Last Friday, a group of protesters gathered in Istanbul, Turkey to demonstrate against a government proposal to replace a park with a mixed-use development. Since then, protests have swept across the country, and Prime Minister Erdogan has responded with a harsh deployment of police force to stifle the action. While it’s clear that this movement represents a widespread discontent with the Erdogan administration—specifically its increasingly conservative policies and potential human rights violations—I can’t help but be struck by the fact that the movement began with a park.
Months ago, when I brainstormed for this post about the value of green space within cities, I envisioned some poetic musings on the joy of parks as gathering places and reminders of natural beauty. But recent events in Istanbul bring the necessity of green space into sharpest focus. Our green spaces may be final remnants of a historic land. They may be unadorned lawns where children play soccer. They may be gardens or pathways or minute triangles of grass on a street corner. Regardless of their delineations though, as citydwellers, we claim fierce ownership for our public green spaces.
Out in the country, rolling hills, forests and farmland stretch for miles and I know that rural residents love their land deeply, especially because it often provides for their sustenance and income. However, in the city where grass, flowers and trees are imagined as rare sites, a small urban garden becomes respite from concrete, brick and metal. A park nestled against a lake is the hub of family picnics and afternoons tossing a baseball. A bench in a city square provides a breezy lunch spot outside of the office cafeteria.
Some of my college friends who grew up skiing Colorado mountains and camping in Idaho state parks refuse to relocate to a city because they feel it would rob them of the natural beauty they crave in the countryside. This is a misperception, though. In fact, I can name remarkable examples of natural beauty in almost every city I know—from the expansive Forest Park in Portland, OR to the inviting lakes that are so central to the culture of Minneapolis. It’s not that our metropolises lack green space, but simply that the green space is busy and shared.
There are numerous reasons to celebrate and defend our shared inner-city green spaces. For one thing, they offer opportunities to exercise and breathe fresh air. For another, they attempt to level the playing field for residents who don’t have their own yards due to cost and size restraints. A shared park is also a more environmentally friendly option than a personally manicured, watered lawn. There are even arguments that well-used parks deter crime.
Unfortunately, green space often fails to include all strata of people. Studies show that access to public parks and gardens—especially well-maintained parks and gardens—is usually correlated with higher property values. Thus, the lush lakeside walking trails that I am privileged to enjoy in my South Minneapolis neighborhood will not be found in lower income areas like North Minneapolis. This imbalance can only be adjusted through careful advocacy in tune with the needs of the community, as shown in this example of a New York City organization working to transform potential areas of East Harlem into parks. However, without input from neighbors, the development of empty lots can easily become just another form of gentrification.
As the current Turkish protests demonstrate, green space is an integral aspect of our cityscapes and one that we vehemently defend—whether it is a public square threatened by a state-sponsored development or simply, cars driving too fast near children’s playgrounds. Our urban green spaces may be smaller than the forests and mountains of the wilderness, but we value them all the more because of it.