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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Using urban density to support parks, and vice versa

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 9, 2010

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  park in Plessis-Robinson, France (by: city of Plessis-Robinson)

Today’s title sounds a little counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  Using residential and commercial density to revitalize downtowns or bring people closer to rail transit stops makes sense.  But aren’t parks and trails supposed to be bucolic, the antithesis of urbanity?

Not necessarily.  Writing in the City Parks Blog, Ben Welle notes that parks and people need each other, and we need to bring them together:

“There is a symbiotic relationship between parks and population density. For those living in compact housing around a park’s borders, there is respite, a place to recreate, a back yard where little private outdoor space exists and an amenity that increases property values. For the park, there’s the “eyes” that make it safer, more property taxes to keep it maintained, nearby users to keep it vibrant and able to maximize its value as a public amenity.”

Ben is assistant director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, so he knows a thing or two about what makes parks work best.  London's Russell Square (by: jah_maya, creative commons license)In his post, Ben describes an initiative in Minneapolis that would upzone areas near a popular rail-trail as a revitalization strategy, which is of course part of the game plan in Indianapolis and Atlanta as well.

Ben made a similar point in a blog post from early last year, drawing from an article by Brad Broberg in the National Association of Realtors’ On Common Ground:

“Balancing the yin of green space against the yang of greater density is a cornerstone of smart growth.

“Smart growth encourages compact development as an antidote to sprawl. Preserving green space is part and parcel to that approach. The green space makes the density more palatable and the density makes the green space more desirable.”

While many of us – including myself – love remote wilderness and natural areas, few of us want our city parks to be empty.  When Nos Quedamos was allowed to plan Melrose Commons in the South Bronx, for example, one of their most important changes from the unpopular original city plan was to eliminate a large centrally located park area and, instead, redistribute the green space in smaller parcels around the neighborhood, precisely so there would not be vast areas without frequent activity.

Props to Ben for bringing the topic back up.  It's an important one.

(Cross-posted on the National Housing Institute's Rooflines.)

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.


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Randy A. SimesMar 9 2010 11:32 AM

Definitely not counterintuitive. Great urban density helps make for great parks and open spaces.

Ben WelleMar 9 2010 02:20 PM

Thanks for the post, Kaid. We think a lot about density and parks over here, and think its something that needs more attention. Props to you for bringing it up, and mentioning Melrose Commons, too.

Calvin ThigpenMar 9 2010 03:12 PM

Definitely important and very relevant, but kind of crazy how this was something Jane Jacobs discussed 4 decades ago, and yet it still comes across as a novel idea because it hasn't been fully implemented.

T. CaineMar 12 2010 11:06 PM

Absolutely, right on. Urban parks are also expanding beyond the Beaux Arts definition of perceptually removing people from the city into smaller manifestations of natural serenity (like say Central Park.)

Urban parks are becoming dynamic spaces, often creatively constructed from residual acreage in order to provide an opportunity for green space and recreation. Perhaps the best example of this is the High Line in NYC. Though devoid of green lawns and ponds and fountains, the snaking, elevated path is packed with residents everyday that welcome the journey from street level to views of the city amidst native plantings.

Density helps create these spatial artifacts that designers can turn into unique, iconic places. In turn, people can associate these works with individual cities rather than generic renditions of pastoral settings that many places have.

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