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Why Parks are Essential for Greener, Healthier Cities

2014-05-01, Feature, by Richard J. Dolesh

NRPA speaks with urban parks and planning expert Kaid Benfield on the many ways parks can improve the cities they are in.Kaid Benfield, special counsel for urban solutions for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., is one of the nation’s leading authorities on urban affairs, smart growth and green urbanism. He is an internationally known author who has written a number of books on urban matters, and he is a blogger and prolific writer on how cities can become smarter, how land development can be greener, and how environmental and social challenges can be met by forward-thinking solutions. He is a founder and board member of Smart Growth America and was a co-founder of LEED for Neighborhood Development under the U.S. Green Building Council. In 2013, he was named “one of the top 100 city innovators worldwide” by Future Cities.

Benfield is respected as both an environmentalist and as an urbanist, which is not a usual juxtaposition of expertise. As one of the foremost national experts on smart growth, he is a proponent of cities with dense urban cores, mixed-use urban development, transit-friendly communities and compactly designed development. But he is equally a proponent of ensuring that nature and green spaces remain an integral part of cities, and in fact believes that cities cannot not have smart growth without including nature. Benfield writes eloquently about the challenges of creating highly livable and sustainable urban metropolitan areas, and he has become a favorite author of those working to make parks and green spaces an integral part of vibrant sustainable cities. 

Benfield’s new book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think about Greener, Healthier Cities, is a compilation of essays about the way we need to think about cities — ways that make them livable, enjoyable and functional. He says that this book is about “how real cities might reach our best aspirations for them as habitat for people.” Benfield deconstructs complex urban problems and offers simple, lucid ways to solve seemingly intractable problems that make finding solutions so difficult. He speaks movingly about the “great urban experience,” but he backs up his lyrical musings with evidence that make his conclusions unshakeable. He is an advocate for nature even in the densest of highly developed urban areas, and he is convinced that nature and green space are essential to quality of life in cities.

Reviewers have heaped praise on People Habitat. Richard Florida, editor at large of The Atlantic Cities, says “People Habitat promises to give us 25 ways to look at greener, healthier cities, but as anyone who has read one of Kaid Benfield’s books, articles or blog posts knows, he delivers at least that many insights on every page.” Parris Glendening, former governor of the State of Maryland, says, “Kaid Benfield’s writings about the shape and strength of our communities constantly challenge readers to think about issues and problems in new ways. He correctly reminds us that ‘green’ is not always green, ‘sustainable’ is often not and ‘smart growth’ is more than a tag to be hung on a new project like a sales ticket.” Stephen Mouzon, president of the New Urban Guild and author of The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability, says “Kaid Benfield distills the true essence of a broad range of city-building skills and sustainability issues more often and more capably almost anyone I have ever read. “

This writer caught up with Benfield for an interview shortly after the NRPA/American Planning Association Roundtable on “The Role of Parks in Shaping Successful Cities,” which he attended along with the planning directors and parks directors of nine of the nation’s largest cities. More on this event will be published in the June issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine.

Richard Dolesh: Why did you choose the title People Habitat for your most recent book?

Kaid Benfield: I think people come first, and if solutions don’t work for people, they are never going to work for the planet or the economy. Having the word “people” in the title was important to me, but so was having the word “habitat.” I think you can make an analogy to the natural environment. The things we build for people — our homes, our communities, our cities — are our habitat just like natural systems are habitat for wildlife. These two types of systems work best when they are in balance with each other. To me, the title People Habitat captured this perfectly — the need to focus on ecological balance as well as the type of balance we need to maintain in our cities. 

Dolesh: In the book, you speak of the need for “green urbanism.” What do you mean by this?  

Benfield: The term “urbanism” comes from planning. “Green urbanism” indicates a philosophy of walkability and a mix of uses, densities and other components that contribute to making up a community presented in a way that is friendly to humans and the natural environment. I think cities need to be green — urbanism by itself is not enough, and green technology by itself is not enough. I think that only if we combine the two can we have something that approaches the sustainability that we need to carry ourselves into the future.

Dolesh: In one of the essays in People Habitat, you state that it is critical that we incorporate nature into our cities, but you also say it is critical that we do so in a way that supports urbanity rather than replaces it. What do you mean by this?

Benfield: I think that in order to preserve wilderness, our working rural lands and natural resources outside of cities — which is so terribly important, because we have trashed our landscapes with sprawl during the past several decades — I think we really need cities. I also think we need cities to be relatively compact, and that communities need to be connected and be walkable, and that helps to make good people habitat. 

I think that sometimes that if we don’t think of nature in the city as being part of the city, then we can interfere with what makes the city work — parks not being in the right place, connections being broken. We need parks in the right places. But in order to be good stewards of nature, we need cities to be cities. We do need cities to have nature in them. That is the way we are wired — [nature] soothes us and nourishes us in so many ways. We cannot leave nature out of our cities and have the same kind of experience if it is not present. But we need to remember that we need cities to be accessible and walkable — they are places of commerce and diversity. We want nature to fit in along with all the other pieces that have to fit in.

Dolesh: You frequently reference the principles of smart growth in your book and in this conversation, and we appreciate your point of view that smart growth must proceed from a consideration of where green space and parks should be located, not as an afterthought after all development is completed. Many cities are now adopting design principles and master-plan concepts that call for creating parks and publicly accessible open spaces to be within one-quarter mile or one-half mile of where people live. Do you agree this is an important planning concept?

Benfield: Walkability is important! It’s not just to parks, either; it’s walkability to all destinations. I have a friend who says, “If you need a parking lot, the park is not in the right place.” I am not sure I would go quite that far, because there are times and places you need to drive to parks, but I think there is a lot to be said for putting the park in the right place, and not just on a piece of leftover land that you were able to acquire because it was available. I think that integrating parks into our urban fabric is something that can only be done when the vision for both the parks and the rest of the urban fabric are conceived at the same time. 

I happen to like my car a lot, but I don’t get the same things out of driving my car that I get from walking in parks. Research shows the many benefits of walking in nature — yes, just walking in nature produces all kinds of benefits. This goes to the heart of what NRPA’s pillars are all about — conservation, health [and wellness], and social equity. The more active we are, the healthier we are. Parks make it possible for all. In fact, I think that providing public parks is one of the most important functions that government does.

Dolesh: We sometimes now refer to urban metropolitan areas that are highly desirable places to live and work as “smart cities.” These are cities that have great transportation networks and numerous transportation alternatives; they have high-speed communications networks that are equitably distributed; they have diverse communities that are connected to each other; and they especially have highly attractive public spaces. Such cities and urban metropolitan areas embody smart-growth concepts. Why do you feel that quality parks are essential to smart cities?

Benfield: Part of the answer to the question of why parks are essential is to support density. Making cities work efficiently and reliably takes a certain amount of density. In order for that density to work, you must have nature present. Nature makes people more accepting of some urban features that they would otherwise find less pleasant. Nature makes cities more attractive. 

We need parks to make these densely developed places reasonable, attractive and even lovable. As I said, I think it is very important to integrate nature and open space into our cities, and it is a given that you need a very broad definition of what constitutes a “park.”

If we don’t get control of sprawl and get a handle on a more compact way of doing cities, if we don’t get back to an urban form that works, my belief is that we won’t have sustainable cities. 

Dolesh: One of the most promising innovations in cities and metropolitan areas is the trend to look for new ways to deal with stormwater management — that is, the idea of using “green infrastructure” to replace gray infrastructure. The City of Philadelphia, for example, is now putting up approximately $100,000 for every “greened acre” that temporarily stores and releases stormwater and runoff. The Parks and Recreation Department has been an active partner with the Water Department and is improving park and recreation areas across the city with stormwater management funding. 

One of the speakers at the APA/NRPA Roundtable, Michael Van Valkenburgh, the noted landscape architect, described how old forms of stormwater management structures were often ugly and hidden from view. People didn’t even want to know about them. He says that now, new methods of treating runoff with green infrastructure solutions that emphasize natural processes are attractive and much-appreciated by people. Communities highly desire these benefits from nature and the reductions in cost and value they bring. You have been a big proponent of green infrastructure solutions for cities in your writings. Why do you think it is important for cities to move toward green infrastructure approaches to stormwater management?

Benfield: I think the visibility green infrastructure [brings] is really important. It is another way of bringing nature into our urban environments that would otherwise be concrete. It is also very functional and can save significant amounts of money over gray infrastructure if done correctly. And it just seems to me that it is a very creative field. To me, it’s very exciting. Even 10 years ago, people were not talking about green infrastructure in the way they are now. I am not sure that we even know yet all the ways we can make this soft technology improve our lives, the environment and our people habitat. Again, I think it needs to be supportive of density and urbanity, and we have to be careful of how we locate it, but this is an exciting time for cities in this regard.

Dolesh: At NRPA, we continually look at the long-term economic viability of public parks and recreation and how parks will be funded in the future. There are many problems that may prevent funding the kinds of parks that you would like to see in cities of the future — steadily diminishing financial support from general funds, greater pressure to raise funds from fees and charges, and increased reliance on public-private partnerships to pay for public parks are just a few of the issues. What do you think are some of the keys to long-term sustainability and viability of public parks? 

Benfield: We had an interesting discussion during the Roundtable about multifunctional public spaces, not just parks. I do think this is the way that urban thinkers as well as natural systems thinkers are going in the future. The Project for Public Spaces says that “every piece of public land ought to have at least 10 uses.” This is an important concept for parks. You just illustrated this principle coming from the conservation community about generating nontraditional funds for parks from green infrastructure, perhaps for more practical reasons, namely to get things paid for. But in a larger sense, I think this is just a really healthy way to look at how to go forward, to look for multifunctional spaces and make use of them, and look for ways to use green space to pay for it. It goes back to the idea of there being an ecological relationship and everything needing to be in balance. Landscapes need to be functional whether we recognize that value or not. We need to recognize this benefit and optimize it. I believe this is the way to go forward.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks. 

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