By: Nicole Pham-Quan
The discourse around urban greenspaces and its delivered benefits are often centered around municipal parks and gardens, which are constituted as formal greenspaces. However, the preservation of informal greenspaces (IGS) must be included in urban greening strategies for their ecological, social, and equity-enhancing sustainability gains.
Sikorska et al. define IGS as unmanaged land that is not formally included in cities’ spatial planning documents. The most common examples of urban IGS are vacant lots, street or railway verges, brownfields, and powerline corridors.
Despite the fact that IGS account for a significant proportion of accessible urban greenspace, there is limited research on the percentage of IGS in municipalities in Ontario. According to their analysis of greenspaces in Brisbane, Australia and Sapporo, Japan, Rupprecht and Byrne found that IGS account for 14% of accessible urban greenspace in both cities.
Informal greenspaces deliver similar ecological benefits as formal greenspaces, such as cooling ambient temperatures, intercepting urban stormwater, and serving as a habitat for wildlife. However, IGS are distinct from formal greenspaces as they do not require the financial demands of maintenance. Rupprecht and Byrne found that IGS are effective in meeting the recreational demands of urban residents. Some scholars suggest that some residents prefer IGS to formal greenspaces because whereas formal greenspaces often embody cultural politics and promote certain activities, IGS allow residents the freedom to participate in recreational activities without supervision and cultural pressures. In some IGS in Sapporo and Brisbane, residents have started community gardens, which provide a local source of food and empower residents as creators, designers, managers, and users of IGS.
In addition to socio-ecological benefits, IGS also deliver the sustainability gains of ensuring marginalized communities have equitable access to greenspaces. According to their analysis on IGS in Warsaw and Łódź, Sikorska et al. found that IGS provide exposure to nature and space for recreation to vulnerable groups of residents, such as children and the elderly. Rupprecht and Bryne posit that IGS are an important tool for urban planning to resist environmental gentrification. Environmental gentrification occurs when there is investment or development of formal greenspace (i.e., a park), which makes the surrounding area more desirable for investors and residents, inflates housing prices, and results in the displacement of marginalized residents. In municipalities where disadvantaged communities already have lower levels of service provision and less access to formal greenspaces, the preservation of IGS is critical to resist environmental gentrification and ensure equitable greenspace access.
While scholars are beginning to recognize the socio-ecological value of IGS, the most important sustainability gains can be delivered once urban planners recognize the importance of IGS and make decisions to preserve them.
Feature image: blogTO