1 October 2019

Inclusive green spaces critical to the future of European cities

A new report exploring the future of cities released by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre states that public space makes up 2-15 percent of land in European city centres. Their ‘greenness’ has increased over the last 25 years – by a total of 38 percent - with an average of 18 square metres of publicly-accessible green space now available per inhabitant. According to the report, 44 percent of Europe’s urban population lives within 300 metres of a public park.

At face value, the numbers look good. According to the World Health Organisation, we just need a minimum of nine square metres of green space each. So, in Europe, we’ve got more than double, and nearly half of us can get to a local park with minimal effort.

But what these figures don’t tell us is just as significant. What kind of green spaces make up that 40 percent surface area? How many of those are well maintained? How many foster a range of uses for different ages, levels of ability and ethnic groups? What other obstacles – physical and perception-based – lie between us and that park less than 300 metres away? And who exactly is lucky enough to enjoy such close proximity, when 54 percent of us do not?

These are the kind of questions that have occupied researchers from Sweden, Norway, Poland, Germany and Spain for the past three years, as part of the project ENABLE: Enabling Green and Blue Infrastructure Potential in Complex Social-Ecological Regions.

According to researcher and ENABLE project coordinator Erik Andersson from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Sweden): “In Stockholm, for instance, the city is growing at a massive rate, which is putting pressure on existing green spaces. In addition to the conversion of green space to housing areas, the remaining spaces will be used by many more people, and may need to cater for a different set of needs. Nature is indeed the basis for many ‘solutions’, but it is up to us to create a context that removes physical, institutional and perception-based barriers to accessing urban nature, enabling a contribution to urban quality and liveability that can be enjoyed by all.”

With such dramatic urban changes on the horizon, ENABLE researchers from Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) have held local ‘participatory resilience analysis’ workshops where participants explore scenarios up to 2050 for a local development hotspot adjacent to the Flaten lake.

Elsewhere, in Halle (Saale) in Germany, the team from Humboldt University has used interviews with residents about their perceptions of local public parks to generate ‘mental maps’.

Initiatives like these can serve as a basis for local government green space planners to better understand the needs, concerns and interests of their communities, and in turn, more effectively and inclusively target limited resources for maintenance and renewal.

In the face of an increasingly divided, socially polarised and ageing Europe, such efforts to facilitate more equitable distribution of the benefits of green space are likely to become even more critical in the interest of building social cohesion and fostering a high level of wellbeing for all.

The ENABLE project draws to a close this year, and findings will be presented and debated at a side event to the annual European Week of Regions and Cities in Brussels (Belgium) on Wednesday 9 October 2019. The event is free of charge, but seats limited. To secure your spot, register by Friday 4 October.

For more information and to see a copy of the programme, click here.