Parks and Sustainable Places

   I promised to write this post quite some time ago for Marilyn Rodgers, who is a vigorous advocate for Johnson Park in Buffalo, New York... and for the countless legion of advocates like her that support parks and other civic space around the world. Parks, it turns out, are a key factor in the building of sustainable places... and not just for the reasons you normally think of. Parks actually support several of the foundations of sustainable places, and could potentially support all of them.


   One of the essentials of Frugality is the preservation of human health. Parks have long been known for their restorative effect upon the human mind and spirit due to the ability to immerse oneself in nature, even if you live in a very urban place nearby. There is a massive body of literature written over the past several centuries that documents this effect that is far beyond the scope of this blog to document.

   Another well-known aspect of parks is their ability to host human physical fitness activities. Walking, running, biking, rollerblading, and skateboarding are naturals in a park, and occur frequently in every good park. Organized sports frequently find their homes in parks, especially if they can be played without heavy equipment in an open field, such as pick-up games of football (European and American), baseball, and softball. Sports that require a setting beyond the field, such as basketball, tennis, and swimming can find their homes here, too. But these things are well-known, and support one aspect of sustainability: the conservation of human wellness that is a part of Frugality. Here are some other ways that parks help to create a sustainable place:


   Accessible Places must be walkable first of all, and then bikeable. But what are you accessing? If you don’t have somewhere to go, then you’re much less likely to open the door. And walkability thrives on numbers. If nobody else is out, then a walk through deserted streets is much less interesting than if you know you’ll see other people along the way. Walking to a shop is good, but we don’t always need to buy something every day. And walking to work is good, but you pass each way only once a day. But a nearby park calls you quietly throughout the day; whenever I’ve lived or worked near a park, I’ve frequently found myself there more than once a day... clearing my mind at work, brown-bagging lunch, relaxing at the end of the day, or running early in the evening. So a park arguably gets more people out onto neighborhood streets throughout the day than almost any other single destination. In other words, it creates more walkers and therefore more interesting streets to walk on than almost any other use.

   Serviceable Places are those where you can get all the daily necessities of life within walking distance. But what are the daily necessities of life? The corner grocery, the coffee shop, the bank, the hardware store and the pharmacy all come to mind... but how about contact with nature? And physical fitness? Most New Urbanists agree that the categories of “Live Work Shop Learn Play” or some similar arrangement constitute categories of daily necessities. And what better place to play than in the park?

   Securable Places are those where you don’t live with undue fear for your life or safety, that of your family, or the safety of your possessions. Poorly-monitored parks over the past forty years have a reputation of insecurity... Central Park in New York in the 1970s was a scary place. But if they are properly monitored, parks can have exactly the opposite effect. A strong community is almost always more secure than a weak one. Strong communities begin with people getting to know each other; you cannot have a strong community made up of total strangers. The design of front porches and sidewalks can play a big role in introducing people, as I detailed here. But this generally happens only two people at a time. Parks perform introductions on a larger scale, because there are more people in a park than on a residential sidewalk.

   Parks play another role in enhancing the security of a place. It is common knowledge that the most secure streets are those with the most pedestrians. So by enticing people to walk to the park, the park enhances the security of every street that leads toward it.

   Parks can support all four foundations of sustainable places if at least a portion of their plantings are edible. Nourishable Places are those where you can look out onto the fields and onto the waters from which much of your food comes. The most obvious way for parks to contribute to being a Nourishing Place is by planting fruit and nut trees instead of just ornamentals. Anyone could eat from the trees, since the park is accessible to all. Grape, scuppernong, or muscadine vines could also be included as part of the landscape, as could other perennials such as berry bushes. Vegetable beds work less well on two counts: They take up space that could otherwise be used for communal activities. Also, because they require regular work during the growing season, the people who do the work rightfully feel like the produce should be theirs, but it’s likely to be picked by anyone who happens to be walking by at the time.

   There is, however, another model: the British countryside is laced with a network of paths through fields and farms. As best as I can tell by simply traveling there (I’ve done no research on this) anyone is invited into the agricultural land so long as they walk there but do no harm. If anyone knows more details of the British system, please post comments here. But in any case, this ought to be conceived as another method for putting people in touch with nature (of the agricultural sort, in this case.) It does not replace a park in the center of a neighborhood; rather, it’s how you immerse yourself in nature at the edge of town.

~ Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013