A good urban park provides much-needed respite from the city; a green oasis in the bustle of the urban jungle.
But the best urban parks? They use their footprint to alleviate more complex threats to livability. Whether it’s providing cultural enrichment, amplifying public health initiatives—even seeking colonial recompense—the world’s best urban parks act as community platforms.
Here are five urban parks that are paving (or should we say greening?) the way to urban livability across the globe.
The High Line, New York
New York’s other iconic park, The High Line, is a one-of-a-kind linear green space that coils through Manhattan’s west side.
Built on an abandoned elevated rail line once slated for demolition, The High Line was conceived by a small community group with an eye for renovation at the turn of this century. It officially opened to the public in 2009.
Today, the 1.45-mile-long greenway is a network of picnic spaces, art installations, botanical displays, play and exploration areas—even a fully accessible, open-air amphitheater. In the spirit of its community roots, the park also hosts an array of public programs, with particular dedication to fostering community and teen engagement.
The High Line’s impact on urban design stretches far beyond the Manhattan skyline. The project has become a global inspiration for cities—including Miami, London, and Chicago—to transform dilapidated industrial areas into thriving public spaces. It’s a romantic idea that’s backed by numbers: The New York Times reports phase one and two of The High Line cost $153 million but generated an estimated $2 billion in new developments.
In fact, this project proved it costs substantially less to redevelop an abandoned urban rail line into a linear park than to demolish it.
Park Güell, Barcelona
No urban park exploration would be complete without mention of Barcelona’s iconic, UNESCO-listed Park Güell. The brainchild of famed Catalan modernist Antoni Gaudí, Park Güell is a sui generis tribute to color, ceramics, and natural form that, pre-pandemic, welcomed around 9 million visitors every year.
But behind the 19-hectare park’s unique style is substance, a clear and functional purpose for the dense populous that surrounds it. This includes ample meeting points and relaxation areas—like picnic spots, gathering points with urban furniture, and an open-air gym.
Among Park Güell’s less tactile—but equally impactful—livability initiatives are traffic calming strategies, expanded safe zones for foot and bicycle traffic, and the creation of pedestrian-only precincts in the surrounding area.
Parque Ibirapuera, São Paolo
Parque Ibirapuera is a sprawling cultural mosaic in the heart of São Paulo, one of the world’s most populous cities. The 221-hectare space opened to the public in 1954 in honor of the city’s 400th anniversary and quickly became one of its most popular attractions.
In addition to its dazzling Brazilian botany, Parque Ibirapuera gifts the surrounding neighborhoods with several walking trails, playgrounds, and meeting spots. Its resplendence is interspersed with performance spaces for live music and events— including a full auditorium—elevating Parque Ibirapuera from an urban park to the undisputed cultural epicenter of the city.
To further promote well-being, the park runs a free public health program for São Paulo residents, providing them with nutritional guidelines, exercise recommendations, and basic physical assessments. The initiative is supported throughout the park with sports courts, bike racks, and an open-air gym.
Stanley Park, Vancouver
At the northernmost tip of downtown Vancouver’s peninsula sits Stanley Park, a 400-hectare West Coast rainforest that peeks through the city skyline. The park is home to around half a million trees, in addition to snow-capped mountains, picturesque beaches, and the legendary 32-million-year-old Siwash Rock.
The Vancouver Park Board and City of Vancouver work together to enhance the metropolis’s livability through enjoyment of Stanley Park, which is free to all—a sizeable contribution to the community’s quality of life, given that Vancouver is Canada’s most expensive city. The park is family friendly and includes playgrounds, tennis courts, beaches, a water park, and Canada’s largest aquarium.
Stanley Park has also become a platform for Canada to confront its colonial past. The lush green space is steeped in First Nations history and today plays a cornerstone role in reconciliation between the City of Vancouver and the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
This reconciliation process amped up in 2018, when the Vancouver Park Board embarked on an analysis of the organization’s “colonial roots, as well as current practices” and to report back with recommendations “to acknowledge any and all injustices uncovered as part of the ‘truth-telling’ phase.” It’s a small but symbolic step toward acknowledging past First Nations’ erasure in Stanley Park, Vancouver, and beyond.
Yoyogi Park, Tokyo
Picture Tokyo, and your mind’s eye may take you to its iconic bustling streets and neon skyline. But the serenity of Yoyogi Park—the renowned gingko forest at the center of the city—is quite a different scene.
This 54-hectare park is a lesson in repurposing space. Once the site of Japan’s first powered flight in 1910, it played host to military parades in the lead-up to World War II, before becoming an army barracks for American troops in 1945. In 1964, it became the Olympic Village for the Tokyo Olympic games, before settling into its current form as a public park in 1967.As the largest and most easily accessible green space in the city, Yoyogi Park delivers. The park offers plenty of places to walk, jog, and cycle; visitors can easily enjoy the latter by taking advantage of the park’s bicycle rental opportunities.
Through its serene stretches of gingko trees comes pops of energy and color. The park is famed for celebrating international cultures and hosting one of the most diverse crowds in Japan. It is often filled with members of Tokyo’s many subcultures, including Rockabillies listening to Americana and even breakdancing elders.
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