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Penn Praxis has a plan for adding 500 acres of open green space to Philadelphia in the next four years. Their approach, informed by novel research by Penn scholars in areas ranging from real-estate economics to criminology, is a new way of imagining urban parkland.

By Trey Popp

There are plenty of reasons to like city parks. They give joggers a place to run, seniors a place to walk, kids a place to cartwheel into their elders’ paths. For downtown dog owners and penned-up parents, a nearby patch of grass may be the difference between a lasting interior paint job and claw marks on the walls. For a townhouse dweller making do with a hundred square feet of sun-blasted roof deck, the shade of a sugar maple might be enough to make August a month worth living.

Penn Praxis, the student-faculty clinical consulting practice in the School of Design, makes the case for parkland in rather stronger terms. In a recent report outlining a rationale for creating 500 acres of new public green space in Philadelphia over the next four years, the group credits urban greening projects with providing a seemingly miraculous range of benefits.

For starters, there’s cold, hard cash. Converting vacant properties into tidy lawns or community gardens, the report argues, can raise local property values, swell city tax revenues, and save the fire and police departments literally millions of dollars a year in averted emergency-call responses. Replacing impervious asphalt with rain-absorbing green space has already saved the city water department $35 million in hard infrastructure costs since 2006—gains that could be multiplied. The same goes for the output of community gardens, which produced an estimated 2 million pounds of fresh produce in Philadelphia in the summer of 2008 alone, valued at almost $5 million.

Then there are benefits that are harder to quantify directly, but may yield even bigger returns. Turning abandoned buildings into park-like amenities reduces crime, the Penn Praxis report claims. Adding 500 acres of green space could help prevent 20 asthma attacks a year as a result of improved air quality. The authors also cite a 2010 study that credited Philadelphia’s existing open space with generating health-related cost savings in excess of $400 million.

“Simply put,” the Penn Praxis plan declares, “city parks save lives.”

That is a lofty claim, and so are many of the others. But the declarations in Green 2015: An Action Plan for the First 500 Acres—commissioned by Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation and backed by the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter W’79—are based in no small part on evidence being developed by an eclectic constellation of Penn scholars. The analysis of urban open spaces, once the exclusive preserve of landscape architects and city planners, has been taken up by real-estate economists, criminologists, and experts in public health. Here is a survey of some of their research, and how it may inform a new take on city parkland in Philadelphia.

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FEATURE: The Park of a Thousand Pieces by Trey Popp
Illustration by Caroline Hwang
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette


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  ©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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