The construction of urban parks is not only a matter of monetary resources. For new parks to effectively contribute to people’s well being and provide heritage value for the cities of the future, the efforts of academia and the public sector need to be involved. This involvement is necessary to incorporate the advances in know how into public policy in Chile.
Urban parks are a fundamental component of contemporary cities. In the 19th century, as a result of the changes generated by the Industrial Revolution, European cities began the construction of public parks to reduce the impacts of pollution, alleviate overcrowding and generate spaces for city dwellers to rest (1). More than a century has passed, the urban population has grown worldwide, and today more than 50% of the population live in cities. In our country, the figure reaches 90% and in Latin America it exceeds 80%, this being the most urbanized continent in the world (2). In this context, for a large part of the current human population, urban parks are the daily contact people have with nature.
(1) Mary Forrest y Cecil Konijnendijk, “A History of Urban Forests and Trees in Europe,” in Cecil Konijnendijk, Kjell Nilsson, Thomas Randrup and Jasper Schipperijn (eds.), Urban Forests and Trees: A Reference Book (Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2005), p. 23–48.
(2) UN-Habitat, “State of Latin American and Caribbean Cities 2012. Towards a new urban transition,” (Nairobi, Kenia: UN-Habitat, 2012), p. 194.
Urban parks are the expression of a nature built and preserved by human beings. They are not natural spaces, although nature is present in them and, through them, in the city. In many cases, certain remaining ecosystems within the urban perimeter, such as wetlands, island hills and riverbanks, are transformed into parks; this single transformation adds a greater significance to that of similar ecosystems that remain in the wild. From urban ecology, cities have been defined as socio-ecological systems, in which ecosystem functions are influenced by human actions and decisions (3). However, humans and their social interactions are also influenced by natural processes. One example of positive interactions is the microclimatic regulation that parks provide by mitigating high urban temperatures. A negative impact is the allergies caused by the pollen dispersion of anemophilous species in the spring.
(3) M. Alberti, “Modeling the Urban Ecosystem: A Conceptual Framework,” in John M. Marzluff, Eric Shulenberger, Wilfried Endlicher, Marina Alberti, Gordon Bradley, Clare Ryan, Ute Simon and Craig ZumBrunnen (eds.), Urban Ecology: An International Perspective on the Interaction between Humans and Nature (Boston, MA: Springer US, 2008), p. 623–646.
Today there is an interesting theoretical development regarding socioecological processes, and an enormous volume of evidence has also been gathered with respect to the contribution of parks to people’s well-being. Since the mid-twentieth century, the initial hygienic view, focused on the problems of physical and mental health, has been complemented with evidence of the multiple environmental, social and ecological functions played by parks in today’s congested cities.
Currently there is broad agreement in our country among academics, authorities and public opinion regarding the positive contribution of green areas to the quality of life. This agreement has favored public policies aimed at the construction and improvement of urban parks. The first policy dates from 1992 and corresponds to the Urban Parks Program of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, which was in effect until 2002. Within the framework of this program, 56 urban parks were built in communities with a high percentage of a population considered vulnerable. In 2014, the policy was reactivated and 34 parks are under construction while the conservation of another 15 has begun throughout the country (4).
(4) Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning, Urban Development Division, “Plan de Parques Urbanos” (Urban Parks Plan) Powerpoint presentation, 2016 <http://quieromibarrio.cl/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Pres-Minvu-Parques-Urbanos.pdf>
However, both in national and municipal policies a mechanistic view persists on the impact of urban parks on the environment. It is assumed that just as the present trees capture contaminants and regulate the local temperature, parks also generate better social relations, decrease insecurity and favor integration among the various groups present in the surrounding community. Although this happens, it is not an immediate result nor does it respond to predefined mechanisms that are independent of local characteristics. Social interactions are much more complex, and multiple factors intervene in the modulation of social relationships that are mediated by the physical environment. Current thinking in urban ecology recognizes that the social dimension of phenomena is a determinant of the ecological processes observed in cities. The same categories, however, cannot be used to understand biophysical processes (such as air filtration or retention of ground humidity) or socio-ecological processes (such as preferences for certain vegetation or use of green spaces).
Operational definitions are important when it comes to public policies. A particular investment is evaluated based on expected impacts; therefore, the more directly the park design can be linked to the benefits it will deliver to the population once it is built, the more useful that evaluation will be for those who make the decisions. However, this logic does not take into account that parks are not just infrastructures that generate certain benefits for the population. Parks are spaces with social significance that is culturally defined and modeled. In the nineteenth century, public policies were designed and applied by experts, but today the effectiveness of these policies depends on the early inclusion of the population. This is especially relevant for parks because appropriation and the sense of belonging are built by incorporating the readings and visions of the population in the design, responding to their needs, and generating adequate spaces for the different groups of the community.
There are some tasks pending so that the current efforts of construction and conservation of urban parks contribute effectively to the population’s well being and become a valuable asset for the cities of the future. From an academic perspective, we must strive to translate the theoretical advances in conceptual and methodologically applicable frameworks for non-experts. From the public sector, greater interactions with local researchers must occur to apply knowledge advances to the problems inherent in decision-making.
Sonia Reyes Päcke holds a degree in Biology from the University of Chile, a Master’s degree in Human Settlements and the Environment from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and a Doctorate in Geography from the University of Leipzig, Germany. She is a professor in the School of Agronomy of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and a researcher at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CEDEUS). Her research has focused on the characterization of urban green areas, the composition and distribution of vegetation and the processes of selection and management of plant species in public spaces. She is currently working on the quantification of ecosystem services of public squares and the application of the ecosystem services approach in public policy.