Feb 26 2014

Urban green spaces as socially sustainable places

Meredith WhittenMeredith Whitten, LSE PhD candidate in Regional and Urban Planning, compares two very different urban parks – London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and Gezi Park in Istanbul – to make the case that publicly accessible green space is vital to sustain the livability of our increasingly dense cities. 

The opportunity to get out in nature alongside other people is one of the strongest aspects that publicly accessible urban green spaces contribute to a sustainable city. While green spaces provide opportunities to participate in sport and leisure activities, to commune with nature and wildlife, and to increase property values and investment, they also have a significant impact on the social sustainability of cities. However, the social dimension of green spaces – particularly in dense urban environments – is largely overlooked.

Research that does address social aspects of green spaces has focused on the role urban green spaces play in social interaction and inclusion, cultural identity, and community development. Such social purposes are essential for the livability of cities, as Chiesura (2004) notes that “developing more sustainable cities is not just about improving the abiotic and biotic aspects of urban life, it is also about the social aspects of city life…” (see “The role of urban parks for the sustainable city” in Landscape and Urban Planning, 68).

Two green spaces that have been in the news recently illustrate urban green spaces’ contributions to the sustainable city. Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London is a newly created urban park, while Gezi Park in Istanbul is a well-established urban green space. The two spaces may differ in many ways, but they both show the importance of green spaces for the social fabric of a city.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London  

Winning an Olympic bid depends, in part, on what a host city envisions as a legacy. At the time London secured the Olympics in 2005, the parkland at the proposed Olympic site in East London was derelict and had become a dumping ground for domestic and industrial waste. Potential habitat was polluted. The local area experienced the highest concentration of socioeconomic disadvantage in the UK and local people had a much lower quality of life than an average Londoner. Before creation of the park, a quarter of the land (1,464 ha) within 3.2 km of the park was deficient in access to nature, which is a key indicator of quality of life. Social conditions such as poverty and social exclusion can have a serious effect on people’s health.

The creation of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (QEOP), located where the Olympic village and several venues once stood, is key to London’s Olympic legacy. The park has more than 100 hectares of metropolitan open land and 45 hectares of biodiverse parkland. It will help reduce the area that is deficient in access to nature and will be accessible to the more than 10,000 housing units planned to be built over the next 20 years.

Transforming the Olympic site into the park is meant to be the catalyst for regenerating the area. This includes promoting equality and inclusion in the long-term. As the London Legacy Development Corporation (LDC) notes in its Equality and Inclusion policy for QEOP: “For the Park to become a sustainable and successful neighbourhood, that supports the economic development of the surrounding boroughs, it must offer opportunities and benefits to people of all backgrounds and mixed incomes.”

While QEOP will likely be a destination park in the same vein as the Royal Parks – an estimated 9 million visitors from well beyond London’s and the UK’s borders will visit the park each year – its impact on social sustainability will be more significantly felt on local residents and workers.

Research by Dunnett, Swanwick and Woolley (2002) found that local residents often identify green spaces as the centre of their community (see Improving Urban Parks, Play Areas and Green Spaces). By using outdoor spaces to formally and informally bring together people from a variety of cultures, ages, ethnicities and classes, urban green spaces increase social integration and interaction among local residents. Such spaces encourage a diverse range of uses – some of which stem from culture – and serve as “neutral ground,” according to Swanwick, Dunnett and Woolley (see “Nature, Role and Value of Green Space in Towns and Cities: An Overview,” in Built Environment, 2002, 29(2)). Open, accessible green spaces are essential for local people to maintain cultural identity and build social ties. As the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers maintained, “[open space] plays a significant role in the development of a community and in the creation of community pride and so helps reduce the inherent tension and conflict in deprived parts of urban areas” (see recommendation (86) 11 on urban open space).

While the impact of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on local social sustainability has yet to be proven, the well-established Gezi Park inside Taksim Square in Istanbul demonstrates how urban green space provides a centre for community space.

Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul

As a rare urban green space in the city centre of Istanbul, the nine-acre Gezi Park was created in the 1940s, a result of French urban planner Henri Prost’s master plan for Istanbul. Before that, the site had a long history that included military barracks, football matches and rebellions. Filled with sycamore trees, the urban green space that has existed for 70 years – albeit with some changes – has provided Istanbul residents and visitors with a respite from a densely developed urban core.

The unassuming green space was thrust into global news in May 2013, when a group of environmental protestors sought to save Gezi Park from government-backed plans to redevelop the park with a shopping mall and residences. The protests quickly escalated, turning violent and resulting in several deaths.

While the initial protest may have been sparked by the loss of public green space, it ignited intense demonstrations that spanned much broader issues than the physical loss of green infrastructure. Ultimately, the protests were about broader issues, including authoritarian government, urban development, war in Syria and even a ban on kissing in public. The Guardian quoted Ugur Tanyeli, an architecture historian, as saying, “The real problem is not Taksim, and not the park, but the lack of any form of democratic decision-making process and the utter lack of consensus” (see www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/31/istanbul-protesters-violent-clashes-police). Meanwhile, an Al Jazeera reporter in Istanbul noted that “The protesters are saying that this is not about trees anymore” (see www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/06/20136162539347599.html).

Yet, although the protests may have grown larger than efforts to save a park, the importance of that park from a social sustainability purpose should not be lost. Gezi Park, like other green spaces in cities around the world, serves as a social space for the community. The protests themselves demonstrate the use of such spaces as communal places. Green spaces do not just occupy a physical space that we can measure in hectares, number of trees or number of users. More significantly, publicly accessible urban green spaces provide a social sphere, where people can gather and interact. This is magnified in a dense, urban environment. To me, that the protests about larger societal, environmental and political issues played out in an urban green space is symbolic.

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Of course, a green space is not a panacea. Simply building a green space does not mean that people will use the space or that it will erase divisiveness and unequivocally create harmony. Indeed, despite the ability of urban green spaces to promote a multicultural society, green spaces are more abundant in wealthier suburbs than in urban centres and, thus, they actually can reflect segregation that exists within a city. Issues surrounding gentrification, displacement and regeneration can arise. These and other potentially negative ramifications of urban green space will be addressed in an upcoming post.

Yet, as cities, from London to Istanbul and beyond become more urbanised and densely developed, the presence of publicly accessible green space in the urban core grows more vital in providing people opportunities to interact in a common space. We are richer – and our urban areas more socially sustainable – for it.

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2 Responses to Urban green spaces as socially sustainable places

  1. Pingback: Green Waverley: Research supports a green space for diverse uses | Empowering Monash & YOU

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