Urban Green Space as Place

Specific locations within varied urban landscapes are places of significance and meaning for the people who live, work, and play in them. As Edward Relph wrote (2006: 323), how strongly people identify with a place may be a precursor to them feeling concerned about, for example, the potential impacts of climate change and the prospect of their valued places being degraded in some way. It may provide a strong motivation for people to act. In an earlier work, Relph refers to these locations as “fields of care, settings in which we have had a multiplicity of experiences and which call forth an entire complex of affections and responses” (1976: 38).

An urban green space becomes a ‘place,’ in Relph’s sense, when individuals or communities develop a deep connection or understanding of its significance. This significance can be ephemeral or intangible, or it can be physically experienced. Once we have experienced a ‘sense of place’ for a specific locale or site, then we truly value it, emotionally and/or economically, and that instigates a concern to protect it.

Urban green spaces — the local parks, sportsgrounds, and play environments in our neighborhoods — are where people engage in activities, together or individually, and in shared public spaces. In lobbying for more green areas, proponents can point to the body of research that draws on strong connections between nature and human well-being, which, in turn, can strengthen urban resilience. For example, urban green spaces have been shown to reduce stress (van den Berg et al. 2010), promote mental well-being (Wood et al. 2017), encourage physical activity, facilitate social interaction, and thus increase social cohesion (Kuo et al. 1998; Chiesura 2004; Wolch et al. 2014). Besides just offering places to meet, green spaces can generate general sense of community, as Kim and Kaplan discovered in their comparison of two residential developments — one, a new urbanist design, and the other, a traditional suburban development. They found there was one physical feature that consistently ranked highly in relation to fostering community attachment, community identity, and social interactions — the public greens, footpaths, and play areas (2004: 331).

If people have been able to meet and know one another, thus engendering strong feelings of community identity and community attachment, when their community is threatened (e.g. by a natural disaster), the ‘community’ responds and people make themselves available to assist each other. In these times, we see public spaces and facilities become the gathering point or places of refuge. In recent years, with the increase of extreme heat events in western Sydney, local parks have become places of refuge and comfort when daytime temperatures have reached well above 40°C. Residents living in apartments without air-conditioning, for example, sought out the cool evening and nighttime temperatures in their local park, socializing there with their neighbors until well past 10 pm (McKenzie 2017).

This is not to suggest that the provision of urban green space alone can address, much less solve, chronic urban stresses, such as those identified in the Resilient Sydney assessment. However, in combination with other federal, state, and local government initiatives — such as public health campaigns and support from green industries and community development networks — it is conceivable that urban green space could become a central factor contributing to increased individual, community, and ultimately metropolitan-wide resilience.

Connecting Green Places to Urban Resilience

Colding and Barthel promote the concept of the ‘urban green commons’ as a shared public space that presents opportunities for “multidirectional flows between different groups and individuals, coordinating cultural encounters in cities” (2013: 15). They define urban green commons as:

physical green spaces in urban settings of diverse land ownership that depend on collective organisation and management and to which individuals and interest groups participating in management hold a rich set of bundles of rights, including rights to craft their own institutions and to decide who they want to include in such management schemes.

(Colding and Barthel 2013: 159)

The potential of these urban green commons has been researched by scholars in Sweden, particularly for the way in which they might build cognitive resilience (Colding and Barthel 2013: 162). Specifically, they investigated how urban residents collectively managed three types of urban green commons: urban parks, community gardens, and allotment areas. The application of these models is most relevant in cities where there is not ample green space at ground level, but where other features — such as small parks, green roofs, and walls — offer the prospect of city residents being actively involved in the management of these shared green elements (Colding and Barthel 2013). The researchers drew a direct connection between these activities and the enhancement of urban resilience (Colding and Barthel 2013) (Figure 26.2).

Participation in projects like this can lead to new learning, practice of democratic values, increased sense of stewardship for the locale and pride in one’s community. It can create a shared memory of the place, and a genuine contribution to the local authority’s processes for managing particular areas and features (Colding and Barthel 2013). Research further confirms that public green spaces can be enjoyed as ‘neutral territory’ for recent immigrants and their families. When they initially have limited social connections and language, or have experienced disruptive and traumatic events related to war and social disruption in their home countries, these are places to gather and connect with new communities (Wolff and Rozance 2013).

Unfortunately, rapid urbanization is reducing the opportunity for urban dwellers to experience various aspects of nature. Humans need this interaction to build their own resilience and well-being, and they need to be reminded of their dependence on natural systems for quality of life. Natural systems can be directly experienced in a variety of settings, not just parks or community garden allotments. Business and university campuses, streetscape corridors, and shared

Pigure 26.2 The Fields Park, Portland, Oregon, is an ‘urban green commons’ where residents of adjacent high-density developments meet for their daily recreation.

Source: Photograph by Linda Corkery.

semi-public spaces in residential developments can provide local, everyday experiences of direct contact and active management. Colding and Barthel (2013: 162) observe that:

urban designs that make visible the links between people and nature in cities are important to develop at larger scales;... urban green commons... represent examples of such designs, where people in cities learn about functions in nature by way of active land management.

Urban Green Space, Place, and Resilience

Policies and strategies that conceptualize urban green space as extensive, urban systems — as signified in the term ‘green infrastructure’ and as set out in high-level planning policies, such as London’s (and more recently) Sydney’s ‘green grid’ — give prominence and political status to urban green space. They strengthen it conceptually in the minds of planners and decision makers, as an alternative approach to considering each park and open space individually in relation to the pros and cons of a site-specific development.

The question is: how could a system of urban green spaces support the resilience of individuals, groups, and the city itself? Working with communities to visualize the urban environments they want in their neighborhood is one way to initiate the process. City dwellers must also focus on ensuring the resilience of the natural systems that support them and provide essential ecosystem services when those systems are healthy and functioning well. Increased resilience has multiple benefits for individuals and communities, and for natural systems and urban economies. Some of these are described below.

Natural System Resilience

Natural functions connect and give continuity to urban green space and the many human systems that overlay it. The unique geology, soil, vegetation, bird and animal life, and water regime, along with evapotranspiration, absorption of carbon dioxide, production of oxygen, and so on, continue to interact invisibly, and without much regard from the people who use the city’s green spaces. Human agency must ensure these systems are not compromised or degraded, so they can continue to operate in multiple locations around the city, supporting all the other functions and activities that people expect a city to provide. It is through political processes that we protect, conserve, and enhance these systems — to maintain their functions and because they support human life.

Economic System Resilience

Green space is an amenity that can influence the economic resilience of the city. As Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser, comments: “One reason that London and New York and Paris are so pleasant is that they contain centuries’ worth of investment in buildings and museums and parks” (2011: 118). Urban ‘amenities’ include parks and open spaces and high-quality public realm, and these features are inextricably linked to quality of life. Quality of life, in turn, is a major reason people are attracted to live in one city over another. Research identifies access to green space as a positive influence on property values; conversely, it reminds urban planners to ensure an equitable distribution of these facilities so that all citizens share the benefits.

Community Resilience

There is collective resilience to be gained through connecting to green spaces, which benefits broader groups of people. For example, a community garden connects individuals to others in their neighborhood who have a common interest in making the garden productive through combined actions and commitment. When this works well, it can generate improved social cohesion. Special community events that are programmed in urban green space — open air cinemas, cultural celebrations, school sports days, growers’ markets, and music concerts — create a sense of place that might last only for the duration of the event, but can have a lasting impact for the participants.

Individual Resilience

For urban residents, having access to nearby green space enables daily incidental use. Strolling through a grove of trees, seeing the sky, and hearing birds, although relatively effortless, can promote both physical and mental health. Walking the dog, jogging, and playing sport require more physical exertion and can further increase personal physical and mental strength. When people are in good health, they do not access the health-care system as frequently and take fewer sick days from work and school. Some people living in apartments may have an allotment or contribute to a shared community garden where they grow food to supplement their household food requirements. This also connects them to a social group that is working together to achieve healthy outcomes. Urban green space can provide a beautiful place in the community, which adds to the positive identity of a neighborhood, has a positive impact on real estate values, connects residents to the history of where they live, and engenders a sense of place (Figure 26.3).

Residents living near Parc de Bercy in Paris have easy access for a daily stroll through groves of trees

Figure 26.3 Residents living near Parc de Bercy in Paris have easy access for a daily stroll through groves of trees.

Source: Photograph by Linda Corkery.


If a resilient city can be achieved, it will be built on and depend on the cumulative resilience of individuals and communities and social structures, and be serviced by healthy, functioning ecosystems — themselves resilient to the inevitable impacts that will come with climate change. It is increasingly evident that individual city residents are the beneficiaries of the environmental services delivered by urban green space: clean and plentiful water, clean air, biodiversity, and air temperature moderation — delivered by the natural systems of the urban landscape.

Urban green space, in its many forms, needs to be considered in planning and development strategies as essential ‘places’ supporting urban resilience in multiple dimensions. As citizens whose future resilience is at stake, we need to be continually lobbying for the conservation and enhancement of existing urban green space and the acquisition or creation of more as rapid urbanization continues to squeeze more people into cities or push them to the outer regions where housing may be affordable, but services are scarce — including the ecosystem services inherent in the green infrastructure of urban green space.


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