Last month, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion related to the development of  Parque Intraurbano Jurica in Querétaro, Mexico. It was an honor to join my colleagues Drs. Javier Carillo (The World Capital Institute), Cathy Garner (University of Lancster), and Patrizia Ingallina (University of the Sarbonne) to share reflections on harmonizing ecology and equity in contemporary urban park development. This blog provides a summary of my inputs pertaining to the critical dimensions of regenerative urban park development.

Regenerative Development is an approach to development that puts people, prosperity, and planet into interaction in ways that support abundance for all three. The goal of regenerative development is to insure that economic development enhances the wellbeing of the planet and the lives of her inhabitants. Attention to building and preserving multiple forms of capital, including human, natural, economic, and infrastructure, are central to the regenerative approach. Therefore, as a principle, a regenerative development approach to park development requires a comprehensive analysis of the existing ecosystem services, cultural values, and economic benefits that come from the land identified for park development. This baseline assessment should then be enhanced by a social, economic, and environmental impact assessments that evaluate the ways park development is projected to affect the baseline conditions in both positive and negative ways.

As more people move to cities, there is pressure to develop peri-urban wilderness areas for residential, recreational, and economic uses. Multi-use urban park development has been identified as a means of providing housing, entertainment, and economic expansion in harmony with the blue-green infrastructure needs by cities in the face of accelerating climate risks. However, park development can have devastating impacts on the ecosystem services that wilderness areas provide. Habitat for endangered species, migratory species, and beneficial species can be spoiled if park planning does not include adequate protections and intentional wildlife corridor connections. Birds and butterflies, along with important pollinator species depend upon undeveloped lands for food, water, and nesting; and their presence provides recreational and economic benefits for tourists, residents, and agriculture.

A healthy balance of ecological diversity helps to curb pest infestations and overactive predator species development, such as coyotes and poisonous reptiles. Benefits of wilderness areas for the hydrologic cycle are extensive, and disruption of those cycles can cause costly flooding, drinking water contamination, soil erosion, and subsidence – damaging surrounding homes and businesses. As climate change impacts become more acute, park planning must include blue-green infrastructure designed to facilitate absorption of rain and flood waters in ways that replenish and enhance drinking water supplies and serve the needs of valued wildlife, forests, and community residents. Finally, green spaces in urban settings provide shade during hot months and wind breaks that counter the heat-island impacts of urban expansion. Such increased heat is associated with higher pollution rates, such as increased ozone, and negative health impacts, such as increased asthma and even increased death rates during excessive heat months.

While park development is often lauded for its positive impact on economic development, there are often unanticipated negative economic costs for the communities that occupy a place prior to park development. Gentrification is a process that often displaces residents of origin when economic development, such as park development, takes place. Market forces lead to increased land values surrounding the amenities associated with parks. There are impressive examples of economic investments that have put protections in place that prevent local community displacement when property values and taxes rise; these include: rent fixing; affordable housing requirements placed upon developers; procurement requirements that provide economic opportunities, training, and employment for residents of origin; and cultural protections that recognize the inherent value of the historical identities of places.

Despite these excellent examples, most often the outcomes of bringing parks and economic amenities to rural, wilderness, or agricultural areas is that residents of origin lose their homes, cultural practices, and livelihoods very shortly after parks and other economic developments are introduced. Therefore, park development should intentionally proceed with attention to the potential economic costs for residents in the region targeted for park development. Similarly, provisions to protect those residents should be provided for, and public engagement processes should incorporate local residents into park design.

In addition to protecting residents of origin from displacement and loss of livelihood, to be fully regenerative, park planners should designing parks in ways that offer enhanced economic opportunities for local residents. For example, portions of the park can be set aside for community gardens where residents can claim a portion of the fresh food in return for time volunteering in the garden. Community gardens can provide significant economic benefits for local residents, because the produce can be used for household subsistence, sold in farmers markets inside the park, and sold to restaurants that feature fresh local produce. Park designers can plan to cultivate fruit trees and bushes that are free to the public to harvest – a practice that serves both human and animal inhabitants. Those who coordinate entertainment for the park can support the local community by featuring local artists, musicians, and other performers from nearby neighborhoods.

Local community members can also be called upon to serve as food and merchandise vendors, which honors local cultural practices and provides income to adjacent residential neighborhoods. Development surrounding the park can incorporate renewable energy that can be donated to the most vulnerable populations surrounding the park. Also, solar phone charging stations can be incorporated into the park, designed to serve local residents and park users. Finally, if the park will feature shops, boutiques, or markets, park planners can encourage shop owners to offer products that serve the residents of origin. This practice acknowledges and supports the culture and values of residents of origin and enhances the diversity of offerings at the park.

The creation of parks also bring significant risks to local residents in loss of cultural unity and overall resilience. When new residents relocate to take advantage of the amenities that parks bring, the overall geographical connections between residents of origin are disrupted. Farmland is often acquired for development surrounding the park, which can separate people who once lived side-by-side. As traditional markets are replaced with the markets and shops that develop around the park, regular transportation patterns change, along with the interactions that take place among residents. The overall sense of community can decline. Those most vulnerable to such changes are: the least educated, who have the least amount of flexibility in the job market; elders whose children have migrated for work; single mothers and their children; and subsistence farmers or sharecroppers who might lose their land during park development. The provision of community centers that contain community kitchens and gathering opportunities can help to preserve cultural cohesion and the important connections that increase resilience. These can also serve as centers where people can take cooking and gardening classes that foster cultural survival and provide financial resources to support the community center.

In summary, a regenerative approach to park development can create positive outcomes that enhance ecological, economic, and cultural capital. However, without intentional planning, parks can lead to the displacement of local residents due to property acquisition, increased cost of living, competition for housing, and loss of traditional livelihoods. Similarly, the ecosystem services that peri-urban wilderness and agricultural lands provide can be disrupted with park development. Conducting social, economic, and ecological impact assessments that involve the full diversity of stakeholders during the park planning process can ensure these important factors are protected and enhanced through the park development process. Key to the regenerative approach is to put people, prosperity, and planet in interaction in ways that create positive feedback loops. This makes urban parks potential sites for precious capital preservation and cultivation.

Beth Schaefer Caniglia

Beth Schaefer Caniglia

Dr. Caniglia (PhD University of Notre Dame) is Editor-in-Chief of the Solutions Journal and Scientist Senior Advisor at General Dynamics Information Technology. Her expertise is providing actionable, evidence-based...

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