Parks, Green Spaces, Wellness Tourism and Water Conservation

Parks, Green Spaces, Wellness Tourism and Water Conservation


Victoria Newhouse wasn’t planning to write a book about parks.

The Manhattan-based architectural historian and author of Parks of the 21st Century: Reinvented Landscapes, Reclaimed Territories (Rizzoli), came to it by chance when she was asked by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to write a monograph on their eponymous Cultural Center and park in Athens, designed by Renzo Piano. “One part of it was a desert garden,” she says. “I’m not a landscape architect, I’ve never given much thought to it, but I was fascinated when I learned what a boon is taking place in parks around the world. Nature played such an important role over the pandemic,” Newhouse continues. “And parks were a godsend.”

Humans need nature now more than ever. In fact, the desire to spend time in nature is one of the biggest drivers of wellness tourism this year. “Nature became this massive value, it’s a complicated reaction to the pandemic,” says Beth McGroarty, VP Research, Global Wellness Institute (GWI), a leading global research and educational organ for the wellness industry. “The hunger for nature and the elegiac love of nature is fueling wellness travel and shifting it,” she continues.

Parks are an easy way for locals and wellness travelers to embrace the meditative aspect of immersion in a beautiful green landscape. City parks provide a serene oasis for tranquil pursuits such as tai chi and yoga, picnicking, walking and hiking trails, swimming in lakes and pools. Travelers can also learn a lot about a destination by visiting its parks. Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park is packed with families on weekends, a reflection of Mexico’s family centric culture. Couples at the Luxembourg Gardens, in the heart of Paris, illustrate why it is known as the City of Love. What unites every culture–and seems to also inspire wellness travelers these days–is our hunger for nature, even if it’s a patch of greenery in the center of the city.

Newhouse and her co-author, Alex Pisha, a senior landscape architect at Sawyer | Berson Architecture & Landscape Architecture, LLP, started by researching parks online. They were looking for new parks around the globe that were not only beautiful, but built with the intention of making a contribution to the natural environment–for example, helping with water management and purification or the handling of floods. Two examples that ended up in the book are Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park, each set along the East River in New York City.

“Both accommodate tidal flooding, which you can’t prevent,” she says. “You can welcome in the water, but you need to make sure there’s a way for it to recede.” Landscaping–selecting the right plants–can really help. For example, “the East River is partly saline, so you need salt-tolerant plants,” she says. Parks that rely on repurposing or building on top of existing infrastructure were also something Newhouse and Pisha sought out. A perfect example is the High Line, built on a series of elevated railway tracks in lower Manhattan. According to Newhouse, “Most parks, like the High Line, have retained elements of their industrial past.”

When Newhouse and Pisha found parks that met their criteria, they went for a visit, and the book, with its beautiful photography and detailed descriptions, reflects that first-hand experience. Highlights include The Culture of Water Ecology Park, in Chang Chun, China; Shanghai’s Riverside Park, Pudong, a necklace of parks along river fronts in Shanghai; and Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon Park in Zurich, a vertical park with climbing vines, birds and thickets of flowers. The biggest challenge, they learned, is not building, but maintaining parks. “Maintenance is so important, and that’s a big problem everywhere,” she says. “Parks are suffering, they need millions of dollars in maintenance. We need to think about what it will cost not only to build it but also to maintain it.”

Nonetheless, according to Newhouse, who sat on the jury of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize for three years, “We are living in a heyday of park building, comparable to the 19th century.” The 19th-century was a boon time for large parks, which featured mini-forests, lakes and walking trails, with some of the greatest created by Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central and Prospect parks in New York City, and Washington and Jackson parks in Chicago.

As urbanization grew, and green spaces shrank, parks were needed more than ever. The first national park was Yellowstone, established in 1872 with the goal of conserving its wildlife and nature so that it could be enjoyed by generations. Environmentalist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, was instrumental in the creation of Yosemite National Park, which was designated by an Act of Congress in 1890. The National Park Service was established in 1916.

Fast forward over 100 years, and the need for green and natural outdoor spaces has grown exponentially. Wellness travel experiences outdoors have become increasingly elaborate and nature-immersive: touring with research guides and conservationists at Tswalu, South Africa’s largest private wildlife reserve, in the stunning southern Kalahari; luxury glamping at secluded retreats near Texas’ Big Bend National Park, outside Marfa, TX; wildlife conservation drives through the breathtaking Grand Teton National Park and a private flight over Yellowstone, with a park drive to witness repatriated gray wolves, with the Four Seasons Jackson Hole.

Also a must on the list: visits to spectacular urban parks, with Parks of the 21st Century: Reinvented Landscapes, Reclaimed Territories as your guide.