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The Significance of Open Space - what 40 years on, is now substantially better?

The Significance of Open Space - what 40 years on, is now substantially better?

Written by Allan Rackman, Published in The Landscape, June 1979

For the purpose of this article open space is defined as land that is neither built on, nor used for food and timber production. This 'undeveloped' land is an integral part of both urban and rural environments, although I shall refer only to urban and urban fringe open space. Viewed from above, it is the 'organic green spaces' that vary in location, size and layout. Squeezed into and between the sterile fabric of our towns and the productive mono-cultures of the countryside, to some they are life-saving oases in a technological nightmare; to others they are pleasant extravagances; while to a few they are nothing more than the cheapest potential sites for development.

The more successful open spaces are often the legacy of some far-sighted individual, e.g. Jollie and the creation of Hagley Park and the River Avon open spaces in Christchurch. More recently open space provision has lacked any far-sighted vision. Planning interpretation appears to have been directed towards the provision of unrelated pockets of land allocated arbitrarily per 1,000 population, providing the New Zealander with little more than the opportunity for organised sweating. To developers, open space has meant land incapable of being either flattened or filled in. To councils their domains are monuments - a tribute to man and mowing machine.

Open Space is not a luxury - it is a necessity for healthy existence.

The need for reassessment
The inadequacy of our open space planning is apparent. The time is ripe for a reassessment. This is particularly important for four reasons:-

  1.  New Zealand is entering a recession. With a depressed economy and a net outflow of inhabitants the pressure for development has relaxed, and there is time for a breathing space where we can stand back and take a broader view of planning open space provision.
  2. With petrol shortages and a decreased standard of Iiving the urban kiwi will no longer be able to take to the distant hills or coast for the weekend. An increasingly urbanised New Zealand population will be forced to look nearer to home for its recreation and relaxation.
  3. Through the work of ecologists and environmental psychologists we have become aware of the naivety of past attitudes, and are becoming aware of the more subtle biological and sociological effects of open space.
  4. Recent planning legislation, such as The Town and Country Planning Act 1977 has placed greater emphasis on environmental aspects of development. These changes reflect a greater environmental awareness in the public.

Developments in open space thinking
As part of this reassessment it is valuable to consider developments in open space thinking and consider their applicability to the New Zealand scene.

  1. New Town design in the U.K. gave planners the opportunity to plan an open space system from scratch. One of the most significant developments was the linear open space or 'biological corridor'. Replacing the isolated park and recreation ground these spaces crossed the urban area connecting countryside with town centre, forming the basis for traffic free movement - both for pedestrians and wildlife.
  2. In several existing industrialised cities in the U.K., e.g. Manchester, 'green finger' policies exist. Similar to the biological corridor concept, these wedges of open space bring the countryside into the city. Their development is achieved by the connection of existing open spaces as slum clearance and urban renewal proceed, enabling the city dweller to walk out to the countryside through increasingly informal parks. Both 'biological corridors' and 'green fingers' are based on natural features such as stream valleys.
  3. The urban fringe, where urban development encroaches on rural land, has been identified as a serious conflict area (trespass, vandalism etc). To avoid these conflicts, urban/rural buffers have been suggested. These would consist of open land such as golf courses, cemeteries, nature reserves etc, surrounding the town or city, separating productive farming from residential development.

These open spaces are a far cry from the piecemeal provision of road-bound recreation  grounds that are so often the abject excuse for a 'balanced' urban open space provision in New Zealand towns and cities. They show, firstly the value of linking space, secondly the importance of nature, and thirdly the necessity of satisfying functional criteria. All three principles are applicable to the New Zealand scene.

An open-space concept must spring from an understanding of the landscape.

If the efforts of environmental designers are not going to be needlessly dissipated then it is essential that there is some goal towards which each individual can work. However, it would be wrong, and doomed to inevitable failure, were we to attempt to impose some grand design. An open space concept must grow from an understanding of the landscape - its potential and limitations, and an understanding of the needs of the urban dweller. It must be applicable to towns and cities of differing character and it must be useful both as a basis for new development and where there is piecemeal redesign of existing development.

An Open Space Concept
I suggest that future open space provision should be based on the concept of an interconnected open space network, a web of organic green space based on landscape features e.g. streams, slopes, ridgelines and vegetation. This could be supplemented by other linear spaces e.g. disused railway lines and road verges, which would link larger blocks of open space (playing fields, cemeteries etc), and provide a framework for urban development.

The concept of an "open space network" implies a redistribution and more efficient use of open space, not a great increase in hectares.

This open space system should be firmly based on the characteristics of the land. It is true that technological advances can shortcut or bypass many natural limitations but this is only at considerable expense both in capital expenditure on engineering works and for the continued maintenance and protection measures that are likely to prove necessary. Experience clearly indicates that human intervention in ecological processes generally produces instability, which results in considerable social cost.

Ian McHarg, the established authority on natural processes as constraints or guiding criteria for land use planning, suggests that the identification of these processes will direct urban growth and indicate suitable sites for open space. McHarg has not only propounded these principles as pure academic concept, but has clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of 'process' planning, by the successful construction of Woodlands, a new city 25 miles from Houston, Texas. His ecological approach, applied to drainage problems, not only saved the forest in which development was to be sited, but reduced traditional-style drainage costs from a projected
18 million to a meagre $4 million - a clear indication of the cost effectiveness in using a natural systems approach.

What relevance does this have to existing cities and towns? Because previous generations of urban developers avoided building on the least suitable land, the nucleus of such an open space system based on the natural characteristics of the land may already exist (e.g. wetland liable to flood, and steep slopes subject to erosion). The frequency of these open space areas will depend on the characteristics of the underlying land, and they should form the backbone of an open space network so that they will help to emphasise the unique character of the town or city.

On the broad scale, therefore natural patterns should dictate the general distribution of open space, every opportunity being taken to conserve the existing and to create new spaces. In certain locations natural features might provide an adequate open space network; however in many cases the landscape will lack the necessary inherent diversity or (more probably) streams will have been culverted, trees felled and hills flattened. It is necessary therefore to identify further potential components of the open space network.

The use of aerial photographs will enable rapid identification of sizeable blocks of open space such as the grounds of schools, universities, libraries, sports complexes, museums, sewage works, reservoirs etc. It will also reveal many linear open spaces along disused railway lines, under high voltage wireways, on road verges, and where hedgerows and shelter belts have been engulfed by development. The plotting of all these potential components will supplement the backbone of open space based on significant natural features.

What are the advantages of a comprehensive open space network?
I have already mentioned the important role such a network can play in imparting a sense of identity by emphasising the natural features of a town or city. Other advantages can be considered within the headings: ecological, functional and aesthetic.

Ecological advantages

  1. With an adequate vegetation cover an open space network modifies temperatures,  provides wind protection, reduces air movement, intercepts precipitation and modifies humidity.
  2. The network would protect from development slopes subject to erosion by ensuring an adequate cover of vegetation.
  3. Similarly watersheds and ground water recharge areas can be protected and the adverse effects of 'sealing' large areas of land can be reduced. This will reduce problems of flash flooding etc.
  4. The network acts as a corridor for the movement of wildlife. With adequate use of native plant species this would facilitate the establishment of native bird species such as the Pigeon, Tui, Bellbird and Tomtit into man-dominated habitats. Ultimately the presence of these plants and birds is likely to impart as much a unique kiwi flavour to our towns and cities as is the development of a New Zealand architectural style.
  5. The use of tree and shrub species suited to the site will reduce the cost of maintenance.  However a shift away from the 'billiard table' mentality will be necessary, as more sensitive management techniques will be required for such an ecologically-based approach.

Functional advantages

  1. The urban dweller has certain spatial requirements which must be understood and catered for. Environmental psychologists define personal, social and public spaces, and are gradually uncovering the mysteries of symbolic space; from the security and privacy of the garden, to the playground and square which provide community identity and assist in social integration. The open space network provides the diversity and flexibility to satisfy this hierarchy of spatial requirements.
  2. The urban dweller is subjected to many environmental stresses: - the noise of vehicles and aircraft, the smelI of carbon monoxide, the textural monotony of tarmacadam, and the visual chaos of most city streets etc. Man needs a relief from these continuous assaults on his senses. An open space network with a rich cover of vegetation can provide this relief.
  3. Poor environments are poor places to learn. If educational establishments form part of the network then students will have ready access to a rich and diverse outdoor classroom offering broad educational opportunities. A nature study area should be an integral part of every school .
  4. Formal recreation is often well catered for in New Zealand towns and cities; however  there is no reason why every recreation ground has to be a treeless fenced rectangle.
  5. Traditionally informal recreation outside the home has largely been restricted to the weekend exodus by car. However, it seems inevitable that greater emphasis will now be placed on informal recreation within walking distance. A continuous open space network obviously has enormous potential for informal recreation.
  6. An open space network would provide the ideal base for both cycleways and footpaths,  minimising conflict with road vehicles. There would be links between residential zones, schools, shops, factories and recreation areas. The safety benefits are apparent especially where children are concerned. The use of watercourses as linear links might create problems unless suitably treated (but a comparison of figures for child deaths from drowning in public waterways compared with those from road accidents might prove illuminating).
  7. Real estate values of properties bordering pleasant open space are generally higher and consequently provide a greater rate return.

Aesthetic Advantages

  1. Sensitively designed open space is inherently attractive, particularly where based on watercourses, slopes and mature vegetation. 
  2. Planting can act as a foreground backdrop or foil to a particularly important or fine building. These cultural features should be embraced by the open space network.
  3. Similarly, planted open space can screen a distasteful building while also acting as a screen for carparking. To be successful such a belt of planting should normally be at least 10 metres wide to give room for upper and lower storey vegetation.
  4. Open space may be an essential buffer between incompatible uses. This is particularly true where noise is a problem, because densely planted open space can significantly reduce noise, as well as having an important psychological effect. Noise emanating from the direction of a wood is somehow less distressing than that coming from a factory.
  5. A network of open space would avoid the dilution of urban form that may result from buildings having a required percentage of 'landscaped' open space.
  6. One further advantage of this approach to open space provision is that if the framework of planting is sufficiently strong, then what takes place within the framework is of less visual significance. For example, if an industrial estate were surrounded by visually dominant planting, unimaginative industrial design and pockets of bedding plants would be less upsetting than if the horror were fully exposed. This principle can be applied to all types of development, and consequently the network concept allows greater design freedom. This would lend itself to the kiwi spirit of individual freedom, yet retain a framework of 'social responsibility'.

In conclusion
Urban open space is not a luxury. It is a necessity for a healthy existence. I have introduced the concept of an open space network, tailored to the terrain and to human need. This implies a redistribution and more efficient use of open space rather than any great increase in hectares. Such a concept would be of immense value In open space forward planning, but would also be of considerable benefit for one-off schemes where land uses have been predetermined. In these situations the designer should consider how the site relates to existing or potential open space. Can the development be designed to reinforce or create a link?

There must be no such thing as 'space left over' or 'cosmetic landscaping'. Land is too precious. If the profession is to develop credibility we must present sound justification for every square meter of urban open space.

I am indebted to Michael Cole, on whose talk 'The dictates of open space', presented at the 1975 'Open Space' Conference, this article is based.

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AIIan Rackham came to New Zealand in 1979 after four years experience with Wiltshire County Council as a landscape planner. He was trained at the Cheltenham College of art course in landscape architecture. Allan is currently lecturing at Lincoln College to the second year Dip. LA class.

A conversation with Marco Casagrande

A conversation with Marco Casagrande