The Value of Open Space

The term landscape architect was initially coined by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux when they entered the New York City Central Park competition in 1857. The Board of Commissioners of the park offered small monetary prizes for “laying out the park”—one of the first formal landscape design competitions. Even a century and a half ago, there was an understanding that open space could change a city—making it a more vibrant and connected place to live. What constitutes landscape architecture has come to vary…some spaces are ephemeral and some more permanent; some are structured and some much less so; some are programmed and some not at all; some are very urban while some are very natural. All of these typologies of open space have a place in society and they have certainly evolved.

When Olmsted and Vaux designed Central Park and numerous others throughout the country, it was because cities at the time were quite congested and citizens needed respite from the urban lifestyle—a place to relax, rejuvenate, and depart from the chaos.

Today, these public parks and spaces are designed with very much the same impetus. Most of us spend our time in a car commuting, sitting at a desk at work or at home, indoors, and tending to our families. If anything, our culture has shifted indoors, with less and less time spent in public open space—walking to work, eating lunch in the park, or even exercising outdoors—and increasingly more time spent using motorized travel or otherwise sitting indoors. According to the latest census, biking and walking make up the smallest portion of commuting activities, and infrastructure that supports bicycling and walking expands existing transportation systems by supplementing segments of those trips. That being said, the same need for public open space exists, and is actually amplified because of communication, transportation, and lifestyle trends. Often, balance only comes from cities investing in infrastructure that encourages spending time outdoors in a natural setting. These moments of outdoor interaction are what we love to experience…and seeing those spaces in action is key. Even further, open space leads to healthy places, organic development, and a better quality of life; the Urban Land Institute’s Building Healthy Places initiative addresses this need and encourages leaders to invest in the necessary infrastructure.

McLane Stadium, Waco, TX - amphitheater and public open space.

McLane Stadium, Waco, TX – amphitheater and public open space.

At a base level, some of the benefits of open space include:

  1. Relief from congestion leads to better air quality. When streets are pedestrian oriented—both walkable and bikeable—cars are used less, therefore fewer emissions are generated and better air is created. The better air helps to reduce asthma and other health issues.
  2. Stormwater management causes less stress on the underground infrastructure.
  3. Increased property values (for the development that houses it as well as adjacent real estate. Houses near a public open space are valued higher.
  4. Serves as a contribution to local economies through events and programmable space.
  5. Acts as a catalyst for more development and reinvestment in the community. For example, the High Line Park in New York City spurred $4 billion in private investment and development (Source: New York Times and City of New York City).
  6. Makes a community more livable, creating a better physical and cultural environment. For example, one study found that people living within 0.5 mile of a park used it for around 50% of their weekly vigorous physical activity time (source: Han, B., D. Cohen, and T. L. McKenzie. 2013. “Quantifying the Contribution of Neighborhood Parks to Physical Activity.” Preventive Medicine 57 (5):483–87)
  7. Often, open public space includes or draws attention to key biological, historic, or geological features. For example, at Baylor University’s McLane Stadium, the design of a sculpted amphitheater, pedestrian bridges, a public plaza, and river walk reclaim the Brazos River and create a year-round community asset.
  8. Leads to less recovery time for patients in hospitals. Interestingly enough, there is an 8.5% reduction in the number of recovery days for hospital patients with views of nature (source: Science Magazine).
Tokyo Midtown, Tokyo, Japan - Yoga in the park

Tokyo Midtown, Tokyo, Japan – Yoga in the park

Making open space a part of the genetic makeup of any development or new project is not just good design anymore…it is good business. It creates a sense of place that cannot exist otherwise, allows for activation year round, and is key to the future of our cities. What savvy developers and owners are recognizing is that open space is not just about aesthetics—it is about encouraging transportation alternatives, recreation, informal gathering, green infrastructure, supplementary development, and most importantly, bringing intrinsic value to society.

Over the next several months, we’ll be looking at the intricacies of landscape design and urban planning, with content from guest bloggers – developers, industry experts and Populous thought leaders. Have suggestions on a topic we should cover? Leave a comment below.

Read more about Populous’ landscape architecture work here.

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