Parks, in Need of a New Metaphor

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Responding to the sanitary and air quality conditions of cities in the late 19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted spoke of parks as “the lungs of the city”. This metaphor was meant to convey the importance of having large green areas where people could breathe fresh air and escape from their polluted city.

The metaphor has been expanded to illuminate the provision trees provide through respiration: the tacit relationship between air quality and our physical health. A metaphor is an effective tool to raise awareness, and the “lungs of the city” has been an effective one. But perhaps now it’s necessary to update the metaphor to better capture the totality of parks' role in our urban milieu.

Rather than lungs of natural vegetation dispersed throughout a developed city, we can look at these fragments within a whole and ask how might these constituent elements be connected to advantage the total ecological system. To put it simply, we need to recognize that successful ecological function within an urban environment can be attributed to the quality and physical amount of green areas and the number of connections between them.

As ecologist Aldo Leopold put forward in a 1939 speech, we need to recognize conservation within a system – “the biota as a whole” – and move away from discrete elements that sustain “what we now call ecosystem health and resilience”.[i]  It’s paramount that we see the array of urban parks as a system rather than dispersed land use parcels, as what continues to dominate contemporary land use planning.

This systems approach was captured in The City of Calgary’s Parks 1994 Natural Area Management Plan: “a systems approach [to natural areas planning and management] reduces the risk of habitat deterioration associated with small individual habitats.” If implemented, systems planning and development would help ensure the overall health of Calgary’s natural systems.

When ecological areas are connected, they are higher functioning in terms of biological processes, which are already anemic in the balance between conservation and urban development. Even when natural areas are conserved, the boundary condition between soil and asphalt – to be simplistic – is going to have an impact on adjacent biological processes. Thus instead of isolated lungs dispersed throughout a city, these areas must be seen as a system that is foundational to our social, environmental and economic success in urban living.

Perhaps we need to update the human body metaphor to better reflect this total system. We know that without a stable and healthy urban ecology our survival in cities would be a meager one. As Olmsted recognized, parks as a place of reprieve helps enable our personal health and wellbeing. They also provide us with food and fresh water; they regulate local climate and mitigate extreme weather events; they also provide an aesthetic experience connecting us to ourselves and each other. These are but some of the numerous provisions, regulations and experiences that parks give us.

Broadening our understanding of the true necessity of having an interconnected urban parks system – and having a metaphor representative of this multitude – will only further remind us of the fundamental importance of proactive parks planning and management in city development; for once an organ is removed from its system, returning to normal levels of physical activity might be an impossibility.

Steven Snell is a parks policy planner for the City of Calgary. The views expressed are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @stevenpsnell

[i] Meine, C. “Conservation biology: past and present” in Conservation Biology for All. 2010, Oxford University Press.

Steven Snell is a professional urban planner and novelist with a master’s degree in urban design. Opinions here are his own.

Comments

Comments

Parks

Love your part of the world...

I would turn your argument a bit to get a win over the course of your career on this subject and I would use one of the world’s best bits of super fragmented open space as the heart of it. Use Cetral Park to produce the law, policy ad political will to firmly establish the principal of unfragmented open space. This is from a piece I wrote about NYC’s open space.

"The Central Park Conservancy (CPC) once had a “bill board” style advertisement by the park’s entrances that read, “We have 26,000 trees, and none of them grow money”. While advertisements at park entrances are controversial in their own right and banned within them, the revenue from Central Park’s real estate partners at its perimeter and internal commercial venues is vast, yet private funds fail to meet the charitable purposes of the conservancy as it works diligently to-- stretch the public purse. The Central Park Conservancy estimates that 25 Million people visit each year. What they find is 843 acres or 6% of Manhattan's total area. Of this 150 acres are water, 104 acres of which is the Old Croton Reservoir, surrounded by 250 acres of lawns graced by 136 acres of woodlands with 26,000 trees, including 1,700 American Elms that support 275 species of migratory birds. Central Park receives routine awards for being a fine example of a extremely well maintained park."

Now, if you understand the above you’ll be able to add a vast set of logical conclusions in support of your argument. For example, the trouble with a well maintained park is that it has to be “maintained”. Every square foot of a fragmented park area is surrounded by urban forms and whenever funds are tight maintenance resources are the first to be cut. Or that the apex predator in this environment is a falcon and if a fox shows up we have to hunt, trap or kill it. A park is a dog you can’t wag. The wilderness on the other hand as a force against "the city” that should be stopped in its tracks and allowed to be dense – on this point we might have something. We may have to let parks be parks, but at some point we must draw a line in the sand -- otherwise parks is all we'll have.

By the way the "lungs" idea came out of Glasgow, Scotland along with the massive tenant's strike demanding improved housing conditions and the replacement of coal and the main heating fuel. Thus the connection to Frederick on the health point, but his major argument in funding CP was built on the projected rise in property value and that of all things, this is the greatest threat to the wild and to diversity.

Parks

Love your part of the world...

I would turn your argument a bit to get a win over the course of your career on this subject and I would use one of the world’s best bits of super fragmented open space as the heart of it. Use Cetral Park to produce the law, policy ad political will to firmly establish the principal of unfragmented open space. This is from a piece I wrote about NYC’s open space.

"The Central Park Conservancy (CPC) once had a “bill board” style advertisement by the park’s entrances that read, “We have 26,000 trees, and none of them grow money”. While advertisements at park entrances are controversial in their own right and banned within them, the revenue from Central Park’s real estate partners at its perimeter and internal commercial venues is vast, yet private funds fail to meet the charitable purposes of the conservancy as it works diligently to-- stretch the public purse. The Central Park Conservancy estimates that 25 Million people visit each year. What they find is 843 acres or 6% of Manhattan's total area. Of this 150 acres are water, 104 acres of which is the Old Croton Reservoir, surrounded by 250 acres of lawns graced by 136 acres of woodlands with 26,000 trees, including 1,700 American Elms that support 275 species of migratory birds. Central Park receives routine awards for being a fine example of a extremely well maintained park."

Now, if you understand the above you’ll be able to add a vast set of logical conclusions in support of your argument. For example, the trouble with a well maintained park is that it has to be “maintained”. Every square foot of a fragmented park area is surrounded by urban forms and whenever funds are tight maintenance resources are the first to be cut. Or that the apex predator in this environment is a falcon and if a fox shows up we have to hunt, trap or kill it. A park is a dog you can’t wag. The wilderness on the other hand as a force against "the city” that should be stopped in its tracks and allowed to be dense – on this point we might have something. We may have to let parks be parks, but at some point we must draw a line in the sand -- otherwise parks is all we'll have.

By the way the "lungs" idea came out of Glasgow, Scotland along with the massive tenant's strike demanding improved housing conditions and the replacement of coal and the main heating fuel. Thus the connection to Frederick on the health point, but his major argument in funding CP was built on the projected rise in property value and that of all things, this is the greatest threat to the wild and to diversity.

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