Small Scale Green Spaces can Pack a Big Punch in Cities

Small scale green spaces are springing up in place of parking spaces. So called parklets are proving popular both as an annual temporary event, but also as community driven and enabled developments. They can enhance community, quality of life, potentially clean the air and provide recharging – for humans and our mobiles.

What is changing?

Friday 21st September 2012 was Annual PARKing day, for this year. It is part of a growing international PARKing movement, aimed at reclaiming small spaces – i.e. one or two parking spaces, for a day, making them green and enjoying them. In 2011, nearly 1000 PARKing events were organised on 5 continents; in 2012, they hope to exceed that number.

These one-day mini parks have led to the ‘parklet movement’ which is also gathering momentum. The principle is the same, but instead of being temporary, the parklets become permanent, taking over 1 or 2 parking spaces in a local area and making a small, welcoming area where people can meet and enjoy a bit of space, see a bit of green. They are usually locally inspired, designed and initiated – as well as built and planted. In San Francisco, where they started, there are now 31 with a further 15 under review. There are also plans to create greater critical mass by concentrating them around particular areas or signposting the locations of others nearby.

And that is where another development helps.  A recent winner of a competition, AppMyCity, was CityGardens. The app aims to help people in Paris, but soon in other cities too, to be able to find nearby green spaces. There are apparently 440 such spaces in Paris which offer an increasing range of facilities from just shade or somewhere to play, to wifi and USB charging stations.

In Milan, the approach is slightly different. Here a mobile, towable parklet, can be parked, anywhere. The idea is the same, to provide somewhere to sit and enjoy a bit of nature in the centre of a dense city. These too can come with a tree, wifi, possibly a light, and a USB charger.

In South London, one variation on the theme is edible bus stops. Small vegetable patches in and around bus stops to help reclaim and improve local spaces, at a community level.

Why is this important?

There is a growing body of evidence about the importance of green spaces in improving quality of life. And these parklets are about connections, interaction, local communities, as well as green space- so help on many fronts. They provide places to meet, rest, stop awhile, play, talk, think. The bottom up approach to developing most of them can also create a new dynamic within the community; enhance the sense of local identity. If other facilities are added in – these could be solar-powered,  or  use plant powered trickle charge technologies which are under development, power lighting or phone charging, so that they are sustainable.

As cities become ever denser and the planet becomes ever more urban, so the need for local shared and green spaces within them will grow. Finding ways to redesign and rethink small scale spaces and communities will be increasingly important. One architect is developing a concept called ‘pocket neighbourhoods’. The aim is to rethink spaces so that 8-12 houses can have some kind of shared space, which becomes a focus for shared activity, friendship and neighbourliness. Parklets fit neatly within this concept as a retro-fit solution.

However another benefit may be the air pollution cleansing potential of small scale greenery in cities at a very local level.  Most air quality studies operate at the city wide / large scale; a recent study examined air pollution and greenery at street / small scale. They identified major reductions in nitrous oxide and particulates thus not only improving air quality but reducing negative health impacts. The dominance of cities on our planet can work to the good, but we may need to look at small scale impacts and options as well as city wide systems in developing our thinking.

Local planners will also need to enable change of use and planting; local shop keepers will need to be able to see the benefits of losing parking but gaining a parklet or other forms of green space; local communities will need to find ways to maintain and support them, so that they remain pleasant places; developments like the CityGardens app could enable more people not just to find and benefit from them, but to be engaged in using and maintaining them, which, in these more straightened times, is likely to need local effort not city funds.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.