By Stephanie Nestor, Assistant Editor, Council Magazine

As increased density in urban centres leads to low land availability, it can be difficult for councils to find vacant land that can be used as dedicated recreational space. However, through the idea of pocket parks, University of New South Wales (UNSW) researchers are working with councils to find ways to repurpose underused land by setting up green oases in cities.

Decades ago, large plots of land could be set aside for parks, but now that Australia’s urban centres are highly developed, there is little room for councils to develop large public squares. Even though other infrastructure projects may take priority over a park, it is vital for urban residents to have access to greenery, meeting spaces and playgrounds.

That’s why UNSW researchers believe the best approach for councils is to start thinking small with pocket parks. Pocket parks create an opportunity for local governments to repurpose underutilised land without undertaking large-scale redevelopment, such as replacing a dilapidated building or reclaiming a portion of road, while still providing public space.

Despite their small size, these pocket parks can make a big difference for urban communities, as they take up minimal space, being no bigger than a few hundred square metres, yet can enhance the quality of life for residents by offering just the right amenities in a simple yet elegant way.

It’s all about proximity

When a city has little vacant land left, it’s important to make use of every square metre. Pocket parks offer a creative way for councils to approach planning when faced with overdevelopment and increasing populations. Senior Lecturer in Landscape Architecture and Urban Design from the School of Built Environment at UNSW, Dr Mike Harris, said there are three main ideas behind pocket parks: population growth, accessibility and environmental protection.

“One reason is just about providing more public space in places where there’s an increase in population, which is important in parts of cities that are densifying, particularly inner suburbs of capital cities and many smaller cities. “Another reason is that there’s more people coming in, but we’re not getting any more public space. These pocket parks, depending on how they’re done, are a way to increase public space and make it more accessible.

“So often now, local governments and state governments look at metrics around a whole range of urban qualities, and one of them is accessibility to open space. If you go through a neighbourhood and you place smaller public spaces across a district instead of having one big park in some other location, it means that a lot more people can be in close proximity to a public space, a very short walk from their home.

“The third reason has to do with the environmental side of things. A pocket park gives you the ability to do more stormwater cleaning or increase canopy cover, which then goes on to improve a whole range of environmental metrics and livability standards.”

Finding room in the city

More pocket parks are popping up in densely populated urban areas around Australia, such as Sydney’s inner west and eastern suburbs, in order to make sure communities have access to sitting areas, play equipment, shade and greenery. UNSW surveys show the most important things for residents are places to sit and socialise.

For many councils, developing pocket parks has encouraged planning teams to make use of every square metre of land available.

Previously, councils have repurposed dilapidated houses or required new large developments to provide some form of public space, but such strategies have become too expensive as real estate prices increase and there are fewer opportunities to negotiate with large developments.

Dr Harris said the biggest opportunity for councils to find room for public space is in streets. “In urban centres, without public space at all, you’re only left with footpaths,” Dr Harris said. “While the footpath has historically played a really important role in social exchange, commerce, and the life of the city, a lot of our city centres in Australia actually didn’t factor in public space when the subdivisions were done.

“One of the biggest opportunities for pocket parks is re-appropriating road space. You can’t build a meeting place or a playground on a footpath, so repurposing road space is a way we can find more public space, and that’s critical in urban centres.”

Space to come together

Given their small size, these parks can be spread out and tailored to suit specific purposes, whether it be extra seating near shops, play equipment for children in residential areas or more greenery among apartments. “These are places where people can meet and hang out, where you can just go and sit on a bench and be part of society,” Dr Harris said.

“It’s really important to realise that the purpose of public space is for people to participate in and be part of the urban life of society where they are. Councils really have the ability to tailor them to a specific context, whether the area is residential or a town centre with shops.

“Sometimes they’re just places to sit down. It’s pretty important for people, especially for elderly or parents with a baby, to be able just to have these opportunities to sit down while walking or shopping.”

Thinking creatively about planning

With pocket parks scattered around a city, there are more opportunities for residents to stay active and participate in society, as opposed to just having a single large park in one area. Developing these miniature spaces encourages councils to think creatively and practically about public planning, bringing together community needs and local government teams.

Dr Harris said pockets parks offer councils an opportunity to design public spaces that are small but effective. “The one thing I would encourage councils to do is actually stop and take a survey of what opportunities are out there,” Dr Harris said. “There’s a lot of redundant traffic spaces like slip lanes that are just not necessary. There are projects underway now where they’re closing a slip lane around a corner and developing a public space over the slip lane and pedestrian island.”

Additionally, utilising street space not only offers a creative approach to developing public recreational spaces, but also helps councils with traffic management. “Councils are always dealing with traffic management, particularly how to improve pedestrian and cyclist management, and understanding the impacts of traffic on communities. Pocket parks can address traffic concerns by closing some roads and lowering overall traffic volume, making the street safer for everyone, especially children.” Dr Harris said.

“We should be thinking about streets that don’t have critical traffic functions in different ways that are more about being place-based and social spaces. “This idea of a pocket park dovetails into that strategy nicely as it encourages movement and place frameworks, bringing together the often separated areas of transport and planning, which should be really connected, in a much more holistic way.”

As cities continue to expand into the future, making room, even if it be small spaces, for parks can change how councils approach planning, traffic management and improving liveability for urban residents.

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