Parks or People? Five Cities That Are Choosing Both

As increasing numbers of people squeeze into cities, where can urban communities grow green spaces?

The world’s expanding cities are in a delicate balancing act. If they do not embrace strategic, high-density development, urban areas will increasingly encroach on surrounding farmland and natural spaces. This, in turn, creates the need for additional energy and transit infrastructure and widens their climate impacts. But if cities develop without green or open spaces, urban residents risk suffering from health problems, deteriorating social cohesion, and the loss of economic opportunities as the appeal of urban life fades.

Luckily, landscape architects and urban planners are finding innovative solutions to pack more green spaces within city boundaries, without pushing out existing living and working spaces. Below are five examples of stunning parks that incorporate green spaces into the fabric of urban life.

Blight to Beauty

1. Atlanta, Georgia, United States: The Atlanta BeltLine
Rendering of the Atlanta BeltLine (Ryan Gravel).
The splashpad at Historic Fourth Ward Park. Left photo: Christopher T. Martin. Right photo: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc

The Atlanta BeltLine is a prime example of “upcycling” underutilized urban space. Initially a hypothetical thesis project by a student at Georgia Tech in 1999, the project has become one of the largest urban redevelopment programs in the United States. It boasts a planned 520 hectares (1,300 acres) of new parkland—that’s more than the 340 hectares (840 acres) of New York City’s Central Park. Add the 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of remediated brown fields and 5,600 units of affordable housing, and the scale of the project becomes clear. The BeltLine rings the center of Atlanta using an existing 35-kilometer (22-mile) rail corridor that fell into disuse when the city grew beyond its initial boundaries. Today, the rail line links 45 neighborhoods, providing both transportation corridors and public space complete with an arboretum and spaces for fitness, play, art, and special events.

2. New York City, United States: The Lowline
lowline rendering
Rendering of the Lowline.
before and after lowline
The Lowline Lab before installation (Brandt Graves). The existing Lowline Lab.

Like its New York City cousin the High Line, the Lowline takes advantage of neglected transit routes to add a vertical dimension to public green spaces. Although it is still in its concept phase, the Lowline proposes an innovative design in an abandoned trolley terminal. What makes this project so intriguing is its use of passive solar technology to illuminate the space and provide light to plants and people below street level. A solar reflector dish guides sunlight from above to an underground dome that scatters the light.

Prioritizing People Over Cars

 3. Madrid, Spain: Madrid Río
Rendering of Madrid Río (CityLife).
antes y despues 1
Madrid Río in 2004 and 2011, before and after burying the highways.

After a massive highway was built on both sides of the Manzanares River in Madrid in the 1970s, nearby neighborhoods declined and most Madrileños avoided the region entirely. In 2003, however, Mayor Alberto Ruíz-Gallardón implemented his vision to bury the highways and move traffic through tunnels instead (not without great political pushback). Ultimately, however, the river banks were freed for pedestrians and more than nine kilometers (six miles) of the Madrid Río Park were designed with playgrounds, ball fields, bike paths, and a wading pool known fondly as “the beach.”

4. Seoul, South Korea: Cheonggyecheo
Cheonggyecheo Stream Park (Kimmo Räisänen).
Cheonggyecheo Stream before and after
Cheonggyecheo Stream before and after highway removal (Intermediate Landscapes).

Peeling back the 5 kilometers (three miles) of elevated highway that covered the once-polluted Cheonggyecheon Stream has turned a congested area in Seoul into a green haven for picnickers and pedestrians. While the park is far from perfect in its environmental design (water is pumped through 11 kilometers, or seven miles, of pipes from the Han River to feed the stream), some wildlife has returned, pollution has decreased, property values have gone up, and some 90,000 people visit daily. Combined with expanded bus service, higher parking fees, and restrictions on cars, nearby congestion has gone down and reduced small-particle air pollution along the corridor. The area also experiences lower local temperatures compared to those of nearby areas, a boon as climate change extremes are likely to increase in frequency.

Landscaping Landfills

5. Tel Aviv, Israel: Ariel Sharon Park
Ariel Sharon Park (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel).
before and after
Hiriya Landfill before (Inhabitat) and after (Latz+Partner).

What do you do with a 60 meter-tall (200 foot; about the height of an 18-story building) pile of waste? Make a park on it, of course! While this seems like an unusual idea, converting landfills to parks is being done in various countries around the world. In Ariel Sharon Park, walking and cycling trails, sports fields, an amphitheater, and a lake blend with bio-gas electricity generation and a recycling facility that mine the underlying Hiriya landfill.

What It Means

Time and again, urban green spaces prove that they both improve high-density communities and (generally) benefit from the proximity to these dense communities. Residents and visitors to green spaces gain health, social, climate adaptation, and environmental benefits from open spaces. Parks and urban biodiversity benefit from an increasing number of advocates and supporters. In short, density requires open spaces, and urban open spaces require density.

As beautiful as they are, however, these parks are not perfect solutions. Often, they are costly attempts to fix a system that urban residents and governments have degraded or neglected for decades, rather than as a protection of existing natural resources. Many times, the parks are designed not for full environmental benefit, but within political, structural, and budgetary constraints of the existing city. And parks aren’t always accessible to populations that may need them the most. New parks can lead to gentrification, meaning that poorer residents are displaced by richer people who now find the area desirable.

Still, with the rising attention to the growth of urban populations, the role of cities in championing sustainable solutions, and the need for “inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces” (a target of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11), urban parks are growing in demand. In rapidly expanding urban areas—especially in Africa and Asia, where urbanization rates are highest—cities have opportunities to incorporate more green spaces in their future planning.

Thanks to innovation and creative approaches to maximizing urban spaces, some cities no longer have to make the choice between density and green space.

This post was originally published through the Worldwatch Institute blog. Our newest State of the World report for 2016, Can a City Be Sustainable?, will be available in May 2016.

Gaelle Gourmelon is the Communications Director at the Worldwatch Institute. She has a background in biology and environmental health and focuses on how we can use social institutions and the planet’s resources more effectively.


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