With flowing movements, the woman in red tracksuit bottoms raises her right arm and, at the same time, makes a deep lunge. A group of elderly ladies and gentlemen in Beijing’s Tiantan Park follow her example. Almost precisely in step with each other, they stride in the same direction, moving their arms in front of them as they go. Their faces bear an expression of concentration and relaxation at the same time. This is not an unusual sight in the parks of the Chinese capital: Tai Chi, the Chinese art of shadow boxing, is a national sport in the People’s Republic, and many people often leave their homes before breakfast to exercise outdoors in natural surroundings. Large numbers of city dwellers do the same all over the world: office workers go jogging in Berlin’s Tiergarten, students unroll yoga mats in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and young slackliners tie up their webbing between the trees of Nice’s Parc de la Colline du Château. This is all perfectly natural today, but it began to develop only about 100 years ago. Before then, people put on their rather uncomfortable Sunday best to go on extended walks in one of the few parks that were actually open to the public in the nineteenth century: spaces such as Vienna’s Stadtpark or New York’s Central Park came into being around this time.
imperial parks and gardens, plus a further 2,000 green areas, can be counted in Vienna This means that more than half of the city is made up of green spaces.
Nowadays, it is impossible to imagine Manhattan without Central Park, New York’s green lung, which was opened in 1873. Every year, more than 25 million visitors populate this 3.5-square-kilometre rectangle, crisscrossed by footpaths, extending between Fifth Avenue in the east and Columbus Avenue in the west and from 59th up to 110th Street. Central Park owes its great pulling power not only to the vast number of sporting, musical and other cultural events that regularly attract masses of people. More than – and despite – everything else, Central Park has remained a place of calm, where the noise of the city is (almost) no longer audible and stressed New Yorkers can find a little detachment from the hectic pace of life in their great city during their lunch break or while they are out on a Sunday walk. The first ideas for such public gardens and city-centre relaxation areas appeared as early as the late eighteenth century – the start of the industrial age. In their search for work, increasing numbers of people moved from the countryside to the cities, resulting in a sharp rise in the urban population. The consequence of this was that the homes of the new working class were extremely cramped. Suddenly, they were deprived of something that they had had in abundance in the former peasant society: fresh air and enough space to move about.
Many studies today confirm what people then felt instinctively – that these two things are essential for improving both health and happiness. For this reason, palace parks in the style of Renaissance or Baroque gardens, hitherto the preserve of the nobility, were opened up to ordinary citizens for the first time, and new parks were laid out as well. Munich, with its English Garden, is seen as a pioneer in Europe. In 1789, Elector Karl Theodor made available an area of land for the garden designer Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell to turn into a public park. Just three years later, this park – still known then as “Theodor’s Park” – was opened to the public, and it was enlarged considerably over the years. A large park – such as the world’s first national park located in a city, in Stockholm, which stretches for ten kilometres around and through the Swedish capital – is now just as impressive as the large number of green spaces to be found in contemporary metropolitan areas. In Vienna, for example, more than 2,000 green spaces and 280 imperial parks and gardens form part of the urban living environment and alone account for half of the city’s territory. However, size is certainly not what matters. Small district parks likewise perform important functions: trees provide oxygen and filter out dust, and green spaces also contribute to creating an attractive living and working environment. Even when you are sitting at your office window, you would rather look out at nature than the glass façade of the skyscraper next door. Occupational health experts have pointed out that a view of a distant scene, far removed from the columns of figures on a computer screen, is a major source of relaxation.
Longing for green spaces
This is made possible at the Düsseldorf office complex Seestern 3, which incorporates an extensive green area. This park, which is also open to the public, is currently being revitalised by the Düsseldorf bureau FSWLA Landschaftsarchitektur. The planners expect to complete their work by the end of April 2014. A particular challenge is the fact that the park is under a preservation order. Changes to its overall appearance must therefore be kept to an absolute minimum. For this reason, they are using tree species that were envisaged in the original plans from the 1960s: elder, ilex, yew and sloe will continue to blossom in the park, though a more modern style of planning might have replaced them with ornamental cherry or apple trees. This does not make any difference to the fundamental importance of such open public spaces to the inhabitants of our densely populated areas, believes Thomas Fenner, Managing Partner of FSWLA Landschaftsarchitektur and professor in the open space and landscape subject area at Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences. “In surveys on the needs of city-dwellers, the desire for more green areas is always in the top three,” he says, stressing: “There is a great longing for more green spaces and more playing fields.” Parks with all their opportunities for spending leisure time, which offer a counterbalance to the stresses of everyday life, are therefore an obvious locational advantage – and this is true worldwide.
A city that cultivates its green spaces will attract not only tourists but also skilled workers who are able to choose where they want to work and where their families live. An outstanding example of this is Singapore, with its Gardens by the Bay. “With these gardens, we want to consolidate our reputation as a green city of the future,” the then Minister for National Development, Mah Bow Tan, told TV reporters a few years ago on a visit to the construction site. This city-state in Southeast Asia is aiming to develop from a “garden city” into a “city in a garden”. The Gardens by the Bay, which are now open, are part of that strategy. Since 2007, three gardens have come into being on an artificially raised site by the water’s edge. This park landscape, measuring 101 hectares, is home to lakes, sculptures, themed gardens, two huge glasshouses and 18 enormous artificial trees, which tower up to 50 metres into the sky. By day, these Supertrees, as they are known, give visitors shade; and in the evening, they take their breath away with a spectacular light and sound show. Then, these giant artificial trees glitter, beam and sparkle in every colour known to man, and the estimated 163,000 plants, used purely to provide vegetation cover for the Supertree trunks made of steel and concrete show themselves in a very distinctive light. Bromeliads, orchids, ferns and other tropical plants combine to make up this unique vertical garden. There is hardly anybody who is not impressed by this artificial-cum-natural fantasy forest, through part of which a high-level trail uns, and which even hosts a restaurant in its highest treetop.
minutes of physical activity outdoors each day is enough to boost our mood and self-esteem, according to academics from the University of Essex.
Visions come true
Because the desire for more green space is strong wherever asphalt covers the earth, but not every city can simply raise the land level to boost its limited supply of green areas, planners are becoming more and more creative. They are using all the surfaces available to them. In New York, they have reached upwards, opening in 2009 the first section of the High Line, a park which meanders its way through Manhattan on stilts on a former elevated rail line. Its counterpart in the opposite direction is likewise based on an idea from New York: James Ramsey and Dan Barasch have come up with a vision of a low-level green space in the form of an underground park in a disused subway station, the first of its kind worldwide. They intend to use fibre optics to direct daylight underground, in order to enable trees and grass to grow beneath the earth’s surface. This project is still at the development stage, as is the Garden Bridge, which is planned to open in London as early as 2017 in line with the ideas of the architect Thomas Heatherwick and the actress Joanna Lumley.
It will be a green, park-like footbridge over the Thames, linking the South Bank and Temple districts. In Hamburg, meanwhile, people will in the future be able to walk over not water, but a motorway. Work is scheduled to begin in 2014 on the first section of a major construction project in the Schnelsen district. The lanes of the A7 will be widened and covered over. This will create a total of three noise-control tunnels, on top of which there will be a layer of soil, where seeds, roots and bulbs will find a home. New parks and garden plots will be established on this upper level, enabling districts divided since the 1970s by this north-south connecting highway to grow back together. People in the city have been able to take part in the planning through public discussion meetings in order to find the best possible solution. Just like sports activities in a public park, this would have been unimaginable in this form 100 years ago. Today, participation processes are as natural as cycling in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, bowls in London’s Finsbury Circus or tobogganing in Vienna’s Prater.