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Rethinking “Greenspace”

One of the significant urban design lessons I had came from my very first urban design studio at Washington University in St.Louis from the amazing (and who sadly now left us) Jacqueline Tatom.  It was about half way through the semester when Jacqueline announced to us one day that the use of the word “greenspace” would no longer be allowed during critiques or during reviews.

Although this created quite a stir amongst the studio and an unofficial challenge to see how many other ways we could say greenspace without using that exact word, which was very amusing, her rationale was something that I think was entirely correct and a very good lesson to learn.

Jacqueline told us that just because we could draw the color green on a plan, it didn’t actually have a use until we said what the use was.  She said that “green space” was actually laziness and a cop out and would possibly result in space that was unowned, unloved, and unattributed.  She wanted us to think about the uses of the space, how it was just as important as the uses of the buildings and the streets.  She wanted us to give our green spaces intention, meaning and purpose which would lead to ownership, investment, and integration.  To do this, she insisted that we speak about the use of the space and refused to allow us to simply call it green.

If we said ‘park’ then she asked who was the park for?  How did you get to this park?  Who maintained it?  What amenities did it provide?  What did people do in it?  Was it the right size for the activities we suggested?  Other options could be playground, allotment, wildlife area, sports field, farm, etc.  If someone just had a green verge she would ask, “Is that just a grass strip?  What use do you see a grass strip as having?”  She wanted us to think about trees and plantings- the physical qualities of that green space because what she was suggesting to us, was that without that consideration, it would simply be a patch of grass, and for the most part, a patch of grass does not add much to a place.

As I say, I think this is one of the most significant lessons for a young urban designer.  But one that does not lose it’s significance when considering current challenges.  Take for example, the ongoing debates about the greenbelt in the UK.  Originally established as a way to limit or frame urban sprawl, the green belt did not come with a clear intention for the use of the space except to be a buffer or a stopping point.  It did not correspond to the landscape or existing ecosystems, it was determined by the existing development.  Is this the right approach to green space?  There is a lot of debate in the UK about these greenbelts and their worth.  If they had been developed differently, with a conscious thought to the nature of the land they encompassed, then they may have been seen as more of a part of the cities they surrounded rather than a border.  They would be seen as something of intrinsic value rather than an annoying obstacle.

This reminds me of Terry Farrel’s proposal for the Thames gateway development.  To very much paraphrase his concept, he proposes that the land be thought of as a national park.  That the entire region be drafted up with that sole purpose in mind, and that in the areas with the least ecological value, this is where you put development.  As opposed to slotting in green space around your plans for development.  In this particular instance he sees that a strong vision for the land itself can both unlock the ‘right’ areas for development while simultaneously providing a landscape of national significance and value.

This sort of thinking is not actually new and was already being discussed in 1969 when Ian McHarg’s seminal book “Design With Nature” was published.  This book tries to establish a premise for how the natural world and man made interventions can be intertwined, not that one subjugates the other, and suggests that to do so enhances both the natural systems and the man made systems.  For those interested in some of the foundations of the idea, it’s well worth a read.

So it’s certainly not a new concept, but it is one that seems to often get overlooked.  And there are still many plans that can be found with areas marked as ‘green space’.  Although landscape can often be one of the least expensive aspects of a large development project, it is also often one of the first to get cut.  It can also one be one of the more difficult to maintain, because often these spaces do require more regular involved maintenance than buildings.  It is very important for the long term success of these places to not just design them with intent but to also understand how they will be managed and up-kept.  If the space is to be given over to a community or specific individuals, then for it to be effective that community or individual has to have access to resources to maintain it themselves, otherwise it will fall into disrepair.  These spaces, no matter how large or how small are often some of the most important spaces for creating a ‘feel’ for a place.  Or to put it differently, nothing can let a development down quite as much as a poorly maintained or realized landscape.

It is the role of the urban designer to consider both the buildings and the spaces around the buildings.  They are one of the few professions that can really influence the integration of the landscape and ecology into a development, or a place.  These areas can add significant value to the places they are intertwined with, no doubt.  Just please, don’t call it greenspace.

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