The importance of urban green in times of epidemics

Volkspark Friedrichshain, Berlin
Friedrichshain Park in Berlin

By Prof Ares Kalandides

As has been my habit in the past weeks of semi-seclusion, I went running again in the park today. I am lucky enough to be living in a city, Berlin, where getting on a bicycle and going to the next park is not a luxury, but part of people’s everyday life. I was shocked to find out that in other cities where green in the city centre comes at a premium, such as Paris or my home city, Athens, the authorities decided to close down public gardens and parks, adding a further burden to people’s confinement. Now, I don’t pretend to know anything about public health, so it is not possible for me to judge the decision on such grounds.  I do wonder, however, whether controlling the use of public spaces, making sure for example that people don’t gather in groups, wouldn’t have been a more sensible measure, in terms of both mental and physical health[1]. Indeed, urban green in the 20th century was planned having people’s health in mind (s. blog posts about epidemics and the history of urban planning in the 19th and 20th century here for part 1 and here for part 2).

Berlin is in a very privileged position with about 41% of its total surface green (forests, urban green and agriculture) and water. The city has 2,500 designated green areas, comprehensive landscape and biodiversity plans, and a recently adopted “Charter for Urban Green” – all contributing to a high quality of life for the city’s residents. The protection, maintenance and further development of the urban green is responsibility of the twelve boroughs and the city-state administration (Senatsverwaltung für Umwelt, Verkehr und Klimaschutz or Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection).

41% of Berlin’s total surface is green and water

Closest to my home is Volkspark Friedrichshain, a 49-hectar green space and the oldest municipal park in Berlin. Its beginnings go back to 1840 when it was proposed as an important element of a larger green plan for the growing city. The design, implemented a few years later, followed the tradition of the English landscape park, where aesthetics was more important than use qualities. Playgrounds and exercise areas were added decades later, when the importance of open space and physical exercise were becoming more broadly recognized. As I argued in the two blog posts referenced above, issues of public health have been a constant concern of urban planning since the end of the 19th century, something that we tend to easily forget today.

Volkspark Friedrichshain, Berlin
Volkspark Friedrichshain, Berlin

What impresses me more in Berlin, however, is the existence of another type of park, that designed in densely-built areas – particularly in areas where apartments tend to be smaller, reflecting the social status of the neighbourhood’s inhabitants. This should be understood as a kind of ‘environmental justice’ or a ‘right to green space’. Reform movements at the turn of the century in Germany caused a shift from largely ceremonial ‘decorative green’ to usable ‘sanitary’ or ‘social’ green in cities.  An example of this change in function was the award-winning competition design for the Schillerpark, built in the densely populated district of Wedding between 1909 and 1913. Martin Wagner, who was city councilor responsible for planning from 1926 to 1933, insisted on that distinction between decorative and sanitary green, whereby only sanitary green would enable healthy and humane living: a system of green spaces which would loosen up the big city, ventilate the densely built-up residential areas and offer the residents a leisure area was decisive in urban planning. His conclusion was that open spaces must be created where they are needed, that is, in close proximity to the residential areas.

Schillerpark in Berlin
Schillerpark in Berlin, as presented in the urban design exhibition of 1910. Source: Bericht über die Gemeinde-Verwaltung der Stadt Berlin in den Verwaltungs-Jahren 1906 bis 1910. Erster Band, Berlin 1912, p. 222

Not all cities have the extension and planning history of Berlin, whose development after the late 19th century should be understood in conjunction with the nascent field of epidemiology. German planning legislation, largely centralized (albeit federally) and under the auspices of a strong welfare state, allows for stronger intervention in private property rights than does, for example, the liberal bourgeois tradition very common in the Anglo-Saxon world. It also differs from developer-driven or financialized urbanization, where profit-making is the main objective behind planning. It finally stands in stark contrast to urban development in other areas of the world, where settlements are formed largely through rapid migration (internal or transnational) and informal settlements caused by poverty or (civil) wars. It is very difficult, not to say impossible to retrofit densely built cities to accommodate more “sanitary” green at a large scale. Should you wish to do it, you would need to apply eminent domain, expropriate land and repurpose it as a garden or a park. In most cases however, expropriation takes place at the expense of weaker communities that have less leverage with power structures: those who would profit most from additional green spaces are those who then lose out first. So, what is to be done?

New Waterfront in Thessaloniki
The New Waterfront in Thessaloniki, designed by Nikiforidis/Cuomo has opened up the densely built city to its waterfront creating much needed high quality and green public space.

The main idea would be to downscale our expectations. If you can’t have large green areas, maybe a large number of smaller ones will help. I am not talking here about green roofs or green courtyards, which will certainly improve the urban climate, but will not add leisure green space. What I mean is the greening and opening-up of previously unutilized spaces to the public with people’s needs for movement, open skies and space in mind. Such interventions may include: pocket parks in derelict plots or even between traffic arteries; the improvement, broadening and greening of pavements; focused ‘leisure’ pedestrianization (as opposed to pedestrianization in mainly retail areas to which I am generally opposed); creating or/and upgrading of promenades along rivers, canals, lakes, coastlines and other waterways; green corridors that link existing public spaces allowing people to move longer distances, and a lot more.


Pocket park Jardín Edith Sánchez Ramírez in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighbourhood. By keizers – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35921668

The list is not limited to the above, and even those seemingly small interventions can be extremely hard to push through politically and financially. However, going back to my opening paragraph in this blogpost, I would like to urge authorities to think again whether closing off available green spaces in times of an epidemic is really the right thing to do or whether by doing so they’re aggravating an already challenging situation.

Volkspark Friedrichshain, Berlin
Volkspark Friedrichshain, Berlin.

Urban green and quality public space was designed to sustain people’s mental and physical health, something that we need more than ever at this moment. In particular for low-income groups who generally have less available space, for families in crammed apartments, for some elderly citizens living alone, for single mums in one-bedroom flats – for all of them, urban green spaces are vital. We should understand that closing down parks and gardens affects the underprivileged disproportionally.

So let me put it again more boldly – as Zyenap Tufekci in the Atlantic recently: “KEEP THE PARKS OPEN!”


[1] See this article in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2020/apr/07/closing-uk-parks-and-public-spaces-tipping-point-coronavirus-covid-19 for a similar argument.