Embodied geographies of liveability and urban parks

Embodied geographies of liveability and urban parks


Written by:

Gordon Waitt

First Published:

01 Dec 2017, 1:52 am


Embodied geographies of liveability and urban parks



Urban parks may first appear as a place for everybody. It is perhaps for this reason that urban parks have always been central to state and municipal authority politics. As Galen Cranz argues, urban park design in western cities have been integral to achieving different political agendas since the 1850s, including moral reform, public health and sustainability. Most recently, urban parks are integral to the politics of liveability, particularly in municipal contexts of urban revitalisation and high-rise apartment living. Urban parks are positioned as promising enhanced possibilities of human flourishing in precincts, despite increased population densities.


Evidence to support such claims is well established in the public health literature through large scale surveys that quantify the relationship between green space and indexes of wellbeing and health. Yet, these surveys also reveal that the benefits are not evenly spread across the population. Those most likely to visit green spaces are younger, white affluent men. This begs the question: What processes operate to territorialise urban parks in way that enable specific social groups to flourish, and for others to be excluded? 


To offer an answer to this question our starting point is that liveability is the outcome of an ongoing process of territorialisation, that relies upon three interrelated forces or entities: (1) ‘meanings’ (for example accomplishments and social norms); (2) materials (trees, plants, sunlight, weather, footpaths, seats, tables, gym-equipment and barbeques; and, (3) feelings, emotions and affect (embodied knowledge). We understand the process of territorialisation as bringing to the fore the impossibility of separating people and place; that is the reciprocal relationship whereby people make place, and, place makes people. To flourish in a specific urban park requires the potential for people to establish and maintain a territory that enables them to achieve a sense of self and belonging. Our empirical material explores the processes by which our participants make and remake territories within urban parks.


Our discussion of empirical material from a regional city in Australia confirms the role of urban parks for those living in high rise apartments as both convivial and therapeutic spaces. Our interpretation illustrates how liveability is always more than a human achievement. That is, alongside shared social norms around bodily gestures, speech acts and aesthetics, this notion of liveability relies upon an affective resonance of material things including sunlight, the weather and the layout of paths, grass, trees, seats, barbeques, gym equipment and buildings.  Furthermore, our research shows that policy makers must come to terms with how the possibility to flourish within an urban park relies upon the reciprocal relationship between people and place. In some parks it was impossible for participants to flourish, because these were places already territorialised by others. To accommodate social diversity within urban parks, rather that policies designed to regulate bodies along institutional designation of ‘proper use’, more attention is required on providing both material and social resources to accommodate a diversity of users.