With the Copenhagen summit taking place this week in Denmark, it’s a good time to highlight the merits of urban parks in combating global climate change. In fact, in a session this week there on reducing carbon through public transit, an official from Portland’s Tri-Met spoke of how cities need to be “places where people want to be” for transit to work. A session next Thursday will highlight efforts to create sustainable communities and another from the perspective of U.S. city mayors.
While there are some environmental benefits to more trees and green spaces, parks may have a more substantial effect on reducing the impact of the way we live through creating cities where people want to be – anchoring denser, more walkable communities that consume less energy and generate fewer greenhouse gases.
Several studies have shown that living in more compact settings can reduce emissions from transportation, with one indicating that vehicle miles traveled could be reduced per capita by up to 40 percent through better urban design. Researchers have also found that if 60 percent of new development were compact rather than sprawling, the reduction in U.S. carbon production would be around 10 percent.
Assuming this smarter growth pattern, there will be more apartments and townhouses and fewer, smaller private yards. The desire for more trees in the public realm will rise. Residents of yardless dwellings will be anxious to have green spaces and public places to relax, recreate and socialize outdoors. Transit facilities and use will increase, and pedestrian and bikers will want safe routes. For these and many other reasons there will be much more pressure for park systems that are beautiful, well-managed, nearby and accessible. As cities formulate plans to fight global warming, TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence has indicated that cities can consider the following with regard to park systems:
Distance to a park. To reduce reliance on the automobile, parks need to be within walking distance of homes and offices, and accessible through the street grid. Cities can set tight standards for distance to a park and work to meet those goals.
Trails. Cities can bring larger parks “to” people by building trail connections and improving bicycle infrastructure. (A cyclist can cover about four times the distance of a walker in the same time, using less energy.) A trail network tremendously increases the reach and efficiency of a park and can also be used by energy-saving bicycle commuters. This can include extensive trail systems as in Minneapolis or in projects such as New Orleans’ Lafitte Corridor.
Strategically locating parks. Cities can create parks where high-density infill development is likely to occur, notably near transit stations and important bus stops. St. Paul’s Wacouta Commons or Portland’s Pearl District both come to mind.
Finding places for more parks. To find space for parks in densifying neighborhoods, cities need to be maximally innovative. This can include sharing school yards, reclaiming brownfields and vacant waterfronts, using abandoned rail lines and railyards, daylighting streams, decking over freeways, building rooftop parks, and mandating the set aside of parkland by planned-unit developers. TPL’s New York City playgrounds program provides a good example of this.
Retrofitting existing facilities. Cities already have a vast amount of property that can be altered for park and park-like use – closing or narrowing streets for trails, creating or upgrading boulevards, adding community gardens on vacant lots, and eliminating or consolidating parking lots. And many parks themselves can be radically improved in design, use and functionality.
In a NBC Today Show piece on how cities can help reduce carbon emissions, CEO for Cities head Carol Coletta notes that “Real urbanism is about living close together with an emphasis on public space…. People who live in cities are trading private space for public space, they’re trading the backyard for park space. If cities don’t make that trade a good one, they’re going to be at a disadvantage for getting people to live near each other.”