Kathryn Gustafon, ASLA, a leading landscape architect, makes an eloquent argument for investing in urban park land, arguing that parks are crucial to making dense urban communities more livable: “Urban sprawl is linked with the energy crisis. Sustainability means trying to live in harmony with the planet. This isn't possible if we don’t densify our cities to stop urban sprawl. The only way to densify a city is to have urban space. One of the reasons people move out to the suburbs is to have some sort of space, some sort of breathing room. The interior spaces of landscape in the city can replace that. They're there to enable healthy living. Urban spaces allow you to take out your children, walk your dog, or exercise. Parks provide a place to just stop and rest for a moment, stop and think about where you’re going and what you’re doing. Those are the roles of urban space in the city.” Similarly, David Owen writes in Green Metropolis that New York City, which he argues is the greenest city in the U.S. on a per-capita basis, has successfully used its major parks, to create dense, low-carbon communities.
Washington, D.C., should continue to encourage densification by expanding urban park land through urban redevelopment. New redevelopment and brownfield reclamation projects within the District should be required to include public green spaces.
Transportation infrastructure accounts for 20-40 percent of all urban land. Even in Washington, D.C., which has invested in a range of sustainable transportation options, streets, intersections, and alleys account for 22 percent of all land, and once you include parking spaces, that number easily reaches 30 percent. These systems have also enabled the growth of transportation-related GHGs, which now account for 30 percent of all U.S. emissions.
A study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that if all conditions that accompany densely populated communities were present, such as good transit, proximity to shopping, and recreational activities and a walkable environment, families in that community could reduce vehicle use by 25-30 percent. As a result, comprehensive transportation planning must incorporate community-focused accessibility strategies. Walkable and bikeable communities inspire residents to leave their cars at home.
D.C. should undertake a program targeted at reducing car use by making bicycle and pedestrian access even better. The District should systematically survey and address barriers to walkability (narrow sidewalks, difficult crosswalks, and dangerous intersections) across the city through redesign programs. D.C. should significantly expand its network of bicycle infrastructure and further grow its successful bike share program.
New York, San Francisco, and other cities have pioneered programs to transform streets and parking spaces into open pedestrian plaza. New York City just turned parts of Broadway into permanent pedestrian-only spaces. Also, in a new program, the city is finding old parking lots and other under-used areas in communities with low per capita open space and turning them into plazas.
On the smaller scale, parklets are safe, people-friendly environments that offer inviting café-style chairs and tables, benches, and trees and plants. These spaces, which can be created for less than $20,000, encourage people to get out of their cars, walk, and interact, which helps build the local economy. In San Francisco, one new parklet increased pedestrian foot traffic by 37 percent.
Like innovative cities such as Vancouver, San Francisco, and New York, Washington, D.C., should implement a set of temporary or permanent pedestrian-only spaces where transportation infrastructure exists. A set of parklet pilot projects could be also initiated. Possible locations for pedestrian-only zones and parklets: Georgetown, Adam’s Morgan, Dupont Circle, or Chinatown.
Isolated underpasses, which are often spaces for crime, are found directly below highways. As some cities know, underpasses are diamonds in the rough, ripe for polishing. For example, the city of Toronto is reusing one of its highway underpasses to create a 2.5-acre park, connecting neighborhoods and creating valuable green space in the process.
Washington, D.C., is also filled with foreboding underpasses. Many neighborhoods without parks could explore transforming underpasses into park space.