Connected green spaces in cities pay real dividends

Nick Chapman writes about the benefits of urban green spaces. This article is part of the Building Healthy Communities collection.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”1

The environmentalist, author and philosopher John Muir’s evocative words celebrate the health benefits of wild open spaces epitomised by Yosemite National Park in Sierra Nevada, United States, which he campaigned to establish in the 1890s. 

More than a century later, with over 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, the health value of urban green spaces, such as parks, community gardens or urban forests, is also well recognised. A body of evidence demonstrates that “access to safe, high quality green space benefits individuals across the lifespan, enhancing their physical, mental, social and spiritual health and wellbeing”.2 This has been recognised by the United Nations (UN) in its New Urban Agenda, published in 2016 to support implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Agenda sets out a new global standard for sustainable urban development and highlights the need for well-connected and well-distributed networks of green spaces “to improve physical and mental health, urban liveability and to enhance resilience to environmental risks”.3 

Good access to urban green spaces is just as important as the green spaces themselves. If the only way to get to a green space is by car, the value to the broader community can be severely compromised. Green spaces need to be easily accessible on foot, by bike, or affordable public transport. This can be achieved by urban greenways – a series of green public spaces connected by a network of well-designed walking and cycle paths, local ‘green streets’ or public transport routes. In Sydney, Australia for example, this emerging network is called the Green Grid.4 

Globally, urban greenways play an important role in delivering connected, healthy, resilient, liveable cities. They represent “unique ‘corridors of benefits that have attracted a great deal of attention from urban planners and recreation practitioners”. 5 Greenways typically incorporate a mix of vegetation, green space, walking and cycle paths and wind their way to and through parks in established urban areas. They are often defined by a waterway or public transport route, such as a tram line. Many include public art and gathering places and connect directly to local centres or transport hubs. If designed and managed well, they provide a valuable alternative to car transit, easy access to a range of green spaces and support healthy, active, connected neighbourhoods. Planners advocate for multi-use urban greenways to “enhance urban form, promote conservation of habitat and biodiversity, provide opportunities for fitness, recreation, and transportation, promote economic development, and increase the sustainability of communities”.6

In Bangkok, Thailand, most of the 2,400 kms of canals are “underused or trashed due to massive urban intensification and chronic car congestion”.7 To combat this damaging trend, local residents, businesses, university and government stakeholders joined forces to establish the C3 project in Bangkok’s Bang Mot Canal Area.8 Canal paths are being transformed into dedicated walking and cycling routes which connect foreshore sites used for a range of community purposes including public art, cultural events and growing and selling food. With a US $3million to US $5million budget, an existing 5km section of canal path is being repurposed for cycling and walking and an additional 7km canal section has been earmarked as a walking and cycling link to the Wutthakat mass transit station. 

As in the above example, Greenway projects are often initiated by community volunteers, which can generate high levels of community participation and ownership of outcomes. A major challenge for the community is to secure adequate government support and funding, which can take years to achieve.  

For example, in Sydney, Australia, the Cooks River to Iron Cove GreenWay is a six kilometre multi-purpose active transport and urban environmental corridor connecting the Parramatta River and the Cooks River, two of Sydney’s main urban waterways.9 The GreenWay also supports a range of formal and informal recreation areas (eg sporting ovals, dog parks), community bush care, arts and culture sites. It is used as an outdoor classroom to teach students from 22 local primary schools about urban sustainability challenges in the 21st century. 

Local residents and sustainable living activists first identified the potential for this multi-purpose green corridor in the late 1990’s and started establishing community bush care sites along its length. After 20’s years of lobbying and community action by the four councils and the local community, in 2018 the state government finally allocated $23 million to complete the GreenWay by 2022.10 The corridor is also identified as the highest priority Green Grid project in the state government’s Eastern Sydney District Plan.11 

Despite the opportunities created by greenways, their planning and development often takes many years to complete. This is due to a range of factors including the complexities of multiple land ownership, inconsistent political support and poor collaboration amongst government stakeholders.  Experience shows that it can be very challenging to fund, design and implement a multi-purpose green corridor in a contested, car dominated urban environment subject to increasing land values.

However, as urban challenges increase in the 21st century due to population growth and climate change, it is likely that the importance of urban greenways will become increasingly apparent. They offer a valuable alternative to car transit, enhance access to existing green spaces, strengthen community resilience, increase urban biodiversity and support measurable community health outcomes. They often enjoy high levels of community participation which enhance their social and cultural appeal. Political and funding support for the development of urban greenways is crucial in order to fulfil the UN’s New Urban Agenda in cities across the world. 

Nick Chapman was GreenWay Place Manager at the Inner West Council for 7 years and has recently taken up the role of Resilience Specialist at Willoughby Council on Sydney’s Lower North Shore. He is an adjunct Senior Lecturer at the City Futures Research Centre, University of New South Wales and teaches urban sustainability at the University of Technology Sydney.

Competing interests: none declared. 


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  10. Your say Inner West. Sharing the Inner West.
  11. Greater Sydney Commission. Planning Priority E17. Increasing urban tree canopy cover and delivering Green Grid Connections. In: Outer Greater Sydney 2056. Eastern City District Plan – connecting communities. 2018. pp.107 – 111. (accessed 4 March 2020)