Climate change, global warming and the exhaustion of fossil fuels have raised the sustainability agenda’s importance. In relation to urban design, sustainability refers to ways in which a city, community or development can meet economic, environmental, social and cultural needs.

Sustainability is not just about energy or resource efficiency but also about responding to community needs, that means, designing for people.

Open spaces are a central component of the urban landscape and, due to the impacts of climate change and demographic trends, are likely to become more, rather than less, important. How can we implement sustainability, and what does it mean in tangible terms when considering the planning and design of urban open spaces?

Numerous studies have shown that green open spaces in urban areas potentially provide several benefits concerning the three dimensions of sustainable development. These are social, environmental and economic aspects that should be considered in an integrated way. To achieve these benefits, various planning and design principles must be considered. Research on the planning and design of urban open spaces in Malta has shown that five principles require attention.

The first is creating recreational areas within urban areas. Recreational areas must be accessible to all – including those who do not drive. The closer we live to green open spaces, the more viable walking and using public transport is.

Research on the planning and design of urban open spaces in Malta has shown that five principles require attention

The second principle is thinking about a network and ensuring connectivity – improving street design for walking and cycling, and providing a network of high-quality public spaces facilitating public transport use. This can reduce many short car trips, making urban areas more accessible and attractive.

The third principle investigates maximising the presence of vegetation and its potential for multifunctionality. Integrating and increasing vegetation within urban open spaces improves air quality, creating comfortable microclimates and mitigating climate change impacts such as extreme flooding.

Local surveys have shown that access to nature and environments that provide a sense of refuge or relaxation are being sought in urban areas.

The fourth principle ensures socially inclusive processes and culturally responsive proposals. Engaging with local communities to respond to cultural preferences and create a sense of ownership for public spaces is essential for successful transformations.

The final principle calls for good governance: Creating a governance structure that ‘champions’ and drives the implementation of community participatory methodologies and cross-sectoral collaborations is an integral component.

Research has shown potential solutions to reclaim urban open spaces. All it takes is some re-thinking and being open to implementing innovative solutions.

Sarah Scheiber is an urban designer, spatial planner and a lecturer.

Sound Bites

•        Vegetation in urban areas improves air quality. Leaf surfaces absorb nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, while particulate matter deposited on leaves is absorbed into the ground as they fall or are washed by rain. Urban canyons (high densities/tall buildings) create concentrated pollution. Research shows that increased planting (green roofs, trees, etc) increases deposition of nitrogen oxides and particulates.

•        Active lifestyles are essential for physical health. Neighbourhood parks are typically too small to support aerobic activity such as walking or jogging required for adults. Neighbourhood walkability is thus crucial for supporting daily physical activity.  One study showed that walkable green spaces, including tree-lined streets, in urban residential areas increased longevity for the elderly. Additionally, access to nature reduces stress and improves general well-being.

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DID YOU KNOW?

•        Trees/vegetation could result in shaded surfaces being 11-25°C cooler than peak temperatures of unshaded surfaces and reducing peak summer temperatures by 1 to 5°C.

•        Tree pits can be designed as stormwater catchments, thereby reducing rainwater run-off in dense urban areas. 

•        Typically, streets make up 80 per cent of public space in cities and thus also need to provide for social activity, not just transportation.

For more trivia, see: www.um.edu.mt/think.

 

 

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