Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why the suburbs lack parks

For decades green space had been privatized. The suburban house with a yard was the ideal while cities bled out and their parks fell into disrepair.
Then came the urban renaissance, most cities got back on their feet, parks like Central Park in New York and Patterson Park in Baltimore were repaired and fixed up. New ones such as the Highline in New York, Centennial Park in Chicago or Eager Park in Baltimore were added. Now the suburbs look like the losers. Especially older suburbs such as Towson, Essex, or Dundalk which have a lot of rental housing or small yard homes lack the amenity open spaces. Private yards meanwhile have much less utility with two working parents, 10 hour school days, after school activities, daycare, Netflix and air conditioning   The neighborhood kid offering to mow for a buck has turned into an army of Latinos descending on the yard with heavy machinery. This has converted the private yard from an asset into a cost item on the expense ledger.
The map is a beta of a new NeighborSpace modeling system. The inner ring suburbs show no or insufficient access to open space within 1/4 mile walk access. Ideally this mapping model should be merged with a city data-base. 

Cities easily caught up with the idea that they can only compete over quality of life, converting this insight into action that goes from dog parks to bike lanes even though amenity distribution remains very uneven. The burbs? Not so much action there.

An example is Baltimore County, its diminished Department of Recreation and Parks that handed maintenance of its parks to DPW and can hardly take on new responsibilities. While the County grows and the needs for open space increase, some green spaces inside the URDL are turned over to development such as on Bosley Road where mature trees were cut for a Royal Farm mega gas station, or in Mays Chapel for a new school. Like in the City, new development is unevenly distributed, but unlike the City and the County collects fees  from developers who don't create their own green spaces as part of their development. Those fees are a continual item of dispute. What fees have been collected and where they went remains largely a mystery in spite of various County Council bills requiring transparent reporting. Transparency isn't what characterizes Baltimore County, instead it is all about not raising property taxes. The lack of public amenities is especially discouraging when one compares it with the County's progressive and bold move in the 1970s to create as the first County in the US an urban-rural demarcation line and protect large swaths of its rural heritage.

Designation of a small neighborhood park in East Towson (photos: Philipsen)
Baltimore County's non-profit NeighborSpace was created to provide open spaces inside the development envelope in an effort to give all residents some walkable access to a public and protected open space. Because the County protected so much land outside the development envelope, development pressure inside has become larger. Developers moan in every round of the quadrennial re-zoning about running out of space to grow and develop.

Urban developers are used to catering to quality of life and "lifestyle" through mixed use, urbanity and amenities such as transit. Suburban developers are discovering the new paradigm only slowly and where they do so, they, just like their urban brethren, provide those amenities only for their own development as privatized, gated pools, roof gardens, indoor gyms and gated dog parks. It is therefore essential that fees get collected for the creation of open spaces in areas where developers don't invest and parks are scarce. Access to open space isn't just a frilly thing in a real estate brochure that adds value to property, it is an essential item for social capital, community health and even personal health. Even a small neighborhood gathering space has social, economical and environmental benefits and is, therefore, a vital component of sustainability and quality of life.
Neighbors posing in the new park. In the background the Black & Decker
plant (photos: Philipsen)

How new development can leverage open space in a community that needs it was on display Wednesday in the East Towson where NeighborSpace dedicated a half acre pocket park cheek to jowl with corporate neighbor Black and Decker on the one side and community leader ("Mayor of East Towson") Adelaide Bentley as a neighbor on the other.

Ten years in the making, the little jewel didn't just drop into the community's lap but took lots of work including design concepts from Morgan State students and their professor Jack Leonard (who is a board member of NeighborSpace) to goats weeding through invasive plants, a landscape firm run also by a Morgan student felling irreparably damaged trees, corporate donations and lots of sweat equity, including from County Council member David Marks and his daughter. Marks was also the one who directed mandatory public purpose funds from a Planned Unit development to this site. The property was originally privately owned and acquired by NeighborSpace to protect it as an open space in perpetuity. Marks is frequently the target of Towson's community groups who fight the onslaught of development and want to see more open space. He posted on his Facebook page:
Adelaide Bentley cutting the ribbon of the new park named
after her with Delegate Lafferty (right) looking on.
(photos: Philipsen)
Why is this such a special place? First, it is an example of how government does not have a monopoly on building parks - NeighborSpace is a nonprofit organization. Government lent a hand, and so did Stanley Black & Decker, its neighbor to the east.
Second, the park provides green space in a very densely-populated part of eastern Towson - the heart of Towson's African American community.
I have grown to love this neighborhood and its "mayor," Adelaide Bentley. Congratulations to everyone who made tonight happen
The celebration showed how a park can bring people together and foster community. Attendees where offered the option to "buy" a tree on this site or for future parks NeighborSpace will create. The tree purchase program is part of NeighborSpace's new initiative to increase the tree canopy in Baltimore County.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The author is President of the Board of NeighborSpace

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