Is It Time to Disrupt Our Thinking on Urban Greening?

Cities are becoming increasingly and more densely populated, and, as a result, green spaces are shrinking. This has many consequences on the environment and human health. Therefore, it’s becoming clear that we must plan more effectively to include urban green spaces in our cities.

When we consider U.S. urban green space data, we can see how poorly we have done at providing this crucial resource to urban populations. For example, the median amount of land used for recreation is only 15%. Among our major cities, New York ranks last for the amount of green space per resident.

Why do we find it so difficult to provide more green space in cities, so that we can unlock the benefits of green space in urban areas?

Challenge #1: It’s difficult to measure the need for urban green space

While many studies and research papers provide evidence of the benefits of green space in our cities, it is difficult to measure how these spaces are used ─ and therefore challenging to make the case to incorporate them into urban planning.

Without understanding who uses city parks, for example, and when and why they are used, it is hard to make the case to add more. 

Technology may hold the key here so that we can measure use more accurately and provide the green spaces that residents will visit. Without such knowledge, planners risk designing spaces that become underutilized and fall into dereliction.

Challenge #2: Financial constraints

As federal, state, and city budgets become constrained, pressure grows for every inch of space to be used productively. This often means that city planners look at the financial benefits of land use. Developing houses or commercial real estate is far simpler to envisage for its financial benefits. How do you assess the financial positive of green space, despite the many benefits it delivers?

We should focus on the longer-term, more tangible benefits of green spaces. We know that the world is experiencing severe challenges caused by climate change. The environmental benefits of urban greening include reducing air pollution, cooling our cities, and reducing carbon emissions. Green spaces also improve drainage and stormwater runoff, which helps to reduce flooding. All these environmental benefits can be monetized ─ how much money could cities save by reducing their need for flood defenses and cleanups, for example?

Challenge #3: Transportation needs outweigh green needs

We also find that the need to provide urban mobility overshadows the need to provide green spaces. Transportation allows people to visit and move around our cities. We need effective urban mobility solutions to enable goods to come in and businesses to operate, children to attend schools, residents to go shopping, dine out, etc.

To mitigate this challenge, we must more fully consider the use of health risk and health data, and weigh these risks against the impacts of several types of transport. We are already seeing city authorities incorporating more cycle routes and pedestrianized spaces. Should we go further? What impact would there be on local economies, environments, and health if we implemented options that would also enable us to integrate more green space?

Challenge #4: The prioritization of housing

It is well known that a housing crisis exists in the United States. There simply is not enough affordable housing to meet demand. As city populations grow, this demand will also increase, inevitably making it challenging to develop infrastructure that includes green space allotment.

Is the answer in this regard to consider the wider role of green spaces? Not to view them as a nice-to-have, but to consider them as an essential element of the fabric of a community? 

We must understand the roles that green spaces play in our neighborhoods, and to do this we must engage with residents more effectively. Are the spaces we provide to be used for cultural purposes, recreation, or as social spaces?

The bottom line

When planning our urban landscapes, we have in the past focused on providing green spaces to influence how people use them. Urban planners have focused on characteristics such as accessibility, facilities, security, and attractiveness. We are not saying that it is wrong to design green spaces with all these traits in mind, but we need to turn our thinking upside down.

The relationship between a community and its green spaces is complex, and not all neighborhoods have the same needs. Shouldn’t we place functionality first, and provide green spaces that deliver to a communal need, as expressed to us by that community?

And when considering competing for urban priorities such as housing and transport, shouldn’t we first consider sustainability, and budget for long-term outcomes on quality of air, climate change, flooding, and the health of our city populations?

Certainly, challenges exist when planning and designing urban green spaces, but we must learn to plan our cities to balance the health, environmental, and economic needs of our communities for the long term.

At ACB Consulting, we are committed to helping improve the communities in which we live, work, and play – including how they are conceived, designed and created. To learn more or to join the conversation, contact ACB Consulting.

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