Green Space in the City

Frances Vandervoort
1991 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


In this investigation, students will

  1. identify the different kinds of green space that exist in an urban area.
  2. determine the history of the development of different kinds of urban green space.
  3. describe the roles of the city, state, and federal agencies in developing and preserving urban green space.
  4. Describe the roles of landscape architects and city planners, such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, and Robert Moses, in developing urban parks.
  5. Identify various public interest groups that work to preserve urban green space. Describe their objectives, strategies, and accomplishments.
  6. Define some of the laws that protect urban green space.
  7. Determine the important of green space in maintaining environmental quality in terms of (a) effect on human life, and (b) effect on wildlife.
  8. Learn about careers associated with urban green space.
  9. Recognize the role of cemeteries as urban green space.


Green space, especially in the form of parks and nature preserves, are integral parts of every American city. By offering opportunities for recreation, reflection, and relaxation, parks improve community health and increase property values. They provide habitat for numerous species of animals and plants, and cool city air through transpiration and evaporation.

Despite the obvious advantages of having green space in cities, their establishment and maintenance has not always had smooth sailing. They have been expensive to establish, especially if they are constructed on land that was previously used for another purpose. Businesses and industries often feel they have a strong case for using land proposed for parks, and may attempt to use financial arguments to persuade government officials to decide in their favor. Impoverished cities often reduce park-related services, such as maintaining swimming pools and zoos. Everyone who lives in a city is affected, even indirectly, by the presence of parks. It is important for everyone to understand why green space exists, and what can be done to preserve it.

This activity is appropriate for students of all high school grade levels, but is especially suited for those enrolled in an environmental science course or second year biology. It can be included in studies of ecosystems, biodiversity, and human behavior. Since much of it can be completed independently, it need not be tied directly to classroom activities. Completion should take from two to three weeks.

Materials and Methods (directions for students)

  • City and neighborhood maps
  • graph paper
  • drawing paper

  1. Use library references to learn about the history of parks in your community. Find when they were constructed, what kind of land they were constructed on, and what controversies may have existed about their development.
  2. With two or three of your classmates, visit your neighborhood park. Draw a map of it that is at least 11" wide x 14" long. Show such details as recreational equipment, swimming pools, walkways, parking lots, and ponds or lagoons. Indicate areas where problems exist, including locations where litter accumulates, "unsafe" areas, and places where there are damaged benches, recreational equipment, or lights.
  3. What kind of wildlife (birds, mammals, fish, insects, and other animals), inhabit or utilize the park?
  4. Conduct a brief survey of nearby residents to determine their opinions about the park.
  5. Arrange an appointment with an employee of the agency of your city responsible for park development and maintenance. Ask him or her such questions as:
    (a) How is the operation of the parks financed?
    (b) What problems does the park agency have in making the parks attractive and useful?
    (c) What plans exist for future park development?
    (d) What role does the public have in future park design and development?
  6. Find out if the city parks agency employs a naturalist. If so, interview him or her to find answers to such questions as:
    (a) What are the most important kinds of trees and other plants in the park? Were they planted there or did they exist when the park was built?
    (b) What kinds of animals live in the park?
    (c) What are the effects of human activity on the plants and animals of the park?
    (NOTE: If the park agency does not employ a naturalist, try to find a local naturalist -- perhaps a member of the Audubon Society -- who is familiar with plants and animals of the area.)
  7. Cemeteries provide important open space for city residents, and are used with increasing frequency for recreational purposes. See if you can interview the manager of a large cemetery to learn how the open space is made attractive and useful to wildlife.
  8. Design a model town that includes ample green class. Report on your design to your class.
  9. Visit a public interest agency involved in preserving open space in the city. Learn about its activities by
    (a) interviewing a staff member about the function and goals of the organization.
    (b) attending a meeting in which the organization participates.
    (c) obtaining materials printed by the organization.
  10. (OPTIONAL) Conduct an ecological survey of a park, beach, cemetery, or vacant lot. Record and analyze the data you obtain.

When you have completed as many of these activities as possible, prepare an oral group report and present it to the class. The report must include visual aids.


Libraries usually have numerous references available about city parks, including design, placement, and management. Other reference materials may be obtained from city park agencies or by contacting various community and environmental organizations.

"Grabbers" for "Green Space in the City"

  1. Ask students to tell the name of their nearest park (many will not know).
  2. What are some things parks are used for? List on the board.
  3. Would students like to live in a city with no parks? Discuss.
  4. If the is a large vacant lot near you, would you rather have it converted into a hospital, a sports stadium, a hospital, a housing project, or a park? Consider the importance of each facility in a a city.

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