When I first heard that today was World Habitat Day, I thought it referred to monkeys and birds and elephants and every other animal that has a preferred habitat that is more or less jeopardized by human action.
But I was wrong. The holiday refers to human habitats.
It’s weird to say “I’m going to my habitat” or “I hate my habitat” or “I just want to chill at my habitat this weekend so leave me alone.” Homes, parks, trains, public spaces, sidewalks, fields, cafes and everything else: they’re just places to live and go to.
But all of these things are also part of “human habitats.”
A lot of the time, these habitats are not very good. They may feature heavy air, noise and visual pollution. They may feature high crime, few jobs, inadequate shelter, contaminated water and poor sanitation.
Oftentimes, these problems are concentrated in cities where the majority of people around the world live. In 2014, 54% percent of the global population lived in cities, and this percentage will only rise in the years to come.
But sometimes cities are built and maintained in such a way that humans thrive and are able to pursue peaceful lives.
Which got me thinking: what makes a good city? Jobs, food, cultural and entertainment options, and transportation are all obvious aspects.
But the public park, to me, is a key part of the city, maybe even the most key part, especially because a good park signals that the rest of a city is good.
I can’t imagine Manhattan without Central Park, without that vast chunk of green and rolling land unapologetically splitting up Midtown, or without Washington Square Park gathering all the musicians or any of the many other parks breaking up the grid, reminding New Yorkers of nature.
The best public parks provide escape and calm and a chance to recover with friends and family or by yourself. You can go for a stroll, take a deep breath of clean air, sunbathe, play wiffle ball, sit on a bench, read for hours, anything that is simple and fulfilling.
But obviously a few things have to be in place for this idyllic habitat to exist.
So what makes a good public park? Here's a short list:
- Parks need to be centrally located. They need to be accessible to poor people and rich people. You shouldn’t have to travel hours to get to a park. You should just be able to walk 10-30 minutes or take a short train ride to get there.
- There needs to be lots of nature. A good public park has lots of trees and ponds to look at, lots of grass to walk on and fresh, fragrant air.
- Birds. If birds like to go to your park, you know it’s good.
- Safety. You should never feel unsafe in a park. Most importantly, women and children should always feel safe. A park should be a sanctuary, which means that you should be able to go there and hang out without being threatened in any way. So park security should be present, but not overbearing.
- Walking paths. A good park has lots of walking paths that you can meander along.
- Public art. Parks should feature regular public installations and permanent statues, ideally from local artists.
- Cultural events. Urban parks are celebrations of civic life and they should feature vibrant event schedules that include local musicians, plays, readings, biking groups, yoga and more.
- Cleanliness. Parks are only as good as their upkeep. This isn’t just cleaners going in and replacing trash bags. It’s primarily about park goers being diligent, picking up their garbage and putting it in the proper waste receptacle, not tossing it recklessly on the ground.
On International Habitat Day, try to celebrate your favorite habitat, especially if it’s a public park--and remember that a lot of effort goes into creating and maintaining it.
I probably won’t get a chance to stroll through a park today, but I look forward to doing it soon.