low maintenance varieties make up most of what you’ll encounter. The High Line itself functions as a green roof with both plants and porous pathways absorbing water and limiting stormwater runoff. Drip irrigation, integrated pest management and composting demonstrate the park’s commitment to sustainability. And it wouldn’t be New York without an ample supply of art.
You may not know about the High Line’s future sibling, the Lowline. The plan is to take over the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal and use cutting edge solar technology to create an underground green space. The Lowline would be the world’s first underground park. And now there are murmurs that a “Green Line” will run along Broadway. Props to NYC for getting behind urban parks.
What’s your favorite green space? You can check out your own city’s ParkScore here.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock