Urban landscape architects, civil engineers and city planners face a number of sustainability challenges with no single or simple solution. Among the issues common to many metropolitan areas:
- Preparing for climate changes and/or intense precipitation events that cause excess storm water runoff;
- Replacing outdated architectural designs that introduce contaminates into the water system; and,
- Partially or completely losing natural flora and fauna.
In recent years, the concept of green infrastructure (GI) has grown in popularity and importance for sustainable outdoor design, architecture and construction. Fundamental to GI is interconnectedness. According to a recent white paper – APA from the American Planning Association, when communities implement or refine their green infrastructure through the creation of an interconnected system of green spaces, they produce a positive effect on air and water sustainability, and the ecosystem as a whole.
Whereas city parks were commonly thought of as independent areas of green space to be used mainly for recreation, today they are seen as a part of this interconnected green infrastructure, providing important benefits for not only human recreation, but runoff control, pollution control and maintaining a sustainable environment.
In a fascinating article about GI by Adrian Benepe by Adrian Benepe, former Commissioner of Parks & Recreation in New York City, and current Senior Vice President for City Park Development for the Trust of Public Land, he traces the history of GI in public parks. In the past, impermeable surfaces such as asphalt were used in park design, attempting to drain as much water as possible as quickly as possible into the sewer system. In this way, a host of pollutants are introduced into the water system.
Sustainable park design involves replacing asphalt with permeable surfaces that capture runoff. Natural, permeable surfaces also create a more aesthetically pleasing and natural environment for people, and a better habitat for natural flora and fauna.
By thinking of parks as part of a sustainable infrastructure, we begin to see the value of connecting them, adding more parks to the urban landscape in strategic locations in order to help control runoff and prevent flooding, reduce pollution and create an environment optimally conducive for recreational activity.
As an illustration of interconnectivity at work in public parks, Benepe points to the Benepe points to the New York City Playground system, where more than 180 public playgrounds have been added since 1996. Common features of these playgrounds include permeable paving material, rain gardens and plantings aimed at reducing runoff and sewer overflow.
To help guide sustainable thinking in sustainable park design, the SITES® Rating System is a useful resource, enabling land designers, architects and policy makers to assess their spaces and plans against measurable sustainability standards. The organization promotes the development of sustainable landscapes because they produce a wide variety of highly important benefits to humans and the environment — including human health, soil and vegetation, and water.
For communities looking for ideas or benchmarks for sustainable park design and development, SITES® publishes a list of certified parks by Sites, in a variety of climates including New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Texas, Arizona and Colorado. For each certified park, detailed information is provided relating to every phase of the project, all discussed through the lens of sustainability.
There is no doubt GI thinking will continue to grow in importance to urban development. Unfortunately, severe storms and extreme weather has affected many areas throughout the U.S. in the past several years. The silver lining, as it were, in all of this is growing awareness in the vulnerability of urban areas that lack a resilient, natural infrastructure. Today’s landscape development, in a sense, is un-development, reducing man-made construction elements, adding natural enhancements and creating green space to absorb water and otherwise buffer the effects of extreme weather conditions.
While city parks are not the full picture of GI development by any means, they are an important aspect of it. Parks are widely used and serve as a place of relaxation and escape from the hectic pace of urban living. Sustainable park development is good for humans and the environment — a way for policy makers to serve both very powerfully.