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No. 14: Urban greenspace

Petersen, L.K., Hald, A.B. & Jensen, A. 2011. Livsstil og naturkvalitet i byrummet. En synteserapport. Aarhus Universitet, DCE – Nationalt Center for Miljø og Energi, 64 s. - Videnskabelig rapport fra DCE - Nationalt Center for Miljø og Energi nr. 14 http://www.dmu.dk/Pub/SR14.pdf

Summary

Urban greenspace is a key component of urban sustainability. Urban green areas provide habitats for flora and fauna and have a substantial value as such. But the city’s ecosystems also provide a variety of services to the city and its people.  These ecosystem services consist of physical and biological functions such as air and water purification and protection against extreme weather as well as social functions in terms of recreational and aesthetic qualities and spaces for social interaction.

This report presents a cross disciplinary project about Lifestyle and Nature Quality in Urban Areas (the LiNaBy-project) focusing on the city of Copenhagen, Denmark. The project consisted of several sub studies including (A) a study of the uses of green areas and their integration in everyday practices of urban populations (B) a study of policy actors’ understanding of urban green structure and spatial development and (C) a study of the quality of nature in urban habitats. All sub studies conducted empirical research comprising interviews, observations, document analysis, questionnaire survey and biological field analyses, and all sub studies have been documented and published in separate reports and articles. This report presents a summary and synthesis of the whole project.

The ideas of greenspace as an urban feature and as an ecological habitat have undergone recent changes among urban planners and policy actors. The ideas of greenspace have since the turn of the century evolved from the notion that they ‘merely’ provide recreational spaces and fresh air in cramped cities of the mid-1900s to a dual role in Copenhagen’s planning. Firstly, green spaces are assigned an emerging position as an integral part of urban spatiality that for Copenhagen grants a vital nerve to the city and constitutes a dimension of its specific character. This aspect is coined in the municipal efforts to articulate and make known and recognizable a particular urban identity for Copenhagen, marked by among other things, green and climate friendly life-styles and liveable urban spaces that invite for dwelling and encounters. Greenspaces are a cornerstone in the strategic vision of the City of Copenhagen. 

Secondly, greenspaces are allocated a patchwork of functions that benefit and sustain the city and its inhabitants. These benefits range from absorbing heavy rainfalls and limiting CO2-emissions, over cleaning the urban air and providing spaces for movement and recreations to connecting the city and promoting cohesion across its territory, providing crucial experiences of time and nature, educational spaces and public spaces for encounter of the urban population in its diversity and making it more attractive for people as well as businesses through improved liveability, amiability and options.

Urban nature is an integral part of urban landscapes and urban experiences. This is not only an emerging perception among policy actors in urban planning, but also in line with the ways in which urban dwellers use and interact with the city’s green areas. Use of urban green spaces is part of daily and weekly routines as well as special occasions and events. Green spaces serve as extensions of the domestic sphere for people living in their vicinity. They offer spaces for free time and relief from pressure and crowds. They play a role in maintaining continuity and stability in people’s lives, and at the same time they mark changes in seasons and life course. With the many different uses and activities that can take place in green areas, they also provide a space of flexibility, and in that capacity they become an asset in tying together the different spheres and the different doings and obligations of everyday life.

Furthermore, urban green areas serve a number of social functions. They are places for being together in families and with friends – places where close relations are practiced. They are also places for casual meetings and maintenance of informal social networks, for instance between dog owners, parents to children in kindergartens or distant acquaintances. Furthermore, in urban green spaces people get an opportunity to observe and experience the urban diversity. When domestic and other everyday activities are extended into public green spaces, people become witnesses to each others’ lives. In that way public green spaces provide experiences of common citizenship. And as a contrast to social interaction, urban green areas also offer spaces for spending time alone. Here people can get a chance to enjoy a sense of getting away and being gone.

The question is also how people relate to their experiences of scenery and nature in urban green areas. In general, green areas provide variation in the urban landscape and a contrast to built-up areas, and precisely this coexistence between city and nature is perceived as an important quality in urban life. Likewise, diversity of green areas – in terms of their size, their furnishing and facilities and the occurrence of plants and animals – is perceived as an important quality for urban life. Sensuous experiences of nature are sources of joy and improved life quality. People become attached to particular places and trees, and elements of urban nature are thereby woven into people’s life courses and everyday practices.

A biological assessment of the nature in Copenhagen’s green structure indicates that it is of a somewhat varied quality. The project has investigated nine specific localities across Copenhagen and nature quality has been assessed from a total of eight variables which have been slightly modified in order to allow for special conditions of urban areas. The eight variables comprise species composition in the field layer and in the tree layer as well as structure and physical conditions of vegetation and terrain. In addition to the classical variables for nature quality assessment the project also developed a new variable for recreational value of the field layer. This variable is derived from species that have a potential for colourful flowering, that are suitable for bouquets and that can be used in children’s play.

Among the nine selected localities in the municipality of Copenhagen there are sub areas with nature quality as high as the national averages, but the average of all sub-areas investigated in this project is considerably lower than national averages. Poor nature quality in a specific locality is, however, not necessarily a result of intensified use of the locality. Good quality of nature can go hand in hand with high user quality. For instance, variations in the terrain, large stones, banks, and varied plantings of bushes and trees support a varied and robust flora and fauna while such features of the landscape also support social functions because they provide shelter and semi-secluded social spaces.

Similarly, preservation of an area’s continuity as nature is an important factor in nature quality and can at the same time support important social functions. This is so because old trees have high aesthetic value, because people relate their personal histories to specific green spaces and specific elements in these, and because green areas that are allowed a long lasting presence in the urban landscape provide a sense of foundation in an otherwise changeable urban life