The Green City

How to build social cohesion in tomorrow’s cities? Parks are one answer. They offer opportunities for recreation and social interaction. New York City’s Central Park is one of the great achievements of urban planning. Now we need to find similar solutions for emerging metropolitan centers around the world.

How to build social cohesion in rapidly growing mega-cities? Build parks. This is not to say that the systems for transportation, water and air quality, energy, housing, education and the arts can be ignored, it is simply to say that parks must be considered essential infrastructure for successful cities. Parks are an essential, not optional, part of city development.

A walk in the park

The environmental effects of parks are well documented: they help cool the air, filter air pollutants, generate oxygen, and slow storm water drainage. They promote human health by being a respite from the traffic and noise, provide quiet areas for reflection and promote fitness and exercise. Parks are cultural integrators: they provide a place for people to come together in celebration and in sorrow (people flocked to New York’s parks after 9/11); they are a venue for cultural activities, and provide opportunities for commercial activity. Parks add value in any setting, and in some have been the dominant driver of real estate values: New York’s Central Park is surrounded by some of the most valuable real estate in the world. For almost its entire history as a city, parks have been one of New York City’s secrets of social cohesion. More than one-third of the 8.2 million people now living in New York City were not born in the United States. A walk in a park on the weekend becomes a walk through the world’s cultures.

But how to create parks in rapidly growing cities? New York’s historic and current policies point the way. From its early history, the political and social leadership of New York City realized that millions of people, increasingly packed together in dense housing and work environments, needed a place of respite. In 1850 as the city’s population was reaching its first half million (from 100,000 in 1811), civic leaders looked ahead and created Central Park out of what was a swamp and a city dump. It took over 20 years to build, but the 853 acre park is now the green heart of Manhattan. In 1890 the city boundaries were growing ever northward. City leaders, envisioning a total population of 8 or 9 million (New York’s current and projected population through 2030), acquired nearly five thousand acres for parks in what became the Bronx. Unlike Central Park, which had to be entirely built and landscaped, the great Bronx parks already had extensive ponds, waterfalls, groves of trees and shoreline, and some parts of the Bronx parks are managed as natural areas to this very day. Civic foresight in the 1890’s provided the 1.5 million residents of the Bronx in 2010 with a system of parks that is remarkable. What transformation in thinking would be required for the civil leadership of today’s and tomorrow’s mega cities to plan on a hundred year time span?

In cities yet to be built, creating the parks in advance of the people is critical. But what about cities that are already built? In 2007, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, addressed just this issue when he launched PlaNYC, a long-term sustainability plan for the city. PlaNYC identifies nearly 150 goals to make a “Greener, Greater New York” while envisioning a population increase of roughly 1,000,000 in the next 20 years. PlaNYC sets bold goals for efficient and sustainable use of land and water, improving the transportation system, reducing energy consumption, improving air quality, fighting global warming and dealing with the impact of climate change.

The audacity of PlaNYC

The overarching PlaNYC Open Space Goal is that every New Yorker lives within 10 minutes of a park. The city is on a park building trajectory unseen for half a century, building new waterfront parks on abandoned industrial piers, converting school yards to public playgrounds, upgrading regional parks in each borough, adding lighting and multi-purpose fields to extend access across seasons and in the night as well as day. One million trees will be planted in the next decade, every brownfield will be reclaimed, and incentives are being offered to “green” parking lots and roofs. By creating new parks, increasing access, and claiming non-traditional areas for parks, New York continues to demonstrate that great parks make a great city.

Read more in this debate: George Hazel, Saskia Sassen, Ross von Burg.

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