Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Urban Green Space: An important but widely misunderstood amenity

Central Park is probably the best known urban green space in the world. Everybody knows that it is a valuable asset that makes buildings around it the most expensive property in Manhattan and many know that Frederick Law Olmsted designed it. Few appreciate, how much foresight it took to designate so much land in a tight and rapidly growing area such as the Manhattan peninsula or what philosophy stood behind this vision.
Central Park: Value from not building there

The first misunderstanding is to think that every green space can work such magic, even if it sits in an area with an abundance of space and little density around it. The people of Druid Heights in Baltimore are welcoming a new park named after Cab Calloway even if it means demolition of his childhood home for it and a park that wont have much activity around it.

The opposite misunderstanding is to think that a valuable community can be had without much green space. That is why many developers would rather develop the last bits of desirable land instead of protecting them or set aside open space near new development. The latter attitude plays out in Baltimore County's older inner ring suburbs which, originally developed as suburban refuges from urban density, with very few public parks. Those areas now run out of space to develop.

The typical suburb is defined by low density and privatized the green space, as in a house with a yard.  But in maturing suburbs this game will come to an end and most predict that future development will be multifamily housing, even in the counties.

Baltimore City, no matter its shortcomings, has plenty of beautiful parks and green squares that were arranged by careful planning early on when the City grew and prospered. Olmsted and later his sons had a hand in it. Druid, Leakin, and Patterson parks were driven by similar considerations as Central Park in New York. Washington Square, Union Square and many others remain highly attractive green urban plazas and gathering spaces.
GIS map of Baltimore County: 65% lack access to open space
One has to go a long way, before one can find such well designed urban green spaces in Baltimore County.
In fact, a careful analysis conducted by the non-profit urban land-trust NeighborSpace  together with the National Park Service, shows that contrary to the Olmsted ideal, 65% of County residents don't have access to a public park or open space within a five minute walk from their residence. (full disclosure: I am president of the board of NeighborSpace).

The organization came out with a press release today, celebrating two amendments introduced by County councilmen Marks (R) and Quirk (D). The amendments would alter how much developers can deduct from fees they have to pay if they cannot provide the required open space on their own developments. Open space in the County is regulated as part of "adequate public facilities" just as schools and infrastructure.
Druid Heights: Proposed Calloway Park where houses
once stood

In a vague recognition of Olmsted's vision of "pastoral landscapes" and that every urban and suburban resident should have access to nature, County Code requires that a developer has to set aside 1000 square feet of open space for each new dwelling unit built. Should the developer find it not feasible to provide this open space as part of the intended development, a "fee in lieu" must be paid or offsite open space be provided. The more the County fills up (it has now a significantly larger population than the City), the more difficult it becomes to provide on-site open space, especially for multi-family housing. Thus, large developments in largely built out areas would yield fairly significant fees. This would allow the County to create and manage parks in a more systematic and networked manner than open space set asides inside developments would ever bring about.
Historic squares and parks in Baltimore: Olmsted's hands

So far the theory. In practice, though, developers have used deductions and exemptions to avoid open space creation. Initially all of the downtown Towson area was exempted, and even now developers can discount their fees up to 60% for private outdoor amenities they provide as part of  being competitive in the market,  sometimes located on rooftops and completely inaccessible to the public. Deductible are also landscaped parking lot islands as if they would serve the original purpose of the open space requirement. The NeighborSpace press release states:
Based on a review of public records dating to July 2016, NeighborSpace estimates that the parking islands loophole alone has reduced the open space waiver fees payable to the County by over $1 million, more than the County collected in open space waiver fees in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 combined. The same projects, while generating a need for 32 acres of open space, provided only 3.6% of that amount or 50,572 SF.
Meanwhile the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks  has been nearly saved to death in the name of fiscal austerity. That in spite of the ever growing needs of a growing population and the well recognized danger of disinvestment in older inner ring suburbs. It is yet another misunderstanding to believe that saving on open space management, recreation centers and youth programming is prudent. Of course, the opposite is true, it is penny wise and pound foolish exacting a high price over time as Baltimore City has already found out.
Working with NDC and Morgan students on park concepts: Powhattan Park 
From the analysis of reports regarding open space fees which the previous administration provided,  it is clear that Baltimore County has left millions dollars of fees on the table in recent years of booming development thanks to the generous deductions and obtuse "behind the curtain" methods of calculating fees.  The administration of Johnny Olszewski  campaigned for transparency and openness and is currently in the process of bringing the open space fees in line with regulations the Council previously passed.

Open space in metropolitan areas has become even more important than when Olmsted first developed his somewhat romantic notions about nature. With climate chnage and an ever larger urban conglomeration, green spaces today must absorb stormwater, cool urban heat islands and filter the air. They serve as a place where children can run without being endangered by cars.  Carefully placed and designed open spaces and parks can be part of hiking trail networks, be refuges for wildlife, insects and birds or be facilities for bicyclists, runners and dog-walkers. And as in the case of Central Park, where there is growth they add value to surrounding properties. After decades of  privatization and neglect public spaces and the urban park have come back in traditional ways or in new forms, such as the wildly popular New York Highline park established on abandoned elevated train tracks. One of the functions of these pieces of green infrastructure is place-making, i.e the creation of a place where community can thrive by people meeting and interacting. Sociologists call this human capital. The late New Yorker Jane Jacobs knew this all along: It is a key ingredient of any community.
NeighborSpace park near Towson: Ridgely Manor Park

The new popularity of green spaces manifests itself  quite differently in the City and the County. The shrinking City, equipped with magnificent parks, needs additional residents to pay for the upkeep of the existing parks. This means that the creation of additional open space through demolition is only justifiable where such additional open space is in urgent demand and where it can be managed in such a way that it becomes an asset and not a liability. The proliferation of random green spaces created from abandoned and demolished rowhouses is hardly a green strategy, no matter how hard the Baltimore Green Network Plan tries to make it one.

The still growing County, by contrast, needs to set aside or protect green space wherever there is a chance,  especially inside the urban rural demarcation  line (URDL), where new development is supposed to go to protect the rural north county.  People in those older communities are not willing to accept additional development if it only means more crowded schools, more stormwater runoff, more traffic and less open space without any tangible benefit. For the viable smart growth principle of concentrated development instead of endless sprawl to succeed, it is necessary to invest in the quality of life in older communities. New development has to pay its way towards expanding public amenities and a state of good repair of an already aging infrastructure. NeighborSapce can help securing open space through easements and land protection guarantees that a County Department can not always offer.
The NeighborSpace press release also includes this quote from me:
“The current practice of allowing massive deductions for things that do nothing to address the pressing open space deficit negates and weakens the ability of NeighborSpace and the County Department of Recreation and Parks to provide sufficient open space in the older communities of Baltimore County and in the areas that see the brunt of new development. There are simply not enough resources to protect, improve, and maintain land for much-needed parks, trails, gardens, and natural areas,” NeighborSpace Board Chair Klaus Philipsen
Shortchanging public funds for adequate public facilities in favor of developer profits is shortsighted. It has been done for far too long to the point that some call the past suburban development patterns a Ponzi scheme in which the suburbs pilfered first the City and then their own older communities in favor of ever new shiny things on the periphery of previously pristine farms and forests.
NeighborSpace project with NDC: Maryland Line trail
in Dundalk

The City has begun to recognize that new development should not only help the prosperous neighborhoods where it is located but through community benefits agreements, affordable housing and reinvestment funds help disinvested neighborhoods as well. This is not how developers in the County are used to think. Funding open space adequately through properly set fees is a step in the right direction, though, even if the resulting green spaces are more modest than the historic city parks.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related blog articles on Community Architect:

Why the suburbs lack parks (2017)

Open space - an essential part of infrastructure (2015)

No comments:

Post a Comment