In the previous posts, I've covered nearly everything you need to know about what makes for good urban living. The last piece of the puzzle is Nature.
Mankind has a strong connection with nature (after all we're all just animals), so despite the need for dense urban living to make large-scale populations sustainable, we still need to keep our connection with nature.
First we'll look at what good nature in cities looks like, and then I'll tell you about the "public park killer".
Nature: what's the big deal?
When it comes to a healthy human life, nature has a big part to play:
- Evolution – We've evolved to find natural landscapes and environments pleasing. Trees, rivers, and valleys, are engrained into our DNA.
- Health – Surrounded by nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase subjective well-being.
- Environment – Trees are critical for absorbing carbon dioxide and cleaning the air. We need to keep as much of earth natural as possible to offset the pollution that we keep producing.
Are parks the saving grace?
Public parks and green areas in a city are great, but they are not the answer to our problems. You can't simply throw a large park into an otherwise natureless city and expect good things to happen.
A better way to think about nature in cities is about varying levels of green density. The whole city should be "green" in varying amounts. When you think about it like this, parks simply become areas of high-density greenery, while streets with their few roadside trees become low-density greenery.
How to do nature in cities
Sound like a contradiction? It's not. Cities don't have to be concrete jungles with no link to nature, and the best ones aren't.
When it comes to incorporating nature in cities the solution lies in trees. Trees are most effective form of plants for environmental and physical reasons. They provide countless uses when it comes to making a city liveable:
- Trees provide shade for people, which makes a huge difference for how enjoyable a walk is.
- Trees act as a roadside barrier between driving cars and people, making people feel more safe, encouraging not just walking, but roadside restaurants and entertainment.
- People drive slower on streets lines with trees. Because of reduced visibility and a feeling of being enclosed, people drive slower and more cautiously on leafy streets, which means safer roads for people not in cars.
- Unique character. Planting a single type of tree along a street can be used to create a distinct character for this street. This in turn helps creating a mental model of the city, which aids walkability and convenience.
- Pollution. Trees absorb some of the carbon emitted from tailpipes making the air that little bit cleaner.
When you park, do it right
With that being said, great parks are a priceless commodity to a city. So expectantly, they aren't that easy to get right. What is important is:
- Access – parks need to be convenient and central to the city. Parks that get lots of through-traffic are more vibrant, alive, and active. If a park is out of the way from normal activity, it won't get a lot of use.
- Visible – Parks are rarely a primary-use activity, it is often that people stumble upon them on their way to another activity and stay for a while. For this to happen, parks need to be discoverable, by having prime location and highly visible entrances.
- Consistency – A park in a mono-functional neighbourhood that only gets used during a limited time of day will never be truly alive. The lulls in use will allow for unsavoury behaviour which in turn will decrease the usage, further deteriorating the park.
- Convenient – If you think of parks as "high-density greenery" like we mentioned above, then you want to have many parks littered throughout your city. This means that more people will have a conveniently close park to use.
- Design – The actual layout of the park obviously has a large effect on whether it is used and loved by people. A couple of factors are: having uniquely identifiable areas that help create navigable mental models, varying pockets of privacy and openness, variety of terrain to create visually pleasing landscapes.
The public park killer
No, this isn't some creepy middle-aged white man who stalks public spaces. Rather, it's the all too familiar Backyard Culture that is core to the Ausmerican Dream. When you have a backyard culture, two things happen:
- You isolate yourself in your own little space which you end up rarely using
- You kill the public park
Private backyards actually isolate us. We love the idea of having your own private space where you can enjoy the outdoors without any prying eyes, but this desire for privacy conflicts with our desire for connection. We end up isolated in our little backyards, missing the larger social connection.
When you have a backyard culture, you kill the public park. And this is a great loss.
Tokyo is a great example of a place at the other extreme to somewhere like Sydney. Most people live in tiny apartments, and the ones who live a little further out (1 hour by train) live in larger houses, but still without backyards.
The backyard isn't part of the Japanese Dream. As a result, Japanese parks are a thing of wonder, beauty, and most importantly, of constant use. So much so, that when friends travelling here on holidays ask for recommendations, I tell them: "Grab a beer, some snacks, a cheap picnic rug and go spend the day in the park. You won't regret it."
On any given weekend in any of Tokyo's parks, you will find thousands of people spread out on picnic rugs enjoying the greenery. These parks are massive and can support thousands more. Because of their constant use, they justify spendings on maintenance, which means beautiful gardens, well kept lawns, and good amenities.
Groups of girls play badminton while lovers sit together on picnic rugs. Little dogs run around with their owners in lieu. Joggers and cyclists ride-by on footpaths as boys throw frisbees below the flying kites.
The shared park brings a sense of togetherness to cities which are fundamentally comprised of strangers. These parks are everyones backyard and best of all, you don't have to mow the grass.
Pssst: If you haven't read the rest of this series on Good Urban Living you should check it out.