Photo of Flatås park

Dynamics of Urban Parks: Balancing Design and Maintenance


Dr. Shelley Kotze, Doctor in Human Geography at the University of Gothenburg has studied the complex relationship between park design and subsequent maintenance in urban environments. The findings shed light on the challenges faced by cities worldwide as they strive to create and sustain green spaces that enhance quality of life for residents.

Photo of Shelley Kotze
Shelley Kotze

Urban parks serve as vital components of our cities, addressing a range of pressing issues— from climate change to societal wellbeing, and from biodiversity to community integration. However, they are not isolated entities. They exist within the fabric of urban landscapes and are influenced by political discourses upon which the cities are governed and funding mechanisms.

The study was spawned from a research group meeting with a private landscape architecture firm, who voiced their frustration about how the City changed their designs after their part in the project had been finalised.

 "It seemed like a justified complaint, but I was curious as to the backstory, and what processes were at play within the relationship between the landscape architects and the City, that is between park design and maintenance, that led to the spatial realities of parks we experience in our cities."

While landscape architects have previously examined this relationship, geographers have largely overlooked it. Shelley Kotze bridged this gap by applying a human geography lens, incorporating “city scale” theories. By combining urban regime theory, urban entrepreneurialism, city branding, and neoliberalism, the study aimed to form a new theory about the interplay between park design and long-term maintenance.

Photo of Flatås park
Mowing hills in Flatås park

"Within my thesis one interesting sub-case were the hills in Flatås park. Originally designed to have summits of flowering bulbs. However, miscommunications meant that the hills were made to steep to be accessed by the lawnmowers. This meant that, after construction, the summits were flattened removing some of the aesthetics and increasing the cost of the project in the name of maintenance."

Key Findings: The theory of ‘overdesign’

The central concept emerging from the study is the theory of “overdesign.” This term encapsulates the tendency of private landscape architecture firms to introduce elaborate design features that prove unsustainable in the long run. Overdesign occurs when substantial funding is allocated to park design and construction, while maintenance budgets remain inadequate.

Implications for cities and communities

Shelley Kotze hopes that her research will prompt city administrations and local authorities to critically examine their working relationships and funding mechanisms. By doing so, they can better address the spatial realities of urban parks. The impact extends beyond aesthetics; it affects the well-being of residents, ecological balance, and community integration.

"I encourage not only local authorities and landscape architecture firms but also taxpayers, voters, and residents to engage in this issue. By questioning the fabric of their cities beyond surface aesthetics, they can contribute to more sustainable and vibrant urban parks"

Shelley Kotze defended her dissertation in Human Geography at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg on the 24th of May 2024.

Link to dissertation: Over-design and under-funding: A theory of park (re)development in Gothenburg