Post-Pandemic Perspectives: Rethinking The Relationship Between Cities and Green Space

By Mark Johnson

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons, not least of which is a reminder of our fundamental human need to get outside. After more than a year of getting reacquainted with our homes, our neighborhoods, and our cities, few will disagree that our urban spaces are too small, too disconnected, and too hardened. We all need more space to move and breathe. It’s no surprise that suburbs around cities across the country, from San Francisco to Washington DC, are experiencing real estate booms. The use of parks and trails is booming, too, as green space has become the prized destination for individuals and families who seek exercise, fresh air, and the space to spread out and socialize a little more safely. We’ve learned how much we gain from this connection to nature, and to each other, and we’ve formed new habits in our efforts to stay healthy.

It’s time to rethink cities and their relationship to green space.

Past generations built cities around or adjacent to large parks, such as Central Park in New York and Lincoln Park in Chicago. These are beloved venues for events, exercise, meditation, or simple meandering, and these large parks are often full of people—especially now. But, unless you’re lucky enough to live nearby, they require a car or subway ride to reach. And public transit hasn’t been very appealing during a pandemic. Today’s cities need networks of many small parks, woven together like an urban quilt. Cities need green space that is visible and accessible from every neighborhood, easily reached within a few minutes walk, and open to all. 

These community parks provide space for leisure with playgrounds and picnic spaces; for commerce with farmers market stalls and outdoor cafés; for fitness with lawns for soccer and yoga. Greenways extend out like threads that connect to the next community’s park, and to the next beyond that, creating extensive systems of trails for jogging and biking, and for healthier forms of commuting. People become less reliant on cars, reducing traffic and pollution. Mental and physical health improve by getting people outside. Community pride goes up too, as neighbors gather and connect and feel rooted in nature—in a sense of place, and of belonging.

People need to feel cared for, just like nature itself.

Consider examples like the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa, Florida, where a strong public outreach and engagement program has illuminated what people need and want from their community. The result is a public space where people—neighbors—of all ages can come together in new, more purposeful ways. A reimagined St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary, Alberta, similarly provides an active, nature-based park where people can interact with the river and with each other in an amphitheater, picnic grove, playground and more. In 2016, the island was named Greatest Public Space in Canada by the Canadian Institute of Planners. Closer to home in Denver, the 5280 Trail is envisioned to link together five distinct neighborhoods with a 5.3-mile greenway loop that encourages recreation, eases connectivity, and leads to healthier, more resilient lifestyles. These are the types of amenities that people seek, and that make urban real estate desirable. Green spaces breathe life back into cities, literally, and bring people back into cities, too.

Rethinking the city now ensures that our neighborhoods are better prepared for the next crisis in the future. We need our new habits to last. Our health and happiness depend on it.

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