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Parks as Critical Elements of Urban Infrastructure

By Steven Cohen, HUFFPOST GREEN

(…)In a world that is increasingly urban, we often overlook the importance of city parks as critical pieces of urban infrastructure. When hard-pressed city officials are balancing the demands of public safety, education, transportation, water, sanitation and homeless services with parks, it is easy to see why parks are often seen as a residual budget category. Nevertheless, day in and day out our urban parks are among the most important, utilized and even loved services of city governments.

In PlaNYC 2030’s original 2007 urban sustainability plan, the Bloomberg administration set a goal that every city resident would live within a ten minute walk of a city park. This was a clear, operational and measurable indication of the importance of parks to urban life. There are a great many different types of urban parks and uses of parks. One use is for recreation- ball fields, tennis and basketball courts, pools, skating rinks, boating and sailing. Another use is ecological. Green space absorbs heat and carbon dioxide, assists in controlling storm water runoff, and can help preserve biodiversity. There is also the visual amenity offered by a park. In many cities, homes with a view of a park are more highly valued than identical homes without a park view.

Parks can also provide a commerce-free zone for families. Most public spaces in America feature commercial venues of one sort or another: amusement parks, shopping malls, professional sports facilities, movie theatres and so on. This adds to the financial pressure on a family. Parks are often free of commerce or if there is a restaurant or ice cream vendor in the park, they do not dominate the environment. A family can bring their own food, sports equipment and games, and folks can relax knowing their wallets aren’t being emptied by the hour.

Parks are also a place where friends and families can gather and where neighbors can informally and casually interact with neighbors. They are also a democratizing feature of urban life. There is no VIP line, charge, or special place for the elite in the typical public park. Rich and poor share the same space and facility. In this sense parks can contribute to social understanding and political stability.

Park design can vary by topography, climate, culture, public demand and capital investment. Demand for new or redesigned park space will relate to the capacities provided by existing parks. Some parks are focused on active recreation, while others are simply quiet places to sit outside. Parks can include spaces for apartment dwellers to garden, run their dogs, or take a nap in the sun. Parks are an essential piece of urban infrastructure that enables high density living without diminishing quality of life. In rural areas people have a great deal of outdoor space that they own. Most of the time there are very few humans in those spaces but they provide an outlet for people to enjoy the natural world. There is little social engagement in these rural open spaces. Rural open spaces are critical resources as well, but they are different than urban parks. In cities most of us depend on public space to enjoy the outdoors.

While most people in cities spend most of their time indoors, parks provide actual and implicit outdoor space. The fact is that if everyone indoors suddenly decided to go to their local park, they would be so crowded that it would serve no purpose. But people visit parks for relatively short periods of time and most people do not visit their local park on any given day. But the experience of the park provides a pleasant memory and the potential access may well be more important than actual park use. This means that a relatively small amount of land can meet the outside space needs of a relatively large amount of people. Skilled landscape design can enable a large number of people to use outdoor park space without being aware of the number of people present. Sound effects from waterfalls can mask the sounds of people. Trees, hills, ponds and other design features as well as public plazas surrounded by wooded areas without recreation facilities can be used to concentrate people but also leave natural areas less trafficked.(…)

Read the whole article at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-cohen/a-new-park-rises-from-an_b_9990610.html