Designing Greenspaces…and Addressing Capitalism


On Thursday, April 17th, we discussed the issue of designing greenspace systems in urban areas by reflecting on the New York City model and by referring to past readings and our own experiences.

In “Adopting a modern ecological view of the metropolitan area”, the authors address the challenge of designing ecologically-sound and livable urban areas by providing a more contemporary framework for planning that considers five key ecological principles:

    1. Content (of ecosystems)
    2. Context (interactions based on location, adjacency and neighborhood)
    3. Dynamics (changing circumstances based on succession and disturbances)
    4. Heterogeneity (diversity of habitats, species)
    5. Hierarchy (dividing areas into functional components operating at different scales)

In general, the ideas of “structure” and “function” run throughout the paper as the authors describe the various ways in which planners can consider ecosystems in their design. In reflecting upon the article’s notion of ecologically-considerate planning, we asked ourselves:

  • To what extent must planners understand all of the different aspects of planning and design to effectively plan for sustainable cities?
  • What is the (potential) tension between sociological vs. environmental perspectives in city planning? (e.g., the “woody understory” debate – where one side has the goal of maintaining “safety” and enhancing “social activities”, while the other side considers ecological processes and habitats more important)
  • What is the ideal function or meaning of greenspaces in cities? What are some examples of “good” or “bad” ways of designing greenspace for sustainability?

The following is a summary of our responses:

  • As “planners” (etc.) it is important for us to have a base understanding of different biological functions so that we know how to move forward. This could mean by working with others who have the expertise and skills, finding the resources to make integrated plans happen, and/or doing the work ourselves. It’s hard to be trained in “everything”; our work is more about specialization and then collaboration. It’s good to think of this work as “transdisciplinary” – crossing boundaries of expertise.
  • Some cities are beginning to create more integrated systems and green infrastructure is becoming a bigger focus in more cities (e.g., the City of Philadelphia and the STAR index both address sociological and environmental factors). However, political will is always a main factor (e.g., the Mayor and other key players, big news events and climate disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, etc. can have big impacts).
  • Usually we default to caring more about social relations than environmental concerns (safety vs. new growth). At the same time, how the space is defined and designed also has an impact on who is using that green space (hippies hiding in the trees of Golden Gate park are harassing neighbors??). Also, meth pipes in Buena Vista park.
  • What are the benefits of large natural spaces vs. small spaces? Are there legitimate concerns of comfort, access and safety – or are unsubstantiated fears or the effects of capitalism bigger drivers? What about connectivity and distribution of green space?

Building off that last question, we then did a straw poll using the diagrams below to start a conversation about the ideal design of green space in relation to urban space (focusing more on the concept – not literally checkerboard designs).

CP 254

Many voted for option C, with some around options D and B, and one or two around A and E.

Some of the perspectives presented included:

  • Option A: Density is  good for concentrating human areas (like Manhattan)
  • Option A: More connectivity within the gray and the green spaces means less disruption
  • Option E doesn’t differentiate between spaces and accepts that we are a part of nature
  • Option E: this is how people are idealizing the future of cities and interactions. Would E look like Brooklyn, where parks are everywhere? Would option E avoid slum settlements?
  • Would option C allow for more communal or shared spaces?
  • Option C: Could it enable better management of spaces? Would it be possible to have community investment in the maintenance of green space? However, examples in Oakland illustrate the current challenges for that occurring (Lafayette vs. Frank Ogawa plaza)

For our last reflections on green space design, a few put forth the following ideas and questions:

  • We don’t want to design open space based on the need to exclude certain people
  • The idea of green space as an “other” can be problematic and a false dichotomy
  • Jane Jacobs quote: “Parks don’t act on community, they reflect it”. On the flip side, how much can design act upon people?

* * * * *

GRAB BAG QUESTION: Lastly, we went around and shared our videos and stories about alternative economic models to (or versions within) capitalism. Please share your resources and videos in the comments!


11 thoughts on “Designing Greenspaces…and Addressing Capitalism

  1. teowickland

    I shared a number of links related to new ideas for sustainable economic systems that have less of a focus on maximizing consumption and accumulation than neoliberal capitalism (since the finite nature of natural resources available implies that consumption and accumulation cannot go on increasing for ever). These are presented here:

    The Guardian (UK) has a series of videos from a diverse variety of contributors speculating on post-capitalist economic paradigms:

    Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has caused a stir with his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, which highlights the socioeconomic unsustainability of capitalism as we know it, and looks set to broaden discussions around fundamental changes to our economic system (the book was actually #1 on the Amazon bestseller list for several weeks):

    A number of imaginative projects exist, that are encouraging teams of researchers or members of the public to collaboratively articulate potential post-capitalist paradigms. For example, Collage Lab hosts competitions among groups of researchers to re-think economics and urban planning globally:

    Additionally, some specific proposals for post-capitalist paradigms have been made, and several of these have been documented on Wikipedia:

    Finally, a few groups are attempting to push for broad rethinkings of the world today, promoting the acknowledgment of contemporary injustices that are often ignored; reconceptualizations of the world around us that allow us to recognize relations and interconnectedness; and open discourse and debate around new organizational paradigms. For example, the International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS) is recruiting members to participate in the formation of what appears to be a post-capitalist project; and the Pachamama Alliance is attempting to engage people in transformative conversations and experiences that allow us to see and understand the world anew, that we might envision a more just and sustainable world for the future.



  2. skonala254

    This class discussion was really interesting, but as everyone presented their alternatives to capitalism, I came back to the same two questions. The first was, could this new alternative system possibly be implemented soon enough for it to make a difference? The second question was, what incentive do people have to work in this system?

    With regards to the first question, for many of the more radical alternatives that proposed systematic changes, I felt the answer was no. We are already witnessing the impacts of climate change and magnitude and frequency of these impacts will only increase. Because, of this urgency, I believe it’s necessary to work within the current system.

    For the second question, while capitalism has many flaws, I believe its greatest strength is that people have an incentive to work hard and be innovative. This feature is often missing in alternative economic systems. People may argue that in other systems, working towards a collective good is an incentive, but I don’t think this is enough for many people.

    So, for this reason, I am going to present the existing Nordic capitalism model as an alternative to the form of capitalism seen in the United States today. The Nordic model is used in the countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Essentially the model is still capitalism but it also includes a large welfare state which is designed to provide basic necessities for everyone and allow each person the opportunity for social mobility. A 2013 article by the Economist is a great overview of the system.

    I don’t think the Nordic model is perfect, but I believe that it’s the best working economic system in the World right now as evidenced by extremely low gini index, very high human development index, and high per capita GDP in these countries.

  3. ewolfson2014

    Thanks for the summary, and the interesting last discussion. Growing up in Manhattan I have a special place in my heart towards Central Park and have come to love cities with larger urban parks; however, in terms of equity I feel that larger urban parks do not allow the majority of people to have access. Furthermore; even within larger green spaces not all people are treated equally within them, which causes a myriad of problems. New York City crime reports of Central Park post WWII unfairly focused on whites as victims and people of color as perpetrators.

    On the topic of capitalism, many companies including Mondragon have tried to offer an alternative. This model promotes worker cooperation without compromising the success of a business model. Instead of the higher ups reaping most of the benefits, all workers receive rewards for the company’s success. CEO’s in this model are only paid 5 to 6 times what average workers make instead of the existing model of capitalism where they are often paid 100 times more.

    Here’s a link describing more about the company

  4. Thanks everyone for a fun and engaging discussion for our last seminar class. I did enjoy the green space vs. urban area exercise and discussion, even if that binary can be problematic from certain perspectives. I would love to see how this debate continues to evolve and include additional perspectives, especially at it relates to policy development and project implementation.

    Speaking of which: I recently asked a friend working on a campaign for a “just transition” about what it would take for us to really begin to live more sustainable and less destructive lifestyles. She replied that we can’t be sustainable or produce enough to feed and house populations when our current methods of production are so incredibly damaging and resource-heavy. From her perspective, each of us needs to be in more direct contact with the land and facilitate our own production. I appreciate these conversations because it allows us to really challenge our ideas about what it takes to truly be sustainable, what it means to plan from the perspective of ecosystems, and how to best integrate built environments into the rest of the environment.

    On the topic of alternatives to (or variations within) capitalism: the theories that I appreciate the most are the ones that combine more egalitarian forms of government/power-sharing with more equitable methods of resource distribution (such as Via Campesina, Zapatismo, and the anti-imperialist movement in the Philippines). However, I recognize that the path to creating more sustainable economies and livelihoods is extremely challenging, both in theory and in practice:

    Via Campesina:

    National Democracy Movement in the Philippines:

    Vandanna Shiva and “Earth Democracy”:

    Sustainable Economies:

    Localism and the Green Economy:

    One’s answer to this question really depends on one’s Theory of Change. I just caution against solutions within capitalism that promote certain false solutions, AKA “compassionate capitalism” – the danger being that various strategies that perpetuate our extreme resource extraction and consumption-based economies are likely to allow the public to become more complacent, so that they are less likely to be engaged and advocate for stronger, more needed/impactful/tranformative forms of systems change. Pacification has been a strategy that many in positions of power have employed throughout history – in which solutions appear as progress but are in reality is just perpetuating (or even obscuring the function of) the status quo.

    Apologies for the long comment!

  5. lrudis

    It occurred to me during the class discussion that any of the diagrammatic representations for the ideal organization of open space reflect a detachment of inhabitants of a city from the city as an ecosystem. To impose any such diagram as a best practice inherently disregards naturals contexts in different places and preferences among the different people living within a city. If we are mandating the creation of open and green spaces because inhabitants would otherwise destroy these spaces, what does that mean the city dweller has come to regard as his/her “natural habitat”? Have we become so detached that humans no longer think of any green space as part of their natural environments? Does someone have to intervene to provide open space or is there a way in which city dwellers can create for themselves the open space that best suits them?

    This leads into my response to this week’s grab bag. I talked about a resource-based economy in which goods and services are provided without any debt because resources are regarded as the common heritage of all inhabitants of the planet. The resource-based economy uses existing resources to provide for the needs of everyone. If we think of open space as a resource, this sort of system allows us to all take ownership and stewardship over the spaces we need.

    A more thorough description of the resource-based economy can be found here:

    • Your discussion of the green/open space diagrams exactly mirrors my thoughts after our seminar on Thursday. The distinct separations between green spaces in a city and built-up spaces illustrate how human society has become/is becoming increasingly “disembedded” from the natural environment. Each of these supposedly different representations conceives of green space and human-inhabited space as locked in a dichotomous relationship — which makes me wonder whether it makes much difference at all which diagram you choose. They all, ultimately, further the same message: human space and natural space cannot mix. Perhaps the trend of rooftop gardens (for example) provides a small counter-weight to this dominant narrative?

      On another note entirely, the example of an alternative to capitalism that I brought for this week’s grab bag is summarized by the following video about B-Corporation certification:

      I introduced this example as something that definitely breaks with single-bottom-line capitalism by introducing social responsibility as an equally important motivator as monetary profit, but that I’m not convinced is the most effective path to follow. My concern with this model is that although it certainly does foster a form of “capitalism with a human face”, because it doesn’t build equity into the organizational structure of businesses, it doesn’t ensure that b-corps will prioritize social responsibility as highly as profit unless they’re closely monitored. This is a pessimistic view, and although I do think most b-corps would continue to uphold their triple-bottom-line promises both with and without public scrutiny, swimming against the powerful tide of single-bottom-line “normal” capitalist businesses is exhausting for even the most altruistic of b-corps. For this reason, I think alternative models like the worker-owned cooperative model present have greater potential for creating lasting change than does the B-corp certification system, which qualifies capitalism rather than fundamentally changing it.

  6. edermartinez

    Our last discussion was great. During the reading, I was impressed about all the different ecological concepts that the author discussed. It made me wonder about all the different variables and factors that should be considered when planning,

    Regarding Capitalism… I really don’t think we have an alternative economic model that works well. However, I strongly believe we should work to address the problem of inequalities that the free market produce. Since I don’t have a solution, I want to share a thought of a Chilean Economist (the video did not work during the class). You just need to watch the first 3 minutes.

  7. aritakatavasquez

    Our last seminar was great and I particularly liked the graphic. It drew up certain ideas for city forms that I maybe had tended to think of a figure/ground rather than figure/infrastructure/soft-scape.

    Finding an alternative to capitalism is a difficult dilemma (not as nearly as difficult as implementation) and I can’t say I think there are any existing alternatives that could be applied to the US context. However, I’m ultimately sure capitalism does not work (ie creative destruction is not sustainable in any sense of the word). I think however, there are smaller initiatives that are in opposition with not necessarily capitalism but mega-capitalism. One example I presented of this was community supported agriculture. Each member of a CSA pays annually into supporting a farm and if their crops are good they reap the benefits of fresh local produce and if they aren’t its a shared loss.

  8. Thanks for a great summary.
    Yes the discussion was rich and the diagram stimulated new alternative on the gradient and showed that (spatial) distribution) of public space has lots of implications beyond the ecological factors.
    The ecological components can not be addressed without the social factors, and here comes some interesting challenges. Do we aim to a god balance or by doing so we are likely to compromise both…. I think the majority agreed that the balance is the right thing to do.

    Content, Context, Dynamics, Heterogeneity and Hierarchy are all components that during the discussion showed the importance of considering scale, because the article discussed the continuity of the ecosystem beyond the study area and it brought the importance of understanding the ecological web that is contributing to the stability of the ecosystem and how planners shall take into account these dynamics while planning for new cities.

    I was also fascinated by the argument of the ecosystem complexity (green represented in public space) and the way it shall serve both human and other species. The complex vegetation in the under trees canopy in the paper reflects the importance of creating the balance not only in the spatial distribution of green spaces but also on the quality/quantity of such plantation in the urban areas.

    For the disadvantages of capitalism, it was interesting to find this 2 minute video that confirm that there is no other alternative to capitalism 🙂

    I have few remarks about his views, but the most significant one is that (Ford) did not revolutionize the automobile industry in a government system but he was also not challenged by the government. So a free enterprise is one thing but working within governments that discourage you is another thing.

    I also tend to agree with the idea of manipulating the system to achieve political interest.
    This is another link with Q&A about the same topic:

    And I find them very useful and relevant to the discussion about capitalism.

  9. Thanks for sharing the interesting and engaging conversation from our final seminar class. I wanted to share the Sonoran Desert conservation plan that the City of Tucson has been involved in developing. The plan is award winning and captures much of what the Flores et al article is talking about. The plan works to create habitat corridors and protection of cultural sites. The plan ca be explored more fully here:

    On the topic of capitalism, there are certainly many strong reasons to find a new system; however while those efforts are in development, I wanted to share a resources for those interested in making shifts to the capitalist system. Specifically there are efforts underway to change how bonds are rated. Changing a bond rating can dramatically impact behavior and may be a way to shift toward more sustainable systems. Here is one talk about an effort to create a new bond rating system.

    Also here’s a link the ideas behind the new system:

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