Green public spaces: unique satisfiers for multiple human needs in the cities of South and Southeast Asia

[:fr]Marlyne Sahakian

The significance of green public spaces towards sustainability is well-documented in relation to social inclusiveness, human health and biodiversity[1], yet the relation to human wellbeing is less understood. The project Green Public Spaces in the Cities of South and Southeast Asia (GRESPA) sought to uncover 1) how green public spaces satisfy multiple human needs in different contexts and cultures, 2) how people use and practice green public spaces in everyday life in relation to wellbeing, and 3) the role of different stakeholders in promoting more inclusive and environmentally-sound public spaces today and in the future.

With a focus on four coastal mega-cities of Asia, a workshop hosted in November 2019 at the University of Geneva discussed the results of a two-year study on understanding human needs in relation to green public spaces as a satisfier towards societal wellbeing and more sustainable city planning. The timing was critical: in emerging economies, green public spaces are increasingly being encroached upon by commercial and State interests, posing direct threats to sustainability including: the stratification of society and corresponding forms of segregation, energy intensive services for cooling indoor micro-climates, the loss of biodiversity, and the expansion of consumer culture in a throwaway society. What’s more, as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the world, starting in early 2020 in China, varying confinement measures further heighten the significance of green public spaces, particularly for those who have no access to private outdoor spaces. The research results of GRESPA are therefore all the more relevant in the context of the closing of green public spaces, and other spaces, in cities around the world as a way to reinforce social distancing policies in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the GRESPA project, the research results revealed how wellbeing relates to green public spaces in Singapore (Republic of Singapore), Metro Manila (Republic of the Philippines), Shanghai (People’s Republic of China) and Chennai (Republic of India), uncovering opportunities for promoting more sustainable urban development and societal flourishing – of relevance to the region and beyond. The project relied on a list of 9 Protected Needs (PN)[2], which have the ambition to be universal. This list builds on objective theories of a good life and an intensive review of the literature, and the needs are classified as “protected” in that they can be protected by society whereby “individuals and states have an obligation to provide conditions under which people can – now and in the future – satisfy their objective needs, and/or conditions that do not make it impossible to satisfy these needs”[3].

To open the event, a keynote talk was given by Professor Alison Browne, University of Manchester. Taking everyday life as a starting point, Alison Browne demonstrated how people manage the perceived contamination of bodies and clothes from outdoor pollution, in Chinese cities. Miniature washing machines are acquired, for the cleaning of small clothing items that are in close contact with the body. Masks are used as a form of protection, heretofore uncommon in European cities – but now, a visible marker of protection from contamination around the world. In relation to the GRESPA project, her work stimulated our reflection on the notion of boundaries between bodies, spaces, and in relation to contamination.

During the workshop, the overall findings of the GRESPA project were presented and discussed comparatively. Across all cities and all parks, we found that all nine Protected Needs (PN) were satisfied in different ways. Most notably, people felt that green public spaces allowed them to live in a livable environment (PN3), develop as a person (PN4), or feel that they are part of a community (PN7), among other needs. Even going alone to the park gives people the sentiment of being in contact with other park users, whether by observing and being around others, or through interactions such as discussions or common activities.

The research teams presented their country results, discussing topics such as: green spaces to take a break from sensorial overloads, spaces where women can “be in their body”, encroachment on the parks by large infrastructural projects, natural and historical heritage of urban parks and social class classification.

  • According to Professor Manisha Anantharaman, St Mary’s College, for Chennai, unspoken rules around parks need to be evoked, as well as the idea of doing nothing in particular in parks, towards achieving “peace of mind”. The idea of people being in their bodies, particularly women, is a marked result. The different temporal rhythms of park usage, in addition to how space is used in different ways by different people, was also evoked. Stakeholder workshops are being planned for later this year.
  • For Professor Czarina Saloma, and Cherie A. Alfiler and Abigail Marie Favis, Ateneo de Manila University, in Metro Manila, the issue of how green public spaces compare to hyper conditioned environments, in order to provide “fresh air” is crucial. The mental fitness of park users was mentioned, in addition to physical fitness. The significance of Rizal park for national identity, as well as more generally the multifunctionality of parks was discussed as well. The project has been especially well received in the Philippines with a commitment to support the “green, green, green” initiative, towards a form of urban planning that relies on green spaces and slow mobility, such as cycling.
  • Professor Dunfu Zhang of Shanghai University discussed how parks are used for giving a sense of international experience (e.g. windmills in parks) to park users, and how, more generally, popular culture is developed in parks. The elderly in parks have a sense of entitlement to the space (which potentially leads to excluding or at least discouraging younger people), while elites see parks as less of a necessity than other groups. There is also official information displayed in parks, such as recommendations from the State, but whether this is actually followed or not remains to be evaluated.
  • Rupali A. Khanna and Srikanth Narasimalu (NTU Singapore) emphasized how, in Singapore, parks provide a natural environment and shading, as a respite from the city heat. The main tension is in the use of space in different ways, for example personal mobility devices and how they are disruptive to people’s walking practices. The park is a space people go to, to clear their minds, but also a place for migrant workers to meet within their social groups and experience social relations.

In a closing conference, Honorary Professor Roderick Lawrence, University of Geneva, discussed the co-benefits of thinking about public space as more than just providing health and environmental benefits. Moreover, the idea that a certain amount of park space should be attributed to people, as a universality, is not relevant and can even be problematic (e.g., the WHO alleged standard of a 9m2 per capita green space allocation). His analysis of the European study provided very useful insights on how to frame the results of the GRESPA project, in relation to different ‘co-benefits’ of green public spaces: health, social, economic, biological, environmental, etc.

In conclusion, green public spaces are essential towards satisfying multiple human needs – in ways that other spaces, such as commercial centers, could not. Most notably, we found that going to the park is a practice which is made up of a series of activities; in turn, these activities depend on the provisioning and maintenance of certain material arrangements and services, as well as understandings of social norms and regulations that guide people towards proper park conduct. Through an understanding of parks as practices in all of their complexity, we thus underline the importance of certain park configurations, in providing park benches, shading, or access to toilets and water points, for example. In relation to rules and regulations and in the context of the cities under study, we found that the park is often a less controlling space than other spaces in the city, such as commercial centers that prohibit ‘loitering’.

This project was financed by the Swiss Network for International Studies. The workshop benefited from funding from the Société académique de Genève, Commission administrative de l’Université de Genève, Geneva School of Social Sciences, and the Confucius Institute at the University of Geneva.

[1] Akenji L and Chen H. (2016) A framework for shaping sustainable lifestyles. Paris, France: United Nations Environment Programme; Wolch JR, Byrne J and Newell JP. (2014) Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’. Landscape and urban planning 125: 234-244; Boone CG, Buckley GL, Grove JM, et al. (2009) Parks and people: An environmental justice inquiry in Baltimore, Maryland. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99: 767-787; Seeland K, Dübendorfer S and Hansmann R. (2009) Making friends in Zurich’s urban forests and parks: The role of public green space for social inclusion of youths from different cultures. Forest Policy and Economics 11: 10-17; Barbosa O, Tratalos JA, Armsworth PR, et al. (2007) Who benefits from access to green space? A case study from Sheffield, UK. Landscape and urban planning 83: 187-195.

[2] Di Giulio A and Defila R. (2020) The ‘good life’ and Protected Needs. In: Kalfagianni A. FD, Hayden A. (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Global Sustainability Governance. London: Routledge, 100-114.

[3] Di Giulio, A., Brohmann, B., Clausen, J., Defila, R., Fuchs, D., Kaufmann-Hayoz, R., & Koch, A. (2012). Needs and consumption – a conceptual system and its meaning in the context of sustainability. In R. Defila, A. D. Giulio, & R. Kaufmann-Hayoz (Eds.), The Nature of Sustainable Consumption and How to Achieve it. Results from the Focal Topic « From Knowledge to Action – New Paths towards Sustainable Consumption” (pp. 45-66). München: oekom, S.

SAHAKIAN, Marlyne. «Green public spaces: unique satisfiers for multiple human needs in the cities of South and Southeast Asia». In Blog Scientifique de l’Institut Confucius, Université de Genève. Lien permanent: https://ic.unige.ch/?p=1247 , consulté le 05/25/2024.[:en]Marlyne Sahakian

The significance of green public spaces towards sustainability is well-documented in relation to social inclusiveness, human health and biodiversity[1], yet the relation to human wellbeing is less understood. The project Green Public Spaces in the Cities of South and Southeast Asia (GRESPA) sought to uncover 1) how green public spaces satisfy multiple human needs in different contexts and cultures, 2) how people use and practice green public spaces in everyday life in relation to wellbeing, and 3) the role of different stakeholders in promoting more inclusive and environmentally-sound public spaces today and in the future.

With a focus on four coastal mega-cities of Asia, a workshop hosted in November 2019 at the University of Geneva discussed the results of a two-year study on understanding human needs in relation to green public spaces as a satisfier towards societal wellbeing and more sustainable city planning. The timing was critical: in emerging economies, green public spaces are increasingly being encroached upon by commercial and State interests, posing direct threats to sustainability including: the stratification of society and corresponding forms of segregation, energy intensive services for cooling indoor micro-climates, the loss of biodiversity, and the expansion of consumer culture in a throwaway society. What’s more, as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the world, starting in early 2020 in China, varying confinement measures further heighten the significance of green public spaces, particularly for those who have no access to private outdoor spaces. The research results of GRESPA are therefore all the more relevant in the context of the closing of green public spaces, and other spaces, in cities around the world as a way to reinforce social distancing policies in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the GRESPA project, the research results revealed how wellbeing relates to green public spaces in Singapore (Republic of Singapore), Metro Manila (Republic of the Philippines), Shanghai (People’s Republic of China) and Chennai (Republic of India), uncovering opportunities for promoting more sustainable urban development and societal flourishing – of relevance to the region and beyond. The project relied on a list of 9 Protected Needs (PN)[2], which have the ambition to be universal. This list builds on objective theories of a good life and an intensive review of the literature, and the needs are classified as “protected” in that they can be protected by society whereby “individuals and states have an obligation to provide conditions under which people can – now and in the future – satisfy their objective needs, and/or conditions that do not make it impossible to satisfy these needs”[3].

To open the event, a keynote talk was given by Professor Alison Browne, University of Manchester. Taking everyday life as a starting point, Alison Browne demonstrated how people manage the perceived contamination of bodies and clothes from outdoor pollution, in Chinese cities. Miniature washing machines are acquired, for the cleaning of small clothing items that are in close contact with the body. Masks are used as a form of protection, heretofore uncommon in European cities – but now, a visible marker of protection from contamination around the world. In relation to the GRESPA project, her work stimulated our reflection on the notion of boundaries between bodies, spaces, and in relation to contamination.

During the workshop, the overall findings of the GRESPA project were presented and discussed comparatively. Across all cities and all parks, we found that all nine Protected Needs (PN) were satisfied in different ways. Most notably, people felt that green public spaces allowed them to live in a livable environment (PN3), develop as a person (PN4), or feel that they are part of a community (PN7), among other needs. Even going alone to the park gives people the sentiment of being in contact with other park users, whether by observing and being around others, or through interactions such as discussions or common activities.

The research teams presented their country results, discussing topics such as: green spaces to take a break from sensorial overloads, spaces where women can “be in their body”, encroachment on the parks by large infrastructural projects, natural and historical heritage of urban parks and social class classification.

  • According to Professor Manisha Anantharaman, St Mary’s College, for Chennai, unspoken rules around parks need to be evoked, as well as the idea of doing nothing in particular in parks, towards achieving “peace of mind”. The idea of people being in their bodies, particularly women, is a marked result. The different temporal rhythms of park usage, in addition to how space is used in different ways by different people, was also evoked. Stakeholder workshops are being planned for later this year.
  • For Professor Czarina Saloma, and Cherie A. Alfiler and Abigail Marie Favis, Ateneo de Manila University, in Metro Manila, the issue of how green public spaces compare to hyper conditioned environments, in order to provide “fresh air” is crucial. The mental fitness of park users was mentioned, in addition to physical fitness. The significance of Rizal park for national identity, as well as more generally the multifunctionality of parks was discussed as well. The project has been especially well received in the Philippines with a commitment to support the “green, green, green” initiative, towards a form of urban planning that relies on green spaces and slow mobility, such as cycling.
  • Professor Dunfu Zhang of Shanghai University discussed how parks are used for giving a sense of international experience (e.g. windmills in parks) to park users, and how, more generally, popular culture is developed in parks. The elderly in parks have a sense of entitlement to the space (which potentially leads to excluding or at least discouraging younger people), while elites see parks as less of a necessity than other groups. There is also official information displayed in parks, such as recommendations from the State, but whether this is actually followed or not remains to be evaluated.
  • Rupali A. Khanna and Srikanth Narasimalu (NTU Singapore) emphasized how, in Singapore, parks provide a natural environment and shading, as a respite from the city heat. The main tension is in the use of space in different ways, for example personal mobility devices and how they are disruptive to people’s walking practices. The park is a space people go to, to clear their minds, but also a place for migrant workers to meet within their social groups and experience social relations.

In a closing conference, Honorary Professor Roderick Lawrence, University of Geneva, discussed the co-benefits of thinking about public space as more than just providing health and environmental benefits. Moreover, the idea that a certain amount of park space should be attributed to people, as a universality, is not relevant and can even be problematic (e.g., the WHO alleged standard of a 9m2 per capita green space allocation). His analysis of the European study provided very useful insights on how to frame the results of the GRESPA project, in relation to different ‘co-benefits’ of green public spaces: health, social, economic, biological, environmental, etc.

In conclusion, green public spaces are essential towards satisfying multiple human needs – in ways that other spaces, such as commercial centers, could not. Most notably, we found that going to the park is a practice which is made up of a series of activities; in turn, these activities depend on the provisioning and maintenance of certain material arrangements and services, as well as understandings of social norms and regulations that guide people towards proper park conduct. Through an understanding of parks as practices in all of their complexity, we thus underline the importance of certain park configurations, in providing park benches, shading, or access to toilets and water points, for example. In relation to rules and regulations and in the context of the cities under study, we found that the park is often a less controlling space than other spaces in the city, such as commercial centers that prohibit ‘loitering’.

This project was financed by the Swiss Network for International Studies. The workshop benefited from funding from the Société académique de Genève, Commission administrative de l’Université de Genève, Geneva School of Social Sciences, and the Confucius Institute at the University of Geneva.

[1] Akenji L and Chen H. (2016) A framework for shaping sustainable lifestyles. Paris, France: United Nations Environment Programme; Wolch JR, Byrne J and Newell JP. (2014) Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’. Landscape and urban planning 125: 234-244; Boone CG, Buckley GL, Grove JM, et al. (2009) Parks and people: An environmental justice inquiry in Baltimore, Maryland. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99: 767-787; Seeland K, Dübendorfer S and Hansmann R. (2009) Making friends in Zurich’s urban forests and parks: The role of public green space for social inclusion of youths from different cultures. Forest Policy and Economics 11: 10-17; Barbosa O, Tratalos JA, Armsworth PR, et al. (2007) Who benefits from access to green space? A case study from Sheffield, UK. Landscape and urban planning 83: 187-195.

[2] Di Giulio A and Defila R. (2020) The ‘good life’ and Protected Needs. In: Kalfagianni A. FD, Hayden A. (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Global Sustainability Governance. London: Routledge, 100-114.

[3] Di Giulio, A., Brohmann, B., Clausen, J., Defila, R., Fuchs, D., Kaufmann-Hayoz, R., & Koch, A. (2012). Needs and consumption – a conceptual system and its meaning in the context of sustainability. In R. Defila, A. D. Giulio, & R. Kaufmann-Hayoz (Eds.), The Nature of Sustainable Consumption and How to Achieve it. Results from the Focal Topic « From Knowledge to Action – New Paths towards Sustainable Consumption” (pp. 45-66). München: oekom, S.

SAHAKIAN, Marlyne. «Green public spaces: unique satisfiers for multiple human needs in the cities of South and Southeast Asia». In Blog Scientifique de l’Institut Confucius, Université de Genève. Lien permanent: https://ic.unige.ch/?p=1247 , consulté le 05/25/2024.[:]