Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Open space - an essential part of infrastructure

The two largest demographic cohorts in the US, the aging baby-boomers and their echo-boom children, the millennials,  decide where they want to live based on quality of life criteria. It should be a no brainer that good walkways, greenways, parks and rec spaces are an important part of quality of life.

Alas, many developers still open space like an infant what she holds in her hand: Can I eat it or not, or: Can I develop here or not. This view says, if a space can be developed, it shouldn't be preserved as an open space. How shortsighted!
the new community park for the Ridgely Manor Community near Towson,
the result of an innovative public private partnership
Photo: Community

Do we really have to remind people of Manhattan and how much lower its quality of life would be without Central Park, Riverside and Battery Park? Or Savannah without its famous squares? What was a natural for planners of our older cities somehow got lost when it came to the development bonanza of the post-war suburbs in which open spaces are mostly relegated to buffers along flooding creeks, ballfields behind schools and "buffer" strips between subdivisions.

Today, we find ourselves at a point where developers eye the last little bits of previously deemed undevelopable spots to plop down yet another small set of infill and they sell this as smart growth.

Real smart growth, however, needs parks, green-ways and bike-lanes and recreational fields, places where people can do all that healthy stuff they need to do to compensate for our sedentary lifestyle.

Since retrofitting suburbia with public amenities costs money, most suburban jurisdictions in the US ask developers to build open spaces as part of their development. Often times, all they got was inaccessible leftover spaces, barely usable for residents of a specific development, let alone the community at large. Increasingly developers and jurisdictions prefer a pay-option. In that option, money goes into a larger pot so open spaces can be strategically acquired, networked and become the amenities so desperately needed in so many suburbs.
Tollgate open space, a piece of nature with community
maintained trails (photo NeighborSpace)

Thankfully Baltimore County is just now considering such a bill that re-orders the current rules for open space, set-asides or payments since current rules don't work well for either the developers nor the communities.

Current rules are confusing and obtuse and those who create the largest needs for open space in places where land is the sparsest and costs the most are exempted. The Town Center developments, the Planned Unit Developments, the Transit Oriented Developments, they all don't have to provide open space at all and they don't pay either. No wonder the residents of Towson are upset about a slew of new developments that are exempted from open space requirements.

Do all County Council members, the Planning Department, the Administration, developers and the communities line up behind such an effort of laying the foundations for high quality of life communities? Places that make Baltimore County competitive with Howard County and Anne Arundel etc? Don't hold your breath. As obvious as it should be that all sides would benefit from good parks and open spaces amenities, many folks are mired in short-sighted thinking in which the initial cost or lost development opportunity is all they see.
NeighborSpace an urban land trust helps
Baltimore County to create open space
with fees collected from developers
(photo NeighborSpace)

Good planning creates long-term dividends on short-term costs. That is true for all public infrastructure. Fail on that simple understanding and the costs later on will be much higher. Just look at Tysons Corner which now after decades of unplanned short-term profit oriented sprawl has to claw its way into being a real community with transit, walkways, services, retail and yes, parks and open spaces. And this example doesn't even mention the cost of poor health due to an inactive life style, the cost of disinvestment that follows if amenities are lacking or the poverty that comes from being deprived of natural settings.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Klaus Philipsen is President of the Board of NeighborSpace


Tyson's Park System

DC's Navy Yard re-development started with a waterfront park that
brought people in and attracted development (photo ArchPlan)

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