Nature in the City

Urban Park Design Provides Access to Nature


Some folks have it made in the shade. Or in the sun, snow or rain—it just depends. They live close to nature, and can immerse themselves in it anytime. But 80 percent of Americans live in or near a city, and for them this is not always an easy option. In many cities, one in three residents lacks access to a park or natural area.

Access to nature can provide numerous health benefits, including lowering stress, improving ability to focus, and elevating mood and energy levels. It aids in lowering rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma and depression. It can boost local economies, reduce air pollution and assist in energy efficiency. And accessible green space can have great social impact, bringing communities together.

Natural Transformations

The Maryland-based TKF Foundation has funded research showing that 10 minutes in nature, two to three times per week, can lead to mental restoration benefits. TKF is a private nonprofit that funds publicly accessible urban green space, creating more than 130 spaces in the Baltimore-Annapolis-Washington area alone.

Executive Director Mary Wyatt said, "We encourage people to apply for grants to us that are in distressed neighborhoods as an opportunity for them to have a place of beauty they could walk to, a place for more community cohesion." She points out that people in the most challenged, over-built areas have the fewest resources and opportunities to be in nature. And they know that access to these spaces does make a difference. With every space TKF Foundation funds, it donates a bench (made from recycled pickle barrels) and a journal. "We've collected thousands of entries that tell us that people do have a moment of respite and healing, and a renewed sense of well-being, even after a short visit," Wyatt said. By proving these successes, they hope to compel decision-makers—including cities and parks—to invest in urban greening.


But while TKF is a grant-making foundation, they don't just sign the check and walk away. Wyatt said it's a "collaborative visioning process," so that all potential users of the space are involved, building a sense of ownership and pride.

One success story is Intersection of Change, in Baltimore's struggling Sandtown neighborhood. This area along busy Pennsylvania Avenue was once a notorious open-air drug market. Then activists renovated a vacant building and opened Martha's Place, a home for drug-addicted and homeless women. An enclosed garden was added with trees and flowers, ivy-covered walls, a water feature and fish. Then a vacant building across the street was turned into an art and dance studio for kids and adults. The Choose Life Memorial Garden sprang up, with native and ornamental plants maintained by volunteers and shelter residents. A forest mural was painted on the wall of an adjacent building. The city turned on a long-defunct fountain and added roses and mulch. Flower and vegetable gardens began to appear in once-vacant area lots. During this transformation, the drug market disappeared.

Freddie Gray—who died in police custody in April 2015—lived in this neighborhood. Wyatt explained how, during the ensuing riots, there was a lot of destruction and vandalism throughout the area, but the spaces and buildings belonging to Intersection of Change were unscathed. "People were writing entries in the journal about what was happening, but it was a safe place, showing that this does make a difference in communities."

Another nonprofit working in this area is the Trust for Public Land. Since 1972, they've been involved in more than 5,200 projects nationwide—conserving farms and ranches, forests and wilderness, rivers and coasts, and historic sites. But much of their work takes place in and around cities.

Nette Compton, senior director of City Park Development at TPL, believes parks are a vital part of urban infrastructure. "We're focused on the idea of a 10-minute walk to the park, for everyone. When you look at all the benefits that parks have on a community, having them be close to home is crucial."

In New York City alone, TPL has designed and/or built 183 playgrounds. When planning these spaces, they incorporate green infrastructure elements—turf fields, trees and planting beds, and pervious pavers—so the playground also serves as part of the city's water management and flood control infrastructure, helping to absorb stormwater and alleviate CSO (combined sewer overflow) events that pollute local waterways.


One playground example is Arthur Ashe Elementary in Queens, serving 674 kids. TPL conducted visioning sessions to engage students, parents, teachers and residents in designing playground improvements to fit their needs and preferences. What was once a one-acre asphalt lot now has a turf soccer field, tennis courts, basketball courts, shade trees and landscaping, play equipment, a garden and outdoor classrooms. Compton said that while TPL does have landscape architects and planners on staff, in the instance of the schoolyards there's a bunch of agencies at play: the School Construction Authority, Department of Education, the NYPD and fire department, and the EPA. "We are the convener of all these partners and the community, and we can help lead a process that brings everybody to the table," she said.

Boeddeker Park in San Francisco sits in the Tenderloin District, a high-density neighborhood with the greatest number of citizens living below the poverty line. The park is within walking distance of 50,000 people, but for years was largely unused due to its inhospitable design, few amenities and safety concerns. TPL worked with the city and other donors to transform Boeddeker, organizing focus groups and community workshops.

The busy new park now boasts an outdoor clubhouse, fitness and play equipment, walking path with accessible ramps, basketball court, art works and a garden. Water-efficient landscaping and recycled materials add sustainability. Compton said, "It's important to be cognizant of the challenges that people in these neighborhoods are facing. It wasn't safe to be in this park—let alone worrying about access to nature—so we designed the park so it felt more open, had better sight lines. Building a connection that kids have with outdoor green space and a fun, safe place to be lays the foundation of kids getting excited about being outdoors."

Design Strategies

Often in crowded urban areas, there is limited room to work with when designing green spaces. So how best to utilize this space to provide an oasis and attract visitors? Eric Hornig, principal at Hitchcock Design Group, based in Naperville, Ill., said that because small spaces tend to be up close and personal, it's important that no decision be arbitrary. Every texture, color and shape should matter and be pleasing to the visitor. "Water of any kind, shape or size is magical," he said. "Even the simplest fountains can transform a space."


Hornig points out that since we all have different perspectives and moods that affect what makes us feel comfortable, providing diverse seating choices—including movable seating if practical—is important. "We always look for seating and shade opportunities, but don't overlook the need to recline and get some sun. Particularly in urban areas where shadows chase you from tall buildings, maximizing that sunny spot can play a big role."

Scott Jordan, principal at Civitas, an urban design and landscape architecture firm based in Denver, said they use the mantra "no instructions necessary" in designing sessions. Meaning that "what we design must instill comfort, engage users, and provide them with a platform to use a space as they see fit."

Another key concept when creating interaction with nature in urban settings is authenticity, he added. "When conceptualizing new or revitalized park spaces, we spend a lot of time exploring the history of a site, how it's been used in the past when natural systems shaped the place, and how it's evolved over time. By peeling back the layers of a site's history, it provides you with a lot of clues as to how to approach the design, what natural systems should be restored, and how an intervention can instill or enhance authenticity in the place."

Working in dense, compact areas presents other challenges as well, including overuse. "Choosing materials that will go the distance like concrete, stone and steel can help, but need to be balanced to keep it from being cold and stark," Hornig said. "Plant materials are critical to this balance but likely suffer the most from overcrowding."

"In dense urban environments, land is so valuable and open spaces so precious that these spaces must provide multiple benefits and meaning for many different user groups," Jordan added. "When designing these spaces, we must create unique human experiences and interactions with nature in such a way that the natural spaces are perceived as intentional and special."


One larger project Civitas recently worked on is the 31-acre St. Patrick's Island in Calgary, Alberta—an urban island in the Bow River. Calgary's oldest park had become neglected and underutilized over the years, and had fallen prey to crime and drug trades. Jordan, the site's project manager, said, "The island had stopped evolving and functioning as an island. With this design transformation, we've reintroduced a resource that's set within one of the most beautiful rivers flowing through a downtown metropolis in North America."

The island now features picnic and playground areas, a sledding hill, an amphitheater, river access for fishing and rafting, a restored channel for wading and water play, and a wetland and forest providing an important habitat for nesting eagles, owls and songbirds.

As cities get more crowded and space becomes scarcer, planners and designers will have to become more innovative to create critical green spaces. One example of this is the Lowline on the Lower East Side of New York City. Plans are in development to use cutting-edge solar technology to illuminate a historic trolley terminal—abandoned since 1948—to create an underground park in one of the world's most dense urban environments. The technology allows sunlight into the space, and would transmit the necessary wavelengths of light to support photosynthesis, enabling plants and trees to grow. During periods of sunlight, electricity would not be necessary to light the space. In September 2012, the Lowline team built a full-scale prototype of the technology in an abandoned warehouse above the actual site, serving as proof of concept and attracting more than 11,000 visitors in two weeks. Plans are moving forward, with the hope of opening the park in 2020.

Social Equity

The National Recreation and Park Association's (NRPA) statement on social equity reads, in part, that our nation's park and recreation services should be equally accessible and available to all people regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, ability or age. It is a right, not just a privilege, for people nationwide to have safe, healthful access to parks and recreation. Some of the cited benefits include community connectedness, improvements of mental and physical health, measurable decreases in rates of crime and other detrimental activities, and providing economic well-being as indicated in various studies. The NRPA works to increase social equity through legislative and advocacy efforts, research and knowledge sharing, and providing practical tools to public parks and recreation agencies across the country.


Getting back to that Baltimore neighborhood, Wyatt reiterated how kids who were part of the problem with vandalism and violence were invited to be part of the creating process. And perhaps that's why the area was untouched during the rioting—they felt like the space belonged to them. "They can't escape the city, but they can walk two blocks and sit on a bench surrounded by trees and look at the sky."

She added that nature really is a necessity for all of us, and there has to be equal access to it for as many of us as possible, particularly in dense, under-served urban communities where people deal with pollution, noise and violence every day, and have higher rates of health disparities and chronic stress.

As Compton pointed out, "Green space changes our attitudes, and free public space in cities is a crucial opportunity for people from all walks of life to interact."