Planning expert says creating urban parks is challenging but a good design can bring many benefits to a city and its residents DESIGNING A PUBLIC park may not necessarily sound like it requires cutting-edge thinking, but when space is short and budgets are tight a creative and innovative approach becomes essential. 'Innovation can make a park interesting and may convince a donor to underwrite something that is unique,' said American design authority Edward Uhlir, one of the speakers at the Business of Design Week conference. Chicago-based Mr Uhlir is a well-known design, architecture and planning expert and consultant. His name is closely associated with the award-winning Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois. When conceptualising a park, Mr Uhlir said, one must consider the needs and expectations of the users, the history of the site, and the physical, social and economic challenges involved in making the park a reality. 'Involving the public from the beginning is very important because they are going to be using the park,' Mr Uhlir said. 'Parks can provide a Wi-fi [hot spot] for visitors who bring their computers, but a park doesn't have to be hi-tech. 'Innovation can be manifested in unique park art, garden design, architecture and the programming that can continue to bring people back again and again.' The Chicago experience, he said, had shown that a city benefited in many ways from having attractive parks. Over the next decade Millennium Park is expected to generate US$2.6 billion through tourism and US$1.4 billion through real estate development in the neighbourhood. Foreign investment is expected to account for 20 per cent of the real estate. Millennium Park is a tourist attraction in its own right, and has enhanced Chicago's famous park district and boosted the city's image ahead of its bid to host the 2016 Olympics. 'Each park can and should have its own identity,' Mr Uhlir said. 'It raises the self-esteem of a community if their park has special attributes that set their neighbourhoods apart. People are looking for opportunities to get out of their high-rise environment, and if they can't they may get out of the city to live where they may have access to open space.' With a good design, a park can generate environmental, recreational, aesthetic, public health, educational, social and economic benefits. The denser the city, the greater the functional importance of its parks and open space. The Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines, a government publication, discusses the matter of population and parks and the ratio of people to park space. A copy of the guidelines was sent to Mr Uhlir, who will be visiting Hong Kong for the first time when he attends the conference. While saying the document was comprehensive, he noted a significant difference in the ratio of open or green space to population in Hong Kong and the US. The figures are 20 hectares and 240 hectares respectively per 100,000 residents. Chicago has 170 hectares per 100,000 residents and New York City has' 222 hectares. While Hong Kong was admittedly space-strapped, park designers could optimise on a project's limitations through innovative thinking, Mr Uhlir said. 'Parks are almost always a combination of green space and hard space, and in dense urban areas with small parks the ratio of paved areas to green space increases because of the intensity of use,' he said. 'If the intensity of use is great, the green areas may have to be seen but not accessed. For example, the Disney theme parks are intensely planted but the public never actually interacts with the vegetation. But the impression is they are immersed in a luxuriant landscape,' Mr Uhlir explained. 'Dense urban parks usually have more facilities to compensate for less land. An urban park can be designed to provide most of the open space benefits by using techniques like permeable pavement and run-off retention. It can be more important to have the open space available and usable by the public than setting an unrealistic ratio of green to paved space.' The higher the public's expectations, the greater the expense in maintaining a park. The Millennium Park project in Chicago, however, shows that a well-designed park can make good economic sense. Mr Uhlir said US$200million of the US$470million invested in the park's development came from the private sector, with US$30million set aside as an endowment for the park's annual maintenance. Revenue generators included user fees, rental facilities and concerts, and money savers included sustainable, low-maintenance landscapes and volunteers invited to help out in various ways. Donations also constituted part of the park's revenue. 'Public-private partnership is not the only way to go, although it may be the most important and it can take several forms,' Mr Uhlir said. 'Millennium Park is perhaps the best example of a public/private partnership.'