As you think of your favourite cities in the world, ask yourself how many you remember because of their effective sewer network, their comprehensive state of the art rubbish collection service or their exceptional water supply system? The answer is probably none. The reality is that these public services are just expected in all great cities.
However, you will likely discover the most successful cities, the richest communities, the fastest growing cities, the most memorable cities in the world are those that place a high emphasis on their public realm – their urban parks, public open space networks and public plazas. Investing in well planned, meaningful public realm amenity makes good economic sense.
Great cities like Singapore and New York over recent years have placed large emphasis on great designed and well connected public urban open space at the heart of their cities. New public open space infrastructure such as The High Line and Gardens by the Bay highlight the Environmental, Health and Social benefits of investing in great public realm for our cities of the future. However, it is the economic benefits that often draws the attention of the politicians and decision makers.
As landscape architects and urban designers, we are constantly reminding our clients in both the private and public sectors of the economic value well considered public realm design and planning offers. We know through experience and through looking at examples both locally and overseas, great city parks and plazas increase community pride, inform local culture and provide experiences that keep bringing locals and visitors back, but it is in calculating the economic returns of good public open space that many of our clients and ourselves as designers grapple to quantify. Often it is the economic benefits and return that determines the decision making process. Unfortunately, many of the economic returns on the upfront and ongoing investment in our public parks and plazas are indirect, therefore difficult to quantify. However, there are many direct economic benefits we often forget:
- land directly adjacent or close to green space will demand an increased property value;
- by helping to increase the value of land in this way, parks and other public spaces bring wider benefits in terms of increased rates paid to local government;
- companies are attracted to locations that offer well-designed, well-managed public places and these in turn attract customers, employees and services;
- In town centres, a good-quality and well-maintained public environment increases the number of people visiting retail areas, leading to improved trading for local retailers . This results in increased rents and property values.
The indirect economic benefits are also obvious:
- Parks can save public health care costs by improving general physical/mental health and wellbeing
- Parks act as natural cooling for our cities
- Popular parks promote community pride in turn reducing crime
- Parks produce important social and community connection
For many of us this is understood, but if all of this is common knowledge, why is quality public open space in our cities seen as a ”nice to have”, rather than a valuable investment for which the return is high, not just socially, environmentally and culturally, but also economically.
In our role as landscape architects and urban designers we work on many projects locally where we see these Return on Investments (ROI). None more influential than the Orion Swimming Lagoon and Parklands in the heart of Greater Springfield, located 30 kilometres south-west of Brisbane. Since its opening, Orion Lagoon has averaged 55,000 visitors a month. However, for the local traders the real success has been a 35% uplift in retail trade at the adjacent Orion Shopping Centre. Read more.
If you are still not convinced, consider how our changing global economy will shape our future cities.
Our Future Smarter Cities
A significant change has and continues to occur in our economy. The once industrial age has made way for an economy based on high level technology and creative industries.
If you have not noticed, something interesting is happening in our global economy.
"Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.” Tom Goodwin - VP of Strategy and Innovation for Havas Media, NY.
And our cities hold the economic key to this new global economy – it appears that our federal politicians are making the same realisations. Australia is now focused on developing “liveable cities” that support vibrant communities and highly skilled workforces to foster the global marketplaces of the future. World-class knowledge based businesses needing world-class knowledge workforces are now unconstrained by location, and are actively choosing to locate in urban centres that support the needs of their workforce. They are discovering that these knowledge workers in creative industries, (young people with young families) are attracted to urban areas that offer amenities that contribute to an excellent quality of life.
"…cities are characterized by a sense of place, beauty in the natural environment, a mixed-use transportation system and a 24-hour lifestyle. These are the characteristics that will attract the creativity and brainpower that undergird the new economy." - Steven Roulac, futurist, The Roulac Group.
New urban cities such as the new Maroochydore City Centre on the Sunshine Coast are great models for where our future cities need to be positioned to maximise the new global economy. Cities designed around a vibrant public realm of well-maintained networks of parks and open space, civic plaza and waterways close to the beauty of natural beaches and national parks are essential to support public health, a strong economy, a sustainable environment, education, and community pride.
So isn’t it time we widen our economic ROI perspective to put parks, open space and public urban plazas as high up the list of essential public infrastructure as sewer networks, waste services and water supply systems.