Creating a greener 21st century city

We often wax poetic about urban parks as areas of nature in our cities, but it’s interesting to note that some urban parks are not actually the best representation of the natural landscapes of their city, sometimes burying—literally in the case of urban streams—the features and particularities of the landscape upon which they’re built.

I don’t mean these parks are made of plastic trees and AstroTurf, but the central feature of many parks is lawns of mowed grass, hardly a naturally occurring landscape in many of our environments, and gardens planted with non-native (but pretty flowers) that require a lot of water and care.

Is there a better way for our parks to contribute to more sustainable, resilient cities, especially as stresses on our natural environment increase through growing density, population, and the unpredictable threats of climate change?

Green City, a paper written by University of Calgary landscape architecture professor Bev Sandalack for Park People’s Heart of the City Conference, is a great launching pad for this discussion. Part history of park development, part manifesto, Sandalack proposes a new way of planning and designing our park systems as deep ecological infrastructure.

Creating this higher focus means we need to re-prioritize investments, placing parks and public spaces, as the landscape of our cities, at the very base upon which everything else must be built and organized. We need to reintegrate parks into our natural systems, Bev writes, planning and designing them not as lawns plunked down in the urban fabric, but as part of an interconnected natural system.

Doing so can connect us in a more visible way to our own city’s particular natural landscape, vegetation, climate, and topography. But it also better positions our cities for a future that will be determined by our ability to adapt to climate change by reinforcing and enhancing natural systems that perform functions such as stormwater management, habitat creation, heat reduction, air purification, and more.

This doesn’t mean of course that we should seed every lawn in our parks with wildflowers and native grasses—we need lawns for lounging, social events, and sports after all—but it does mean prioritizing a more intentional, integrated approach to park (and city) planning that takes an ecological systems view and works across our cities departmental silos.

Putting A New Approach into Practice

Bev points to Toronto’s new Ravine Strategy—the first ever for the city—which lays out a framework for how the city’s vast network of ravines can be better protected, enhanced, and enjoyed in the face of all the challenges that come with being sensitive natural environments squeezed from the big city around it. The Ravine Strategy takes a holistic rather than siloed approach to revitalizing ravines involving input from staff from city planning, parks, recreation, economic development, and water.

Similarly, but on a smaller scale, Toronto’s Green Streets pilot program, has transformed several under-used portions of roadway into small green spaces. These spaces offer places for community members to gather, but also contain stormwater management infrastructure. This layering of benefits—safer roads, community green space, stormwater infrastructure—is the key to a smarter, climate resilient city. Plus, it unlocks potential new funding for green spaces through funding from municipal water departments which collect water and sometimes stormwater fees. Zooming out, you could see how this program could be a way to celebrate and make visible the city’s buried streams or targeted for areas that are at risk for flooding.

Understanding and prioritizing investments in parks and park systems as infrastructure is critical, especially in an era of increasing extreme climate events including droughts, flash floods, ice storms, and more. If past eras of park development were based on creating islands of nature in the city or places for people to recreate, this new era must be predicated on integrating natural systems at the foundation of our city building.

Read the Green City report to learn more about how park systems thinking can buffer the impact of climate change on cities.