The benefits of urban parks go far beyond their role in contributing to a healthy environment and acting as a hub for local communities. Green space can help increase property values, while also attracting and retaining businesses to an area. But as demand for land increases, it becomes more and more difficult to create new public areas.
Many major metropolises across North America have limited abilities to create new parkland within the city limits. Speaking at the 2014 Toronto Park Summit in February, Adrian Benepe, former New York City Park Commissioner and current senior vice-president and director of city park development for The Trust for Public Land, said that municipal governments must think of more creative ways to incorporate parkland into existing infrastructure.
There are many acclaimed parks that are actually reclaimed spaces, like New York City’s High Line, which was constructed on an old railroad, or Millennium Park in Chicago, which was previously a parking lot. Benepe even praised the redevelopment of Toronto’s waterfront, which has included the creation of new parks on old industrial land.
Parks have economic benefits for both cities and developers. Benepe said that the creation of New York’s High has led to $4 billion in private real investment around the park, including condominiums and office buildings.
Commercial properties around New York City’s Bryant Park, which during its troubled past in the 1980s was referred to as “Needle Park,” also demonstrate the value that working parks and create. According to a study completed by Ernst and Young, the area was redeveloped in 1992, and then by 2002, asking rents for commercial office space rose between 115 and 225 per cent. Comparatively, asking rents in surrounding submarkets only rose between 41 to 73 per cent.
The City of Toronto’s 2013–2017 Parks Plan, which outlines the importance of parks to the city’s infrastructure, recognizes the economic benefits that parks offer through their ability to attract tourists and businesses. But creating parks costs money. As such, Toronto requires land developers to either dedicate part of their sites for public parkland, or provide money for parkland payment instead.
By including parkland in a project, developers can also add value and increase a buildings curb appeal. Parks are a highly sought after attribute for potential homebuyers, and can increase the price of surrounding real estate. Metrogate Park, located at Tridel’s Metrogate community near Kennedy Road and Highway 401 in Scarborough, Ont., is just one example of this in action.
“It’s become the jewel of the community,” said Matthew Bernstein, principal at Terraplan Landscape Architects. Terraplan designed the park for Tridel to be an asset for the community, both for use by the public, and aesthetically for people looking out from their condo units.
“In new communities, it’s difficult to establish a sense of identity,” Bernstein said. “This park has become a central part of the community.”
The park features a big open field, playground, seating areas and a public square for community events. A number of pathways run through it making it accessible from different points.
At ground level, it is easy to see the benefits of having green spaces near housing. In addition to the aesthetic value, Benepe said that parks encourage physical activity and can lead to better public health.
However, Bernstein also explained that the most important feature of the Metrogate Park is not visible to the users; rather, it is the stormwater system that lies underneath. Infiltration galleries underground diffuse water back into the soil to maintain water levels. Notably, the system is not connected to the municipal sewer system, so it prevents overflowing during extreme weather events.
Stormwater management is not the only perk that parks have for the well-being of urban areas. Toronto’s Park Plan also states that the trees and natural habitats provide shade and produce oxygen.
The environmental and human health benefits are important reasons to integrate more urban parks into a city’s infrastructures. As more green space is added, developers and cities will continue to see the added economic and environmental benefits that these public spaces can bring.
Leah Wong is the online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability magazine.