Public Space and the Sustainable City

by |May 14, 2018

As our planet becomes more urban, with projections that by mid-century about 75 percent of us will live in cities, the importance of parks and other public spaces becomes magnified. In my newest book, The Sustainable City, I devote a chapter to the trend of repurposing old industrial spaces to parks. New York City’s High Line and a new waterfront park at the site of the Domino Sugar plant are two local examples of industrial to recreational transformations. Gas Works Park in Seattle, Washington, Canal Park in Washington, D.C., and Victor Civita Plaza in Sao Paulo, Brazil, are also excellent examples of this trend. These spaces provide urbanites with a place to sit in the sun, engage with neighbors, and see a world that may not be present on their electronic screens.

Central Park, New York City. Photo: Jean-Christophe Benoist

Sustainable cities must provide clean water, toxin-free air, renewable energy, mass transit, environmentally sound solid waste management, and public space. They also must ensure access to culture, entertainment, social interaction and all the excitement that draws humans into large dynamic communities. Many forms of sustainability infrastructure bring revenue streams along with them: water fees, energy bills, transit tolls, and so on. But public spaces must be subsidized and generally are provided free of charge. That means that sometimes our public spaces are neglected because they don’t have enough money for upkeep. New York’s Central Park is a case in point. It was initially supported by New York’s municipal government when it was designed and built at the end of the 19th century. Then it fell into disrepair in the first decades of the 20th century. It was reconstructed with public funds during the New Deal by the man Robert Caro called New York’s “Power Broker”, Robert Moses. And the park was well maintained by Moses with government funds until the early 1960s. In the 1970s it once again fell apart during the city’s fiscal crisis, but was then rebuilt yet again by the Central Park Conservancy starting in the 1980s.

We are seeing more public spaces developed and maintained through public-private partnerships. In the case of New York’s Central Park and High Line, substantial amounts of private funding have been generated to enhance and maintain these parks. The private funds are helpful, but potentially dangerous as well. The key issue in any public-private park partnership is to maintain public control of the space and ensure that the public interest dominates decision-making. The government must always be ready to walk away from a partnership dominated by a private party and private interests. New York City has formed a set of highly productive partnerships to develop public spaces. Private partners here seem sensitive of the need to serve the public, and the politics of these visible partnerships seems to stimulate constructive, public-regarding policies.

Well-designed parks provide city dwellers with a gathering place open to rich and poor, young and old, and do not discriminate by gender, race, sexual preference or national origin. There are no rope lines or red carpets in public parks. People see each other, interact, watch their children play together, and barriers are broken as links are developed. Parks are places for families to gather, for friends to celebrate holidays and birthdays, for fundraisers, sports leagues, and quiet contemplation. For me, parks can be thrilling and places of enormous hope and joy.

And that is before we factor in the environmental benefits brought to cities by parks. Trees can mitigate climate change, while plantings and other permeable surfaces absorb water during storms and prevent flooding. Parks can help reduce the heat island effect generated by the engines and air conditioners that make cities hotter than the surrounding countryside in the summer. Parks provide places for migrating birds to rest and eat and for dogs to run and hangout with their pals. Parks can help maintain biodiversity.

In densely settled cities, public purposes must compete with private purposes for land. Private places generate private income and public tax revenues. Public spaces cost money to build and maintain, but also can have a very positive impact on the price of surrounding neighborhoods. Apartments with a “park view” tend to cost more than the same apartment without one. Homes located within walking distance of parks are more desirable than those that are not.

Apart from the immediate economic benefit of a park to local real estate, there is the overall attraction of beautiful and plentiful public spaces for visitors, residents and businesses. In some cases, public spaces are actually private spaces that are open to the public. Sometimes these spaces are created and maintained in exchange for a zoning or building code exception to allow a building to be larger or for a private builder to use space in a new and creative way. While some of these spaces are not successful, others are. In New York, the plaza in front of Lincoln Center, the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Columbia University’s College Walk attract lots of people from lots of places and are large and lively public spaces.

Even when a person is not using a public space, the knowledge that it is available and the memory of one’s last visit provides access via memory. The experience of park use and the memory of the experience is part of the fabric of a satisfying urban lifestyle. The absence of such space or its inaccessibility reduces individual perceptions of quality of life.

In many municipal budgets, parks are often seen as a low priority luxury item.  Parks don’t seem as essential as education, health care, public safety and transportation. And yet they are a service that can contribute to or diminish a city’s wealth and well-being. The absence of beautiful and plentiful public spaces is not life-threatening. Instead, in many subtle ways the lack of public space diminishes rather than threatens life. It can contribute to a city’s decline and signify the lack of that intangible we often characterize as momentum. In contrast, a new and popular park can be an indicator of a city’s revival.

Finally, as more people live in cities, a great danger is that people may forget why we preserve nature in the first place. Our dependence on ecosystems for food, air, water and many material products can be forgotten if people do not experience nature directly. My hope is that the exposure to urban parks will stimulate people to also visit the countryside and get out into nature. Today, much of our will to preserve the planet is born of necessity. We rely on natural systems to provide us with the basic needs required by human biology. But what if we learn someday to replace ecosystems with technology? I am certain that someday we will. We’ll have food replicators like those you see on spacecrafts in science fiction. Therefore, the argument to preserve the planet requires more than reason and rationality. It requires an emotional commitment, and a value system that treasures nature. In my view, that emotional commitment can only come from direct personal exposure to the planet’s natural wonders. For urbanites in the 21st century, this will begin in our city parks.

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