When we say “urban center,” you may think “concrete jungle,” but that isn’t always the case. A number of cities across the globe are embracing the revitalizing effects of green spaces in their urban places. Here are a few of our favorites.
Known as America’s oldest park, Boston Common has a long, storied, and somewhat strange history. Created in 1634 by the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Common began as less of a park and more of a 50-acre grazing pasture for cows, though this tradition ended when families began to abuse their cow-grazing privileges and snuck more bovine than allotted onto the grassy fields. The park saw a little more action in the 18th century when it was used as a camp by British soldiers, and later, (gruesomely) as a site for public hangings.
Life in Boston quieted down in the 1830s; Boston Common became a recreational park, though early visitors described some portions of its public gardens as “a moist stew that reeked and that was a mess to walk over.” City planners took note. Since then, the park’s marshes have been filled with soil (nearly 93,000 tons), and the area has transformed into a place for Bostonians to lounge, play sports, picnic, and even protest.
It seems that transforming swampy territory into public parks is a theme across the globe. Today, Sydney’s Paddington Reservoir feels like a fern-filled field right out of a fairytale, but it wasn’t always that way. From 1866 to 1899, the site was a water reservoir that funnelled and processed water from the Botany Swamps. Eventually, it was transformed into a storage facility and housed motor vehicles until 1990, when the roof of the former reservoir collapsed. Collectively concerned, building owners decided to revitalize the space in a way that would avoid the need to rebuild the crumbling west chamber roof.
The result? A stunning sunken garden that provides a respite from the bustle of Sydney’s streets. You can access the green space via stairs or elevator, and there’s even a rooftop reserve on the structure’s existing (and sturdy!) roof over its eastern chamber.
Gardens by the Bay
While many metropoles might balk at the allotment of 250 acres of land for a public park, Singapore’s urban planners didn’t even bat an eye. Not only did they devote this staggering amount of land to a public space, but they upped the ante and created a series of enclosed gardens with individual ecosystems that house 162,900 plants from over 200 species. In 2006, the city of Singapore held a contest to determine who would design the magnificent urban green space. Two firms — Grant Associates and Dominic White — won out, designing one of the most revolutionary and iconic green spaces on the planet. The Gardens by the Bay also boast an unparalleled view of the Singapore skyline, offering a truly magnificent addition to this futuristic city.
To say that tourists enjoy the space is an understatement; over 20 million have visited the park since its completion in 2011. Walk along the shore, traverse the paths around the magnificent Supertree Groves, and ogle the skyscraping towers of green at Cloud Forest.
Laying claim to the title of the “world’s first elevated park,” the Promenade Plantée in Paris transformed an abandoned rail line and viaduct into a verdant parkway promenade. Completed in 1994, the parkway runs like a green ribbon through Paris’ 12th arrondissement from the Opéra Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes — a distance of nearly three miles (4.5 kilometers), though only about a mile of it is truly elevated. The remainder slopes downward to become a pedestrian thoroughfare at street level.
Parisians have a failed rail line from 1969, as well as the landscape architects Jacques Vergely and Philippe Mathieux, to thank for their affectionately nicknamed Coulée Verte (“Green Stream”). Today, the pedestrian portion of the promenade is lined with galleries, cafés, restaurants, and shops. The French believe that their Coulée Verte has inspired other urban centers to transform unused, elevated rail lines into green spaces — yes, we’re looking at you, New York!
The Japanese city of Osaka has embraced urban greening in the most unique, streamlined, and functional way possible — by building it into the footprint of a long-demolished baseball stadium. Featuring an eight-level, graduated rooftop garden, the development stretches across a span of city blocks and is overflowing with plentiful plants, rock gardens, lawns, waterfalls, a canyon, and even a vegetable patch! Completed in 2003, Namba Parks was an opportunity for the highly populated and densely built Osaka to reinvent itself for visitors and long-time residents alike.
A spectacular scene, Namba Parks’ graduated lawns give visitors the sense of standing atop a mountain, an impressive illusion for an intensely urban center. The conceptual ingenuity and imaginative reuse of abandoned space makes this site a model for other burgeoning cities.
While Canada’s nickname may be the Great White North, this moniker doesn’t seem to apply to verdant Vancouver. Home to a 1,001-acre green space that graces the downtown area and is framed by the watery borders of Vancouver Harbour and English Bay, Stanley Park was created in 1886 when the city was first incorporated. Initially the 3,000-year-old homeland of Canada’s indigenous coastal peoples, the park is now an extensive recreational area and cultural center for the city and its environs. The entirely natural space has been shaped by years of harsh Canadian weather, though its nearly half a million trees have buffeted the area from any serious damage. There have also been some additions over the years, including the construction of an aquarium, miniature train, and polar bear exhibit.
Today, the park is awash with outdoor offerings that include beaches, playgrounds, lakes, trails, and sightseeing lookouts. The grounds receive over eight million visitors annually, who all seem to have congregated on TripAdvisor, voting Stanley Park the “top park in the entire world” in 2014. The people have spoken!
Van Cortlandt Park
The Bronx, New York City
While most visitors to NYC can name the famous rectangular park that graces the middle of Manhattan, Central Park is by no means the city’s most expansive. To clarify, Van Cortlandt isn’t either, but it does come in at third-largest, covering 1,146 acres of land. Preserving the last pockets of New York’s 17,000 year-old woodlands, Van Cortlandt is largely wild, save for the oldest golf courses in the country, its numerous sports courts, and its horseback riding facilities. The park features Tibbetts Brook, Van Cortlandt Lake, old-growth forests, outcroppings of rare granite, and plenty of opportunities for hiking.
Van Cortlandt Park is a place of history and culture — it’s the homeland of the native Wiechauqskeck Lenape, as well as the site of conflicts between settlers and Native Americans. The Dutch influence on the Hudson Valley is clearly evident in the Bronx and in the park. So, whether you visit to view the majestic Van Cortlandt mansion, soak up the complex history of the place, or simply enjoy the green space, this sprawling park will put New York’s northernmost borough on your sightseeing map.
Santiago Metropolitan Park
The Santiago Metropolitan Park is often referred to as the green lung of Santiago, but you’ll need two functioning ones to climb its steep inclines. When it was created in 1966, Chilean city planners scoffed at the idea of including just one hill in the park’s layout and, instead, decided to include three miniature mountains (San Cristóbal, Chacarillas, and Los Gemelos).
While much of the green of this city park is comprised of brush and cacti, there are some heavily forested areas as well. Follow the footpaths for stunning panoramic views of Santiago and the Andes beyond, or view a 50-foot (15 meter) Virgin Mary at Mount San Cristóbal. If your knees doth protest, cable cars (from Pedro de Valdivia Norte) and a nearly 100-year-old (but still functioning!) funicular take tourists to the summit (and the national zoo). If you’re lucky, you’ll ride in the same funicular carriage that Pope John Paul II did on his way to see the statue of Mary — #blessed.
Header image by Andrew Griffiths.