Greenspace
September 14, 2015

There is a critical difference between parks (usable recreational space) and greenspace (useless filler.) Greenspace is useless in that it is non-place, while parks are places. You can easily tell the difference - people are occupying parks and putting them to use, and a park usually has a name. Even if the park is tiny, someone loves it enough to give it a name (often even containing the word "Park") like "Duane Park."

Duane Park, Manhattan.

Nameless greenspace.

Greenspace exists as a buffer against the outside world. The public realm of autoburbia is pretty ugly. Most people do not want to see or hear a highway from their building, and so they set it back. Once you set your building back, you need to fill it with something.

This would look pretty ugly if it was just a flat gray surface from the road to the parking lot to the building.

A flat gray surface from the road to the parking lot to the building.

Greenspace is unnecessary, because if your street is pleasant, property owners will get the most value by being located up against it. If your street is already beautiful, you do not need to add trees and other fillers to beautify it.

No trees or lawn, yet still beautiful and pleasant. Taxco, Mexico.

No trees or lawn (except in the distance), but still beautiful and pleasant. Mexico City.

Same deal. Sigtuna, Sweden.

Sometimes greenspace is not necessarily to buffer, but to pretty up a street that is too wide and barren.

A wide street, even with decent buildings, feels pretty barren and lonely. Medina, New York.

Woodbury Commons, New York. It would look pretty barren by itself, and so have to add in a garden bed as decoration. We love to build things out of proportion, but then we have to find a way to fill in all of that space.

If your streets are too wide, too barren, too unpleasant that you feel greenspace is necessary - you have bigger problems to address and you should address those first.

Regarding the use of trees for shade; I am not opposed to street trees, but from my experience walking around places with narrow streets - even in hot places in the middle of summer, I find that the buildings almost always cast enough shadow that the blaring sun does not disturb me. I am not really opposed to street trees in moderation, especially if your street is wide. But, I would try to address the problem (the street width) first.

By now, you might have an impression that I hate nature when I say we should not build greenspace. I don't. I love nature. I am not saying our cities should have less nature, but instead we should incorporate nature into our cities right - in the form of parks.

Wilderness is also not greenspace. Farmland is not greenspace.

A village surrounded by wilderness in the Black Forest, Germany.

I love wilderness and nature. I think we should do everything we can to minimize our footprint and preserve as much of it as possible. Wilderness is not greenspace.

The sterile patches of grass surrounding these parking lots is greenspace;

Greenspace and parking lots.

Greenspace is not wilderness, it is not a yard, it is not a park. Greenspace is filler. If you find greenspace is neccessary, then you are doing something wrong.

Let's say that we have a neighbourhood with a moderate amount of greenspace. Let's say the accumulated area taken up by the the patches of lawn, shrubbery, etc. is around 10 acres. It adds up quickly when there is so much of it;

A building surrounded by greenspace.

If we built our neighbourhood without greenspace, and instead shifted everything inward where the greenspace would have been, our neighbourhood would take up 10 less acres. Honestly, I think there would be much more than 10 acres of greenspace in the above neighbourhood when we are talking about areas that are over 90% non-place. But, to keep the numbers reasonable in this example, we will just say there are 10 acres of greenspace. We can still fit everything in - just sans greenspace.

No greenspace. Also in this image there are no parking lots (another non-place), but effectively we have an urban area with no greenspace and only the odd tree.

Now instead of greenspace, let's build 10 acres of park.

A 1 acre park. You can build 10 of these in 10 acres.

When I say you do not need greenspace I am not talking about getting rid of nature in cities, I mean save that space and use it elsewhere - build a proper park, or if you enjoy the natural state of the environment - return that extra space you save as wilderness. This is much better than greenspace surrounding parking lots where squirrels get ran over running from one tree to the next.

I used to work in a suburban office campus - my wife she would sometimes drive over to have lunch with me. She was not allowed into the office campus for security reasons, so we would have to go elsewhere to find a place to sit and eat together. However despite being surrounded by grass and trees everywhere;

We would have to drive about two miles to the nearest park where we could sit and eat together. Here lies the irony - we built greenspace to make us feel closer to nature, but when we actually want to be close to nature (find a place where it is socially acceptable to sit under a tree) we have to travel for miles. Greenspace is useless - it spaces things out so you have to travel farther, spreads your tax base out, and its necessity indicates an otherwise unpleasant environment. I would much rather have a park.

If you think 10 acres of parkland is a little too much for one neighbourhood, how about 5 acres of parkland and 5 additional acres of tax-generating development?

I made this image months ago, but I feel that it is relevant to share here;

I took the bottom photo while walking down the street thinking about how I have seen businesses take up less space than width of the sidewalk and setback.

I had many complaints that I am making things up, and there is no way that is 30 feet. I am not lying. Here is the Google Earth measurement;

That restaurant, even if it were stand-alone on the edge of town, would be worth at least $200,000. Let's say they sell $1 million of food a year (which is not that much - they could be open 12 hours a day, sell 16 meals an hour, an average of $15 a meal, 365 days a year = $1,051,200), at 7% sales tax that and 1% property tax, they would generate about $75,584 of tax revenue per year, plus payroll taxes, liquor licenses, etc. The American development pattern is extremely unproductive compared to the Traditional City pattern where we would try to utilize every little patch of land before sprawling out.

The main street of Haworth, West Yorkshire in England. This street is fully built on and pleasant. No need for greenspace.

A commercial street near the pricier homes in town. Spot the infill opportunities.

By now, you can identify greenspace, know that greenspace is just filler that is made irrelevant if we simply built pleasant streets in the first place, and how greenspace takes up space that could be put to better use, such as a park, a business, or wilderness. I am going to talk more about parks in my next blog post.


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Claude • 10.21.2015 • 21:24 PM (MDT)
The question wasn't whether "greenspace" per se had benefits, it was whether greenspace had benefits that were as good as a park. And no, putting benches in the grassy strip between the road and the sidewalk doesn't make a park anyone would want to go to, even if anyone could be bothered to give it a name. (Maybe "Miserable Wastes") So what is the advantage of an acre of grass on the curb as opposed to an acre of functional park?
Will • 09.22.2015 • 00:47 AM (MDT)
Marc, the benefit of greenspace is not because it spreads out buildings but can serve purposes for storm water run off, evaporative cooling, and reducing Co2 emissions, among others. The pros far out weight the cons. I agree with a previous commenter that a clear definition of 'greenspace' needs to be made in the article as many people are referring to it in different ways. Because by the way the article sounds, a simple solution would be to just put benches in the "greenspace" and name it, cause thats all the author seems to want. Yes, there are a few people that excel in fields that they didn't go to school for, but don't think that simply because you didn't go to school for it you are smarter than someone did. Greenspace is, in no way, shape, or form, useless.
Nathan Lewis • 09.17.2015 • 10:28 AM (MDT)
It's not quite correct to say that "greenspace" is "useless." As Andrew states clearly: without it, we would have nothing but pavement in the form of parking lots and roadways. Also, people want some setback from large roadways. Thus, "greenspace" serves a purpose within the context of auto-dependent Suburbia, which would otherwise be a giant unbroken expanse of concrete and blacktop. The problem, of course, is that adding "greenspace" to break up the blacktop thus spreads things out even more, leading to even greater auto dependency, and an even more inhumane environment.
Marc • 09.17.2015 • 07:31 AM (MDT)
Anonymous, so if we spread things out among "green space" to combat the heat island effect, won't we just force people to drive everywhere, thereby inducing more pollution and negating any potential benefits of the green space? It'll be a Pyrrhic victory. Andrew realized this paradox in the anecdote in which he and his wife had to drive to a park for lunch; they couldn't use the useless "green space" by the road. Yet those with "real architectural education" don't get this. This is why I don't think those with a "real education" necessarily understand anything: they're trapped in orthodox thinking and fads, and today's "green" architects certainly are. The ideas that have most revolutionized urban design have come not from the trained or properly "educated" professionals, but from outsiders who see past the orthodox thinking and fads. Jane Jacobs, for example, was an outsider who saw past the urban design orthodoxy of her day precisely because she didn't have a "real" planning education.
Adam Olf • 09.17.2015 • 07:07 AM (MDT)
Utilities should run under the street, not on private property. Setbacks do not exist to provide a place for utilities, they exist to provide a bandaid for the nature we have paved over with our wide roads and because planning officials worry about what it would look like if the parking lots didn't have bushes in them. I would say that after walking around in medieval european cities for a while, I love the scale and the setback, but many have overaggressively removed trees and plantlife in order to get those last few feet. A foot of dirt is enough to plant a trellised vine, which benefits a narrow street a lot.
Mick • 09.16.2015 • 14:21 PM (MDT)
You ignore the fact that setbacks are there for a reason, you have to have somewhere for utilities to run. Also that 30' (looks more like 20') is the road easement.
Scott Rogers • 09.16.2015 • 14:00 PM (MDT)
This was great. I agree with most of your points. Indeed, one of my favorite places in the world is Daniel Webster Park in the South Loop of Chicago, which is almost exactly one acre in size. It's central to my family's life. But, even more to your point is Mariano Park in the Gold Coast of Chicago at Rush an Cedar. It's, maybe, 6,000 sf in size, mostly paved with cement (with a fountain and trees) and NEVER unoccupied.
Andrew Price • 09.16.2015 • 12:56 PM (MDT)
Hi Anonymous, thank you for commenting. I don't have architectural education, I’m a software engineer. I am aware of the heat island effect. If you read through my other articles on Non-Places you will see that I am against Non-Places in all of their forms - including excessively wide streets and parking lots. Fully built over urban areas in most large American cities such as Phoenix and Dallas easily dedicate over 50% of their land to Non-Places, often with very little of the urban core being ‘greenspace’. In suburbia, over 90% Non-Place. We're already creating a heat island effect, often to a more extreme case than other countries. I never said to eliminate nature from cities. You can keep the same ratio of nature, just build it in the form of parks. Put the nature in a way that can be appreciated and enjoyed, that isn’t padding everything out to an automobile scale. I love parks. I want to see compact, traditional cities built to the scale of people with plenty of well-vegetated parks everywhere. Can you list all of the benefits of greenspace over actual parks? I’d love to hear them.
Anonymous • 09.16.2015 • 12:33 PM (MDT)
Do you have any real architectural education? You seem to have no understanding or awareness of the environmental benefits of 'greenspace' (which you also fail to define what you even consider greenspace). This article fails to address almost every major benefit of greenspace. Ever heard of the heat island effect??