Low-carbon environments are better able to retain and grow their market value – and as a result facilitate economic development and sustainable, liveable neighbourhoods.

Parks make cities
low carbon and resilient

The principles governing Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo (JCPZ) are closely aligned with those of net zero carbon and actively avoid and mitigate climate change impacts across Johannesburg through providing and strengthening ecosystem services.

Facilitating a city that is environmentally sustainable and liveable by developing, maintaining and conserving public open spaces, cemeteries, Johannesburg Zoo and street trees are a broad and crucially important remit.

The past ten years, 2010-2020, was the hottest decade on global record, with each year scoring infamous records related to heat, drought, fire, floods and more, all indicators of global warming. It is expected that South Africa will continue to experience hotter weather but with less rainfall.

Futureproofing our neighbourhoods

How can urban parks and other public open spaces help mitigate climate change in the City of Johannesburg? All of them play a specific role in minimising the impacts of climate change. Here are some of the benefits they create: green infrastructure, cool urban heat islands, minimise flooding, reduce wind, lessen noise, house wildfire habitats, filter air and clean water. Apart from the environmental benefits, green spaces can also improve property values, protect the rates base, strengthen local economies, protect infrastructure and create job opportunities.

This cumulative effect of ecosystem services compounds incrementally. As Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.”

Cool urban heat islands

Consider the value of Johannesburg’s urban forest, parts of which were planted more than a century ago. The cooling effect of a mature street-side tree was found, by the US Department of Agriculture, to be the same as 10 regular-sized air conditioner units. Besides exhaling cool water vapour, they cast shade onto the dark, heat-retaining tar roads. The cooling effect of parks sometimes extend almost a kilometre beyond their boundaries into surrounding neighbourhoods, studies in three US cities showed.

Reducing flooding while improving water quality

Landscaping in parks can be designed to prevent flooding and protect water quality. By using green infrastructure, an approach to water management that protects, restores or mimics the natural water cycle, parks can filter almost all major pollutants out of storm-water runoff, and combined with features like rain gardens and swales, not only is the runoff reduced but the groundwater tables are restored. By decreasing the runoff that the roads and storm-water departments manage, parks reduce the maintenance requirements of civil infrastructure.

Cleaning the air

Urban tree canopies in parks and the wide network of street trees throughout Johannesburg remove a significant amount of air pollution, specifically from car fumes. Trees remove toxic micro-particles and heavy metals from the air by either absorbing them through their leaves or providing a place for these pollutants to settle before rain washes them into the water system. Trees also act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon and turning it into wood as they grow.

Travel and transportation

Offering motorists the option to switch from using cars or mini-bus taxis to walking or cycling first requires commuter routes to be safe. Urban parks and public open spaces provide increased opportunities for walking and cycling to and from work through their boundaries, especially if they are near a road network or can give users the option of taking a short cut through the neighbourhood.

Pathway systems that connect neighbourhoods across the municipality are becoming more important to accommodate pedestrians. Park designs mostly accommodate multi-use pathway systems as they encourage all types of recreational use and serve as a transport function. Studies have shown that without these connections the distance to travel on the road increases, along with the potential for traffic accidents.

Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it. Albert Einstein

Economic development

Parks require an investment from the municipal budget. The operational and maintenance costs of a park, or network of parks, can be easily calculated. It is understood that the municipalities return on investment is through the many social benefits parks provide. While these social benefits are difficult to objectively quantify to a rand figure, it does not mean that parks are a negative drain on local governments. The economic effects of well-managed parks and public open spaces are obvious when looking at the municipalities business model.

Income from rates and taxes is a significant portion of their budget, these are charged to residents and businesses living and operating inside the municipal boundaries in proportion to the estimated value of property. Therefore, to maintain and attract residents to aspire to live within higher-value neighbourhoods, the value of amenities and opportunities to conveniently access parks and nature is required to be high.

Quality of life, measured in no small part by vibrant urban green space, is a determining factor in real estate values and the economic viability of a neighbourhood. Property values climb if a property is located nearby or has views of a park, and the virtuous cycle is that properties located near these amenities not only benefit from accelerated capital growth, but more frequent improvements, further increasing their value. The higher level of this capitalised value results in more property tax revenue, which in theory is expected to pay for the annual costs related to the development and maintenance of the park.

Parks also facilitate the local economy through their impact on local businesses. The increased pedestrian traffic caused by a popular park attracts regular footfall. Large and small events which make use of parks and public open spaces, such as park runs or marathons, are known to attract out-of-town visitors to local businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry.

These factors generate greater income and resilience to municipalities dealing with the effects of global warming.

Resilient and robust

Low-carbon benefits of parks are robust. To amplify positive climate and health outcomes the development and implementation of strategic green infrastructure networks stack these benefits at the scale of the site, neighbourhood and city scale. Projects that give multiple benefits, such as cooling, absorbing, protecting and connecting will most often provide a greater and quicker return on investment than single-purpose projects.

Social cohesion is an additional core benefit and results from park developments and programming. A community’s ability to withstand shocks and disasters, and come back stronger, is often determined by its social fabric. In hard times, this cohesion can be the difference between the successes and failures of communities. As established parks and public open spaces directly improve environmental and economic resilience, they also build social resilience especially if they are developed and stewarded in a collaborative, community-driven approach.

Socialising, volunteering, civic pride, preserving history and appreciating one another’s differences are examples of how activities in parks provide opportunities for leadership development and social capital that matures into community development.

Importantly, parks often serve as an introduction to natural spaces for those who grow up and live within urban environments. The development of children and young people provided by access to activities in parks is invaluable, especially for at-risk youth and vulnerable populations. Experiences of positive play and social interactions lead to healthy development to the next generation of leaders, to who this generation will pass on the baton of responsibility to ensure communities thrive in the face of obvious challenges.