Sunday, January 29, 2012

Achieving Smart Growth Includes Protecting Public Open Space that People Instinctively Love

Stake-holders in the future of smart growth  in Maryland are often at odds with each other. But a recently released compilation of interviews with planners, developers and advocates by the National Center for Smart Growth shows that they agree on one thing: the State's smart growth tools that attempt to channel growth into Priority Funding Areas (PFAs) are  too weak to overcome local opposition and local regulatory barriers. In essence, there is a huge disconnect between State policy and what happens on the ground at the local level. For this reason we are "barely moving the needle on most widely accepted measures of smart growth."

Cited as the greatest hindrances to development inside PFAs are storm water regulations, citizen opposition, and adequate public facility ordinances at the local level.  Citizen opposition was the top-ranked impediment to developing in PFAs cited by advocates and the second top-ranked impediment cited by developers.  What's behind this result?

Kaid Benfield provides an answer in a recent blog post, What Smart Growth Advocates Get Wrong About Density. "We should be advocating density that appeals to more people, that we and future generations can be proud of ... the kinds of places that people instinctively love." According to Benfield, "'smart growth' without green infrastructure, green buildings, parks and great public spaces ... isn't particularly worthy of the name in my opinion."

I wasn't interviewed for the smart growth study, but, had I been asked my opinion, I would have said that Baltimore County is ahead of the pack in trying to give citizens what they want inside its PFA, which, in essence, is the entire area of the County within the URDL. In helping to launch NeighborSpace in 2003, the County made sure that there was an organization in place to sustain, create and protect the the kinds of places Benfield references.  I invite you to take a look at a few of them, particularly Tollgate Wyndham Preserve and Greenbrier Memorial Garden. County Executive Kamenetz has advanced a bond bill in the State legislature that, if passed, would help us begin a park on land we own on Robin Hill Road, acquire new land for public open space elsewhere in the County, and complete our strategic conservation plan.  (I'll have more to say about the bill in coming weeks).

The study makes a number recommendations for realigning State and local policies, many of which turn on local governments weaving PFAs more thoughtfully into their comprehensive planning processes, drawing them more broadly to include non-residential and mixed use projects, and achieving greater flexibility in both defining PFAs and in reducing regulatory restrictions within them in return for reducing growth elsewhere.  To this I would add an admonition from County Councilman Tom Quirk, who said, in the 9/20/2011 edition of the Catonsville Times that "open space and density have to balance each other." To truly achieve smart growth, we must protect public open space and ensure that what we protect are the kinds of places that people will instinctively love.  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Two different approaches to making even the smallest slivers of land count for people

Here at NeighorSpace, we think small is great, not because we suffer from low self esteem, but because the small parcels of land that we protect are important to people.  They're the places where kids play and where people garden and walk their dogs.  Without them, the County's older, inner suburbs, shown in the map at right, would be far less enjoyable places to live.

In our December newsletter, we highlighted the smallest of our small plots, Greenbrier Memorial Garden, weighing in at a whopping 0.03 acres.  If you read the article, or, better yet, visited the site, you have a sense of how nice the garden is.  It's a serene and inviting spot and a true credit to the work of the the Greenbrier Garden Club to memorialize community members who have passed on with a space that is a wonderful enhancement to the Greenbrier Neighborhood.

Even smaller parcels of land are making big impacts.  In Montgomery County, planners are focused on street edges - small slivers of land that tend not to make a very big impression on us, especially if we happen to be passing in a fast-moving car.  But these places, too, are important to people, as they often are part of the gateway to homes, schools and businesses and provide a buffer for those of us on foot.  Montgomery's year-long project has resulted in plans that will beautify this real estate, collect drainage and wastewater, accommodate utilities and provide space for pedestrians and off-road bicyclists.

In New York City, Greenstreets identfies small isolated paved areas, the leftovers of city grid-making (median strips, triangles, cul-de-sacs), and, with the help of the City Transportation Department, deep sixes the pavement and plants flowers, shrubs and trees. And, recently, the early focus on urban greening was expanded to include improvements related to pedestrian and vehicular safety, ecology and stormwater management.  Since its inception 15 years ago, 2,574 paved areas have been transformed into small, pint-size parks and there are plans to create another 40 a year through 2017.

So, we hold our heads high on account of our "small" focus. But let there be no doubt that conserving small sites is huge work. If you can help us with site monitoring (visiting our properties and helping us document their condition periodically) or site improvement (especially if you're an arborist, landscape architect or grading contractor) we would love to connect with you - email me.