Book review - Parks standards are worth fighting for

Peter Harnik's book - Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities - on American green space offers lessons for the UK, says parks consultant Alan Barber.


Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities
Author: Peter Harnik
Publisher: Island Press
Price: £18.04

Peter Harnik is the director of the Center for City Park Excellence in Washington DC. The centre is part of the Trust for Public Land that protects the trails and watersheds of the USA, often by buying them to keep them from development.

It was Harnik who brought together the 2001 Urban Parks Colloquium, which includes Professor John Crompton - well-known to attendees of CABE's leaders' programmes. The colloquium identified the seven habits of highly-effective park systems, which can be downloaded from the centre's website. In my own green future research, I compare these seven essentials with the 12 indicators of performance I formulated to guide park managers in the UK. These describe what we should be doing as demonstrable best practice and have much in common with USA practice.

It is the closeness of the American experience to our own that makes Urban Green essential reading. I first came across Harnik's writing when he was asked, along with ten other international experts, to write about proven success in park management in their own countries. Harnik wrote about the Minneapolis park system and its uniquely elected parks board for CABE.

From this and the other contributions, the Bartlett School of Planning with John Hopkins distilled 13 Lessons for UK park managers. I still regard Is the Grass Greener ...? as the best publication CABE ever produced. In testifying to the wisdom of the Minneapolis city fathers, Harnik's essay really does hit every button.

The clarity of Harnik's writing is still a joy in this book, as is the wisdom he expresses. In the USA, it is even easier to debunk quantitative standards than in the UK. Here, our planners hold on to them to oblige developers to provide green space with their developments or at least desist from appropriating green spaces for build development. In the USA, developer exactions - contributions to you and me - are mainly in lieu cash payments on a per-unit basis. They vary hugely from city to city and most are rarely high enough to cover the cost of the land. Some cities, including Houston, have only just passed their first exaction law.

Nobody should believe such yardsticks are sensible if you cannot reorder the built form of a city to provide green space where you want it. Quantitative planning standards also ignore the diversity of green spaces, which is what the public really enjoy. Harnik shows how American cities vary so much in what they claim is needed that some, such as Jacksonville, will not be satisfied until all traces of urbanity disappear under a pastoral carpet. What can you do with 128 acres per 1,000 people? Yet others, such as Miami, which takes just six per cent of the total land area, seem in no hurry to add space.

Harnik concludes that this does not matter, so long as a fair and transparent process can be seen at work and the overall trend is to add more parkland for all the right reasons. He says: "Understanding motivations and political realities is more helpful than hoping to be rescued by standards."

He is a strong advocate of community gardens in particular but feels that between the legalities, the neighbours, the soil and the weather, managing urban agriculture becomes extraordinarily difficult - more so than normal public parks. They need civic champions. As in the UK, sharing school playgrounds is fraught with difficulty and many authorities have backed off the whole idea.

Several of the American cities featured in Urban Green have already been analysed by Harnik's team to determine the value of their park systems to the cities themselves. The results are stunning and freely available from the Center for Park Excellence. Ironically, they argue the case for international co-operation to standardise future methodologies.

These are standards worth fighting for. My own suggestion is that the final figure for the value of urban green should feature in a public display similar to that in Times Square, New York, which counts the USA's national debt, mounting as it does every second of the day. You could put the annual park value measure outside Parliament and watch the drop in value exceed each budget cut many times over.

Harnik is scathing about the amount of parkland lost to car parking, especially when it rarely correlates with visitor numbers. He is much kinder to water bodies and says parks will benefit from greater attention being paid to storm water retention. He praises steps already taken in Viewpoint Park in Seattle and the project manager for turning a liability into "an incredible asset for the community".

Examples of ingenuity seem endless here and many easily translate into what could happen in the UK. Much of what Harnik writes requires only a willingness to meet political objectives, rather than detailed technical solutions. There is greater autonomy for civic leaders in the USA and a greater variation in the cities themselves. It is not difficult to enjoy Harnik's optimism, nor to admire just how much this book can tell us about our own urban green.

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