Planning a Park? Use a ‘Greenprint.’

They’re being used around the country to build better open spaces, but most urban planners still haven’t heard about them.

greenprints tool
(Greenprint Resource Hub)
Earlier this summer, Boston Globe columnist Dante Ramos, frustrated by how public spaces were being handled in his city, wrote, “We haven’t thought hard enough about what we want from these spots. We presume that a park is a park, and the more there are, the better.”

Ramos’ sentiments couldn’t have come at a better time for the folks at the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land and the Conservation Fund, which just two months before the column appeared in print had jointly launched a tool to help policymakers, practitioners and communities better plan parks and open spaces through so-called greenprints. “We’ve been talking about greenprints for a long time,” says Liz O’Donoghue, director of infrastructure and land use at the Nature Conservancy in California. But whenever she or her colleagues would suggest that an urban planner or policymaker use one, the response was often, “What’s a greenprint?”

Now, what it is and how to start one can be found at the Greenprint Resource Hub, which defines a greenprint as a strategic conservation plan that reveals the economic and social benefits that parks, open spaces and working lands provide communities. “A greenprint is an effort to take a look at, map and understand where natural resources exist in a community,” says O’Donoghue. “It’s really to look at the values on the landscape and to see how those many values provide benefits -- social, economic and environmental -- to people and nature.”

Consider a road, for example, says O’Donoghue. Say officials want to expand that road into an area to provide additional services to remote communities. In preparing a greenprint, they might learn that the road interferes with a wetland, making an area more impervious to water percolation and, as a result, causing stormwater runoff or even flooding issues. A greenprint would give officials the opportunity to avoid such problems by moving the road or by making different decisions to lessen its impact on the landscape. 

That’s what the Greenprint Resource Hub is about in a nutshell: Better planning. The site, which took about a year and a half to build, can be used by urban planners to locate greenprints across the U.S., as well as learn about best practices and find funding opportunities. The Nature Conservancy has also launched a hyperlocal site called the Bay Area Greenprint, which brings together dozens of types of information on all nine Bay Area counties. Planners, policymakers and stakeholders can sort through the data and use it to get a better understanding of the costs and benefits of decisions made around open spaces and development in the region.

One of the advantages of a greenprint, says O’Donoghue, is that it brings the benefits and values of a landscape into planning processes, development processes and strategies to conserve much sooner than is typically done today. In a characteristic planning paradigm, she says, houses, roads and businesses crop up well before any effort is made to understand what natural resources exist. “What we are trying to do is have planners and policymakers see the landscape as a whole,” she says, “and understand as they are making decisions on growth patterns where are the places that are really important and, sometimes, irreplaceable for the values that they provide to people.”

Beyond green goals, greenprints also open up one’s perspective to new partners. “It might encourage a diversity of uses and a diversity of actors and organizations,” O’Donoghue says. “It could also diversify your funding source.” It’s no secret that green spaces carry a load of benefits beyond recreational and environmental; studies have shown that they also result in social and economic benefits. Even so, it remains a struggle to quantify those benefits and find funding for projects.

That’s certainly what Ramos, the columnist, has been finding in Boston. “We treat ‘public space,’ ‘open space’ and ‘green space’ as rough synonyms,” he wrote, “even though each of those terms has different implications for who owns a given patch of land, who uses it and which amenities sit on it. … Boston’s signature green spaces weren’t planned timidly, and they weren’t built on the cheap.”  

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.