Greater and Greener: A Global Perspective on Urban Parks

Written by Beth Heller
    Monday, 03 September 2012

Imagine walking up two flights of stairs under a decommissioned, elevated freight rail surrounded by high rises, street vendors and droves of people. As you reach the platform, you emerge into the lush greenery of a vibrant park buzzing with thousands of visitors.

Well above the hot pavement of the streets below, the dry, intense heat of the city is replaced by moist fresh air and shade. For readers familiar with New York City’s relatively new attraction, you may have guessed that this is The High Line, a 1.45 mile park, constructed in the heart of Manhattan not too far from the Hudson River.

New York City Mayor Bloomberg calls The High Line, “a treasured neighborhood oasis”. He stated, “In the three short years since the first section opened as a park, The High Line has become a significant generator of economic activity for the entire city and a celebrated icon for planners, designers and leaders around the world.” The rail (CSX) has donated an additional 4 blocks to the city to extend the park.

Along with keynote speakers Mayor Bloomberg, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Eco-entrepreneur Majora Carter, and Daphne Miller, MD, the Urban Ecology Center was invited to share its story with over 800 people traveling from around the world and the country. Participants in the Public Park Alliance’s Greater and Greener conference were charged with re-imagining urban parks for the 21st century. As the Center’s representative, I was able to share our efforts and discover pockets of similar work scattered throughout the country. Much of the conference was geared toward practitioners and focused on best practices for creating ecologically sound, active and well funded green spaces. However, there was also a strong focus on the impact of urban parks for cities, and the following three impacts rose to the surface as themes throughout the conference.

First, cities are recognizing that vibrant parks are economic drivers. In addition to Mayor Bloomberg’s message above, Secretary Salazar, Millennium Park’s manager Edward Uhlir, President of Brooklyn Bridge Park Regina Myer, Majora Carter and many others, shared research, case studies, statistics and anecdotes of communities rebounding from extremely poor quality of life due to poverty, crime and other symptoms of our economic downturn. At the heart of each example was barren or abandoned land restored to green space, coupled with an engaged community of businesses, residents, education providers and governmental officials. In Milwaukee, we should be proud to know that the work started by the Menomonee Valley Partners over a decade ago, now a joint effort with the Center, is at the forefront of this model of economic revitalization.

Second, health of urban residents improves significantly with access to urban parks. The majority of the country’s population now lives in cities. As doctors face rising obesity rates, mental health issues, inactivity and what Daphne Miller, MD, coined as “indoor sickness,” they are beginning to “prescribe nature.” Across the country health care providers are investing in green spaces near their facilities and doctors are instructing patients to take walks so that their health will improve. These efforts are scattered though and not fully embraced by the medical community. The Urban Ecology Center is piloting a study with the Medical College of Wisconsin to quantify the positive effects of our outdoor programs. It’s work like this that will help drive changes.

Finally, from Los Angeles, to Chicago, to New York, urban parks are serving as a powerful context for education. As school systems struggle to re-design approaches to learning, a smattering of education centers are finding that student engagement improves within the context of natural spaces. For example, students from Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment (BASE) study at three campuses: their traditional classroom, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Prospect Park. BASE students are performing better on the regent exams, attendance has more than doubled and learning is improving. More research is needed in order for educational leaders to fully embrace this approach to learning. As the Center continues to build rigor and depth into our academic achievement focused efforts, our results will be an important part of building the case for learning outdoors. So far, we have shown that attitudes toward learning and environmental literacy improve with our programs and have encouraging preliminary results to show that science content knowledge improves.

Imagine what we could accomplish in Milwaukee if all of 15,000 acres of parks were active, free of crime and serving as outdoor classrooms: a healthier, economically strong, more knowledgeable community. Let’s re-imagine this for our 21st century.

Beth Heller

Beth Heller

Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning, Beth received her Masters in Business Administration from UW-Milwaukee in 2005, where she received the Outstanding Business Plan award for a plan to launch a branch of the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park. She graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in 1994 with a B.A. degree in Biology and Education. Beth began working at the Urban Ecology Center in 2000 to combine her love of the city with her appreciation of nature. Beth loves to sail, bike, sing and hike.


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