The new city parks

City parks can be more than just a green diversion within the urban landscape. For municipalities and cities, it’s about

The city park as an experimental space

Parks are changing – constantly. This has not only to do with the change of seasons that urban greenery follows. Nor are these changes limited to new plantings and landscape gardening interventions.

Parks have always and everywhere been spaces that are ostensibly about the aesthetic design of nature. However, from the English landscape gardens to the Baroque gardens of France to the diverse city parks of today, there have always been much more far-reaching considerations and questions behind the design.

The parks of the early modern period, which were still laid out under the supervision of the nobility, and the parks in our modern cities therefore have much more in common than might appear at first glance: they are always concerned with addressing social, ecological and also economic developments within a firmly defined space.

This is all the more true for city parks. After all, urban society is diverse, intercultural and has the most varied demands. Park design must take this heterogeneity into account if it wants to do justice to all user groups. In addition, there are the usual factors that coincide with urban development:

How can existing facilities be rebuilt at all, or new ones built, when available space is scarce?

What influence can urban parks have on the climatic challenges caused by urban land sealing, for example?

What options do cities and municipalities have for sustainable – i.e., also long-term – planning and design in their urban parks?

Especially the perspective handling of green spaces is a challenge, because here it is important to be able to make future developments and the associated adjustments at all possible with current measures.

For this reason, too, it is important not to see the city parks simply as a recreational opportunity and a change from the usual cityscape.

Rather, they offer the opportunity to address theoretical foundations and practical implementations together in order to create a place in the urban fabric that is worth living in for everyone. Parks, always conceived as experimental spaces, are the ideal environment for this.

The city park as a real laboratory

The park as an experimental space does not mean, however, that it is merely a matter of trying things out. (Re)design is always done with a certain intention, with a certain goal in mind – even if it is open-ended, in order to be able to take constant changes into account. In today’s world and in the context of urban planning, the goals are usually wrapped up in a complex initial situation.

Why “reallabs”?

That’s why science is looking for new ways to find practical, everyday solutions to complex change processes. Even at the urban level, a wide variety of mechanisms of action are at work, and a wide variety of actors must be taken into account:

Different population groups each have their own needs that are to be satisfied in equal measure. A multitude of factors come together – technological, economic, institutional, cultural and ecological. They are all interconnected, they have and generate interactions that can hardly be grasped in their entirety.

Where science otherwise observes and then develops a model for the desired change, this approach is becoming increasingly inadequate. The human factor, together with the ever faster pace of technological progress, makes it increasingly difficult to fully capture change processes.

At the same time, scientific observation itself interacts back with these change processes – they cannot be separated from them. Because of all these interactions, various scientific disciplines are increasingly turning to the processual nature of change and are no longer content with being observers or formulating models.

Linking research and practice

The so-called “experimental turn” therefore means no longer separating scientific methodology from practical experience. Instead, interaction takes place, in a specific context – the “laboratory”.
The real laboratory thus delineates a social framework in which two goals are pursued on the basis of experiments:

On the one hand, it is about collecting empirical data and gaining knowledge about the observed processes of change.
On the other hand, this knowledge is to be used to initiate, improve and guide change processes.

The concept thus moves between knowledge generation and knowledge application, between controlled and situation-specific frameworks, and combines different approaches. The real laboratory is in parts field observation and in parts a laboratory experiment, the results of which flow into concrete ecological and technological applications.

In order to do justice to the complexity of the respective research situation, reallabs are guided by special specifications. For example, the research design is always a co-production of scientists, civilians and practical actors. What is required is an understanding of research that goes beyond one’s own discipline. This also includes involving as many disciplines as possible in the research process.

Real laboratories are designed for the long term, and the same applies to scientific support. Institutions that are familiar with transdisciplinary approaches and can therefore ensure orderly coordination are recommended for this purpose. Moreover, the methods must be considered as a process, which is why the ongoing reflection on the applied methods is an integral part of the work in the reallab.

Why cities and city parks?

There are several reasons why (sociological) research for reallabs uses the city as a reference point:

In a way, they are a reflection of society as a whole, because almost all socially and technologically relevant areas can be found here – cities have to fulfill a wide range of functions, from the energy and heating sector to nutrition, mobility, education and culture.

At the same time, the research context in a city can be better delimited. Although the fundamental complexity of the interrelationships between the various influencing factors remains, the scale allows a better overview than, for example, at the country level.

Processes of change not only affect cities, they also emerge there. Lifestyles change, infrastructures change – everything is always in motion. Here, insights can be gained on a “small scale” that can ideally be transferred to society as a whole.

Within urban research, a distinction is made between at least three levels of the real laboratory, descending in size from the city level to the neighborhood level to the household level. This results in each having its own focus, as these levels also vary in complexity.

“Green labs”, in turn, offer different conditions and are therefore conceived as a separate type of lab in the research. In terms of their dimensions and impact, green labs can certainly vary – basically they are close to the neighborhood level, but in various cases they have relevance for the entire city.

What needs to be kept in mind in all of this: The methodology of real labs is far from fully developed, but the concept itself is interesting enough to find application in research. This is also the great opportunity in the methodological area.

The reallaboratory approach can thus be continuously developed – just like the transformation processes it aims to explore. In this way, reallabs provide important insights in terms of both methodology and results – and thus ensure a better understanding of change processes.

Valuing urban green space: urban green space management Cities are exceedingly complex. They combine different functions and different spaces into an intertwined whole. What does it mean, for example in ecological terms, when industry, commerce and housing are located in close proximity to each other? What are the social consequences of such a constellation?

More quality of life through urban green
The most obvious problem is the various forms of environmental pollution and overloading that result from urban structures: They range from constant noise to air permeated with pollutants to light pollution that provides brightness day and night.

Of course, this also affects people, and that’s not a new finding. Since the explosive growth of cities in the course of the 19th century, the question of how to avoid heat pollution and provide fresh air has preoccupied urban development.

Even if urban planning did not take a comparatively radical approach like Ebenezer Howard’s garden city, the importance of urban greenery for healthy urban development has been undisputed ever since. Cities are not only space by and for people, they are at the same time always space for nature. The main issue is to combine the two in the best possible way. Irrespective of experiments under real-lab conditions, this generally includes:

  • the measurements and control results of urban planning and environmental authorities
  • clean air and noise action plans
  • Traffic development plans
  • Open space development planning
  • Climate protection and climate adaptation concepts

This shows that similar conditions apply to city parks as to cities themselves. They are multifunctional and are therefore caught between a wide range of interests:

On the one hand, urban nature should be preserved in its various forms, for example as ecologically valuable biotopes with a biodiversity that urban space cannot match.

On the other hand, parks are also climate regulators, spaces for leisure activities and social meeting spaces.

At the same time, the aspect of redensification in urban space often plays a role for green and open spaces. Where there is a lack of space to create housing or implement infrastructure projects, for example, undeveloped green spaces quickly arouse interest in conversion.


How much is urban green space worth?

This is one of the reasons why urban nature is also increasingly being considered from an economic point of view. In this way, the costs and benefits of urban green space can be compared with the costs and uses of other areas of urban infrastructure. However, whether this approach can be used to translate the many variables, such as health, social or nature conservation aspects, into robust figures is a question that needs to be addressed.

On the other hand, one advantage for the continued preservation of green spaces cannot be dismissed: They acquire a measurable, quantifiable value that can be compared with the value of other land uses. Since urban planning and development always involves economic considerations – such as municipal budgets – valuation can help in decision-making.