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Rapid Urbanization and the Need for Open Spaces

Without the creation of new open spaces, London's open space deficit will reach 46% by 2031.

Rapid urbanization is upon us. A report from the U.N. projects that by midcentury nearly 69 percent of the earth’s population will live in cities. This coming shift will mandate vast changes to urban infrastructures across the world, including increased access to quality open spaces.

In May, over 30 key public and private sector delegates convened at Gensler’s London offices to examine the open space challenge as it pertains to London and other UK cities. Panellists discussed ideas regarding the open space challenge currently facing London, as well as possible solutions and a look at what comes next.

The challenge

The open space challenge facing London and other cities around the globe is two pronged: we need to improve our current open spaces, and we need to add to our amount of open space.

In London, as in a majority of the world’s most densely populated cities, the ratio of green space to city centre residents is actually very favourable. However, the growing trend of people commuting into the city centre from the suburbs to work, as well as increasing tourist numbers, is putting undue pressure on a city centre’s open spaces during the working week. And in order to maintain the existing ratio of open space to people, London would need to construct the equivalent of five Olympic Parks just to keep pace with its current rate of population growth.

Unfortunately, underinvestment in open spaces has been tolerated for far too long. London’s failure to invest in open spaces, and infrastructure generally, makes the city less competitive internationally as liveability factors are increasingly prioritized in the global milieu. And considering that proximity to open spaces increases real estate value, London is missing an opportunity to add an additional £1.3 billion of investment value to its real estate portfolio.

Financial constraints are currently standing in the way of meeting this challenge. It’s not the capital costs of investment that are discouraging further open space development, but the costs associated with maintaining developments that ultimately make open spaces unattractive to potential investors. And since developers don’t necessarily see a short term increase in rents as a result of investing in open space, the business case, despite its proven long-term benefits, can be difficult to communicate. Thus far, the presentation of the business case for investment in open spaces has been poorly executed, and more substantial data needs to be collected in order to help present the requisite quantitative conviction for further development.

Possible solutions

Despite the challenges facing open space development, all hope is not lost. Even in a recessionary investment environment, the private sector has shown a willingness and desire to invest in open spaces, if the right vehicle can be created. For development to proceed, the interest that the private sector has shown in open spaces must be converted into investment. This can be done by creating attractive investment vehicles that bring together the right mix of motivated designers, politicians, planners and entrepreneurial investors.

Creating more Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) is one possible solution. BIDs provide a degree of inspiration and a new public-private investment model could easily be adapted from them. Much can also be learned from public-private investments such as Millennium Park in Chicago and the Tax Increment Finance mechanisms that were used to develop the surrounding area. In Edinburgh, a park bench donation scheme showed the advantages of using local traditions and civic involvement to improve existing open spaces. “Whatever the solution is to the open space challenge, it is some sort of public-private partnership,” said one panellist.

Gensler is working on a project to create a mile-long floating park along the River Thames.

What comes next?

It is important to understand that while the open space challenge must be tackled at the individual project level, it must also be considered in a more holistic sense at the metropolitan city scale. A majority of roundtable participants agreed that in the future cities need to be built differently to account for the important role open spaces play in urban environments. This challenge will ultimately be solved through a combination of stronger municipal enforcement, civic/community innovations, and private sector involvement.

More research and a bigger voice for the open space cause are the next logical steps. Without a better understanding of client needs, the ways open spaces can provide investors with lasting returns, and projected population growth, it will be impossible to bring the necessary parties together and formulate comprehensive strategies. One thing remains certain: a lack of, or poor quality, open spaces impacts negatively on a city’s international competitiveness.

Ian Mulcahey runs Gensler's firm wide Planning and Urban Design practice area. As the leader of a multidisciplinary team of planners, architects, and urban designers, he's interested in creating compelling spaces that add to the richness of urban environments, and he recognizes the competing political, commercial, and social forces that influence urban planning and design. Contact him at ian_mulcahey@gensler.com.

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