Large parks are essential for happy cities

Cities should feature ‘compact’ development alongside large, contiguous green spaces to maximise benefits of urban ecosystems to humans, according to new research led by the University of Exeter.


More than half the world’s population now lives in cities. As numbers continue to swell, decision-makers across the globe grapple with how best to accommodate growing resident numbers while maintaining healthy urban ecosystems. Previous research has demonstrated that urban green spaces and trees yield far-reaching benefits to humans, from increased happiness and health to absorbing surface water run-off and storing carbon. Researchers have long debated whether it is better to build compact developments with large parks or nature reserves, as often found in Europe and Japan, or whether it is preferable to build sprawling suburbs with many small parks and gardens, as found in many North American and Australian cities.


A team at the University of Exeter, working with Hokkaido University in Japan, has analysed nine case studies of cities worldwide which considered how urbanisation patterns affect the functioning of urban ecosystems. The research, published in Frontiers in Ecology and Environment and supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), has concluded that high-density cities featuring large parks or nature reserves yield the most benefits – although they stress that smaller parks and gardens should not be sacrificed and still play a positive role.


Lead author Dr Iain Stott, from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, said: “As populations continue to grow, it’s vital that we expand our cities and build new ones in a way that is most sustainable for ecosystems, and which provides the greatest benefits to urban residents. Our research finds that compact developments that include large green spaces are essential for the delivery of ecosystem services. For humans to get the most benefit however, combining this approach with greening of built land using street trees and some small parks and gardens is the best method.”


Senior author Professor Kevin Gaston, also from the University of Exeter’s ESI, said: “Future urban development must be carefully planned and policy-led, at whole-city scales, to yield the best result.”


As a conclusion to their report the team said “Land sparing is a vital strategy for urban development, in order to accommodate increasing urban populations while also delivering necessary ecosystem services. Conversely, if humans are to reap all benefits of urban ecosystems, then some degree of land sharing is also necessary. Development approaches should seek to optimize distributions of urban intensity rather than focusing on polarized options, and the potential complications of fragmentation and various trade-offs should be consider in such urban designs. Intelligent arrangement of urban space and clever uses of technology could further increase natural capital in built-up areas, with consequent increases in ecosystem service provision.”


About New York Central Park:
Around 1849, a group of wealthy New Yorkers who admired the public grounds of London and Paris were led by merchant Robert Minturn to begin advocating for the first landscaped public park in the United States. They believed such a park in New York would give the city an international reputation, offer their families an attractive setting for carriage rides and provide workers with a healthful alternative to the saloon. Quietly, they also knew it would substantially increase the value of their uptown land holdings and discourage the development of lower-class communities in their midst.

After years of contentious debate over the location, size and cost of the park, the state legislature authorized the city to use the power of eminent domain to acquire a parcel of more than seven hundred acres in the middle of Manhattan. A site bounded by 106th Street, Fifth Avenue, 59th Street and Eighth Avenue was chosen (later expanded northward to 110th street). The irregular terrain of swamps, bluffs and rocky outcroppings made the land undesirable for private development, although the area included low-income neighborhoods with a significant number of private homes.

In 1857 the politically charged Central Park Commission held a design contest won by the park superintendent, Frederic Law Olmsted, and Calvert Vaux. Their “Greensward Plan” called for a combination of the pastoral (open, rolling meadows), the picturesque (the Ramble), and the formal (the dress grounds of the Promenade and Bethesda Terrace) in the English romantic tradition.

More on New York Parks by Michael Minn

Similar Posts