Green acres can make a city the place to be
Last July 5, 2007
By Sabrina Saccoccio, CBC News
At one Toronto park, you can check your e-mail. Besides Wi-Fi throughout, there's also regular dancing, Friday night suppers and you can bake bread in wood-fired ovens using techniques and recipes from a park website.
Dufferin Grove Park is smack in the city's core, across from a mall and near Little Italy's shops. The city maintains the grounds, but "friends" of the park help organize the many unusual activities.
The park also has all the regular amenities, like cool air, a wading pool and lots of shade under trees.
Those three ingredients were part of the original "recipe for creating good parks," according to Raphael Fischler, a McGill University associate professor in the school of urban planning.
An expert in city planning history, Fischler says parks originated in the industrial revolution.
"They were a reaction to the ills and evils of the industrial city," Raphael explained.
Parks were an urban response to pollution from coal-burning homes and industries, he said.
"Cities were very hectic and very ugly, on average. The park was seen as a 'green lung' to let people breathe more freely and to bring them nature."
A parks movement began around the mid-1800s, in an attempt to redesign cities to better accommodate new pollution-spewing inhabitants. The early parks could look forced; sometimes artificial rock formations were brought in for a picturesque appearance and mature trees were used to give a sense of permanence.
At the forefront of the parks movement was Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect famous for designing New York's Central Park and the landscaping around the United States Capitol building.
Olmstead believed green space should be accessible to all citizens; he was a proponent of the "public park" as an oasis for rich and poor residents alike, who all suffered from air pollution and the trials of the concrete jungle.
One of the ideas associated with the parks movement is still visible in cities such as New York, Toronto and Chicago: Build one large park, plus lots of smaller, connecting spaces throughout the city.
Urban activist Jane Jacobs lobbied for such planning. She thought urban life would be improved if cities had large parks accessible by transit and smaller ones in neighbourhoods that were open gathering places, rather than fenced-in areas with monuments.
The theory was people would use the parks to walk to their destinations, which would make the city experience more liveable.
Walking, cycling tied to green space
A recent study supported that theory, and showed it's still working today.
In cities with the largest amounts of green space, people listed walking and bicycling as their most frequent modes of transportation, said an American study conducted by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist Amy Zlot and co-author Tom Schmid.
The two said the number of route choices a community provides tends to be indicative of whether people walk or bike.
The study ranked San Francisco first among U.S. cities for total park space and also found it was the city with the most people walking or bicycling for recreation. San Francisco had the highest percentage of the city's area devoted to parks in the country. The port city's Golden Gate National Recreation Area covers 305 square kilometres of land and water along 45 kilometres of coastline.
New York City had the third highest percentage of parkland, ranked just below Washington, D.C. New York also counted the most people cycling and walking for basic transportation.
San Jose had the smallest amount of park space.
Atlanta, which had the lowest percentage of recreational walkers and cyclists, came in second last.
But people in Atlanta were more physically active than their suburban counterparts, who almost always used cars to pop out to the store.
Stanley Park boasts 400 hectares
In Canada, Vancouver has a high percentage of parks compared to other urban centres. The city's 200 green spaces cover a total of 1,300 hectares — 11 per cent of the total land mass. Stanley Park alone covers about 400 hectares, including hiking trails, beaches and an 8.8 km seawall.
Calgary, known for its gas-guzzling SUVs, has a large amount of park space, including Nose Hill and Fish Creek parks. And there's more to come. Last year, Alberta rancher and philanthropist Neil Harvey donated an $80-million tract of land to the city on the condition that it wouldn’t be developed.
Ottawa, Canada's fourth-largest city with a population of more than 750,000, has about eight hectares of parkland for every 1,000 residents.
Montrealers don't fare as well, with just 1.2 hectares per 1,000 people, and a population of more than 1.6 million.
Toronto has just 3.24 hectares of green spaces for every 1,000 people. For years, Canada's largest city has been criticized for not developing its Lake Ontario waterfront, the way Chicago developed its waterfront earlier this century.
Maintaining park space is expensive for cities. Developing a waterfront is even more costly because of underwater construction and replacing park amenities that degrade due to proximity to lake or saltwater.
Conversely, park spaces can give back to the city's pocketbook and to the environment.
A study conducted in Chicago found if the city planted 10 per cent more trees, energy used for heating and cooling would be reduced by nearly the same amount.
That city's Grant and Millennium parks have boosted tourism. The 25-acre Millennium Park borders Lake Michigan and is home to amenities such as a Frank Gehry-designed band shell.
The area's bordering neighbourhood has also woken up. It's become a residential district, with about $1.4 billion (US) in lake-area condominiums.
Vest pocket parks
Park space tends to be a modern North American and European idea. Japan has about six square metres of open green space per person, or 0.6 hectares per 1,000 people. London, the city with the most parks in the world, has 27 square metres per person — 2.7 hectares per 1,000 people — and about 4,000 hectares in total.
Athens is the one European exception, with only 0.25 hectares of parkland per person. The city suffered a serious blow recently when fire destroyed more than half of mount Parnitha National Park, just outside the city.
In Johannesburg, the city focuses on planting trees — there are 10 million, or three for every person — and preserving 4,500 hectares of koppies, or small hills, some of them left over from mining.
In North America, when stifled city dwellers have no other option, alternative park spaces pop up.
"Vest-pocket parks" can now be found in places like Brooklyn, and are usually converted parking lots or vacant industrial areas. Instead of bird noises, cars sounds provide a backdrop. They usually have grass and a park bench.
Fischler pointed out that vest-pocket parks and the general greening of cities are an extension of the parks movement.
"That is really about what we do on our streets. Do we have trees? Do we have front yards? Are people able to have community gardens?" he asked, calling for the creation of "more spaces where we can enjoy even more nature."