Parks boost community resilience because they offer a place to develop deeper neighborhood connections. They improve community health by reducing stress, restoring cognition, and providing a place to exercise. Parks mitigate the urban heat island effect, improve air quality, and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. They support local biodiversity and can act as buffer zones for flooding or mudslides. Parks are both important social and environmental infrastructure.
To sum it up: “we need more parks if we want our cities to be more resilient to climate change,” said Joshua Alpert, director of special projects for C40, at an event organized by The Trust for Public Land and JBP Foundation during the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.
“We need public space if we want to know our neighbors,” explained Joshua Stanbro, with the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii. Parks are the “platform for social interaction,” but if designed and built with the community, they can also help forge stronger community connections.
Those connections are more likely to happen in parks that communities actually want. So it’s important that “we meet communities where they are,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land.
In New York alone, The Trust just built their 200th green schoolyard in an effort to build social networks so these communities can then better fight for climate equity.
Regas said some one-third of the population of the US doesn’t have a park within a 10-minute walk. Through their innovative 10-minute walk campaign, The Trust and its partners aim to undo that inequity.
Brady Walkinshaw, CEO of Grist, said the campaign is the kind of clear, simple communication that is needed because it successfully distilled complex urban planning ideas into an easy-to-understand message people can get behind, like the $15-an-hour minimum wage movement.
Urban parks are also important because they provide the foundation of urban forests, which help cities both mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate. According to Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests, urban forests absorb some 100 million tons of carbon each year, about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Trees found in these green areas can reduce energy use up to 7 percent because they provide wind blocks for homes in the winter and cooling in the summer.
In an effort to achieve equity, American Forests is now working with vulnerable urban populations to plant millions of trees. Daley said this work is more critical than ever because deaths from extreme heat are expected to increase ten fold by 2050.
Arturo Garcia-Costas, program officer for the environment with the New York Community Trust, said a more connective approach needs to be taken with green spaces in cities. He pointed to the Ramblas in Barcelona and the High Line in New York City as examples. “We need to think of the broader system and greater connectivity, with green space as the priority.”
Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), said ubiquitous “pave the planet” approach to development hasn’t been “healthy or climate-smart.” In fact, the approach make communities even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To increase safety, communities must instead create built environment systems that work in concert with natural systems. This is because “we are never going to tame Mother Nature.”
As an example, she said there is a great opportunity to design parks — and cities more broadly — to act like natural sponges that absorb stormwater. The great additional benefit of this green infrastructural approach: “It’s a much healthier system.”
But Somerville also called for better science and data-based models in order to optimize design interventions in cities. With more accurate data-based geographic models and maps, policymakers can understand where the worst urban heat islands are, the most flooding is, the areas most impacted by mudslides, and then create the most effective parks that solve those challenges. “The lack of modelling remains a key gap.”
In comments on the session, landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, CEO of Studio-MLA, noted that in dense cities, the only remaining spaces that can be turned into parks are brownfields. Remaking those contaminated spaces is a “complicated and expensive process” that requires expert landscape architects.
Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, senior vice president at The Trust for Public Land and former head of NYC Parks and Recreation, agreed, arguing that “landscape architects are system thinkers” who can help communities maximize park benefits.
Lehrer, Alpert, Somerville, and Walkinshaw saw further densification as a critical future challenge for cities. Walkinshaw said: “densification is the cause of most fights in cities, as it brings up racial, civil rights, public space, and climate issues.”
Alpert believes green public space in the ultra-dense mega-cities of the near-future may end up being dis-aggregated into networks of not only parks but also rooftops and terraces, wherever space is available.