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?

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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!