The Importance of Public Spaces and How Best to Preserve Them

Public parks are among the most dynamic spaces in the fabric of downtowns across the world and Chicagoland. And as more people move to urban areas than ever before, preserving open space for public use is even more important. From health to housing, the benefits of parks run the gamut, and they’re enjoying a renaissance. Here’s why.

Parks have it all. They’re one of the only amenities in a city that has direct benefits to the residents of a community in every aspect of their lives. In 2015, America’s public parks generated $154 billion in economic activity and 1.1 million jobs, including all those visitors and their vacation dollars.

It’s no secret that proximity to parks and open spaces enhances the value of residential properties, making that real estate more profitable and increasing tax revenues for communities. But there are so many more benefits, both economic and otherwise. Open spaces capture precipitation aiding stormwater management and protecting groundwater stores, reducing the cost of drinking water, for example.

If we want to improve the health and wellness of our people, parks play a critical role. Only a quarter of Americans get enough exercise, and a third don’t get any at all. To help reverse this trend, in some cities doctors are prescribing “nature,” i.e., time spent in local parks, to fight public health issues like childhood obesity.

With new land trusts being formed all the time and nonprofit organizations like the Trust for Public Land constantly working to preserve open spaces to ensure healthy, livable communities for generations, the question becomes “how can the parks we build today be best engineered to provide all these benefits?”

The Trust for Public Land is a national land conservation group with a Chicago chapter, and in 2011 it published a landmark study outlining what goes into a successful park. As a case study, we can look at the 606 in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Opened in 2014, the park elegantly embodies many of these criteria:

  1. A mix of uses and maximum programming — with a 2.7-mile trail for biking and walking. Throughout the year, the 606 is host to a wide variety of events, from performances to festivals.
  2. Beauty and great design — the 606 had a lead designer who collaborated with climatologists and biologists, in addition to architects, to make a park whose physical design is as beautiful and fitting to its location as its vegetation is.
  3. Proximity, accessibility, and co-location — the park serves 80,000 neighbors, including 20,000 children, within a 10-minute walk, and is situated near a wide variety of restaurants and other local businesses. It also intersects with both bus and rail transit systems.
  4. An interconnected park web — connecting to four adjacent neighborhood parks with open spaces, greenery, and climbing structures, the 606 is part of Chicago’s network of parks. It’s also situated two blocks from one of the city’s largest public parks.

All of this means parks like the 606 get maximum engagement. People actually use them, a lot of people. That’s how they bring enormous benefits to the communities they serve, including greater public health, revenue, and property value.