Cities hold the economic key to the future of the global economy.

Countries that cultivate livable cities that support vibrant communities and highly skilled adaptive work forces will be the sustainable growth cities of the future as well as successful.

But livability is a tricky thing. How many great cities build vibrant communities based on their exceptional sewer system? How many businesses and visitors do you attract to a city boasting a great rubbish collection system? How many cities promote themselves to new residents and investors on a comprehensive water supply network?

The reality is that these and many other public services are expected in a good city, but the most successful cities, the richest communities, the fastest growing cities are those that place a high priority on their public realm – their parks, open space and public plazas. Investing in well planned, meaningful public amenity makes good economic sense.

Intuitively, designers understand this, but how do we convince government, developers with investment dollars, policy makers and the decision makers that this is the case? With often very little measurable economic data to highlight the economic return on the capital investment in our parks and open space, it is increasingly difficult to influence investing more in our public realm.

However, as landscape architects know, its not just the economic benefits; it is the health, environmental and societal benefits of great public spaces in our cities that foster, encourage and demand smarter investments in great public open spaces.

There are some direct measurable outcomes:

  • Land directly adjacent or close to well designed, accessible and quality green space can generate increased property values.
  • Better quality open spaces provide can therefore lead to increased rates paid to local government.
  • Businesses are often attracted to locations that offer well-designed, well-managed public places, and these in turn attract customers, employees and services.
  • Good-quality and well-maintained public spaces increase the number of people visiting retail areas, leading to improved trading for local retailers.

The indirect economic benefits are also obvious:

  • Parks and open spaces reduce public health care costs by improving general physical/mental health and well-being.
  • Parks and open spaces increase natural cooling for our cities.
  • Popular parks and open spaces promote community pride, fostering more activation and in turn reducing crime.
  • Parks and open spaces provide important social and community connections.

Outlining these principles provides a clear and lucid argument for better parks and public spaces in our cities.

However, with the pressure on our increasingly urbanised populations, why is quality public open space in our cities too often seen as a “nice to have” rather than a valuable investment for which the return is high?

Our federal government recognises the importance of great public spaces and parks to our cities.

“To secure the ongoing prosperity and wellbeing of our communities, we must ensure that our cities meet the needs of current and future generations,” reads a passage in the government’s Our Cities, Our Future national urban policy. “We must ensure that economic growth can be sustained and increased without compromising the natural environment or our quality of life. This is the basis of a sustainable future.”

So whilst strategic government policies at the highest level advocate for an equal balance between social, environmental and economic initiatives for a more sustainable Australia, often the harsh reality is that it is still the economic drivers that most influence our decision makers – the cost of building better public spaces and parks.

Designers need to understand and communicate in the language of our decision makers. We need to quantify and qualify every positive aspect of our public spaces and park systems, where possible, into a value to make the business case.

We need more qualitative research into the opportunity cost of not pursuing better public spaces and parks, into language our political decision makers better understand.

A better, more productive conversation between government, universities, practice and industry is required to take a leading role in representing the best our cities can be.

In turn, we can more effectively argue and promote the immediate and long-term return value of our public parks and open space against their capital and ongoing management costs.

Only then will our parks, open spaces, streets, and the space between our city buildings be recognised as the priority amongst the list of essential public infrastructure (such as roads, pipes and conduits) that is currently prioritised over good quality, liveable and successful public spaces.