Sunday, August 19, 2012

How do we improve communities by protecting land?

This is a question that NeighborSpace has been attempting to answer as we embark on developing a first-of-its-kind strategic conservation plan.  The development of the plan is driven by standards and practices that all land trusts affiliated with the national Land Trust Alliance(LTA) are required to follow as guiding principles.  It’s also fueled by some very practical considerations:  According to LTA, land trusts that focus on strategic priorities and create conservation visions typically raise more funds and protect more land more efficiently than those who jump at any opportunity without an overarching plan.

The plan is considered to be the first of its kind because there is really no model for land conservation planning in first-tier suburbs (like the area within the URDL in Baltimore County) in the same way that there are models for planning in more rural areas.  This is among the reasons that the National Park Service offered to work with NeighborSpace on the development of such a plan, so that a model could be developed and disseminated for use by conservation organizations like NeighborSpace in other parts of the country.

Step one in developing the plan is to define what we mean by a livable community.  (We’ll have more to say about the planning steps in future posts). Fortunately there are many prior efforts upon which to draw in developing this definition, which, in essence, provide that livability is a subset of sustainability – in particular, those attributes of sustainability that directly affect people living in a community.   Kaid Benfield, Sustainable Communities Program Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDS) says that a sustainable  community is a place "where use of resources and emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants are going down, not up; where the air and waterways are accessible and clean; where land is used efficiently and shared parks and public spaces are plentiful and easily visited; where people of different ages, income levels and cultural backgrounds share equally in environmental, social and cultural benefits; where many needs of daily life can be met within a 20-minute walk and all may be met within a 20-minute transit ride; where industry and economic opportunity emphasize healthy, environmentally sound practices."[1]

In other words, a sustainable community is one where social, environmental and economic demands (also known as “the three pillars of sustainability”) are balanced:  “neighborhoods sporting healthy amounts of green space and shared vegetable gardens; mass transit, biking and walking replacing the majority of automobile traffic; and mixed use communities where schools, residences and commercial spaces are near each other and are powered by solar panels, geothermal heat pumps or windmills.”[2]

As we decide what this means for land conservation within the URDL going forward, it is helpful to look backward in time at some of the land we protected earlier in our history and at the contributions those parcels have made to the sustainability of communities within the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL).  In this post, we’ll travel to our Gwynn Oak Ave. site in Woodlawn.  If you drove by  there on the evening of Tuesday, August 7, you would have caught a glimpse of Don Knotts as the “Incredible Mr. Limpet,” the protagonist in a 1964 Warner Brothers film in which a mild-mannered Brooklyn bookeeper with a passion for fish magically turns into a dolphin.  The Graystone Community Association hosted this outdoor movie night in recognition of “National Night Out,” America’s night out against crime.  This nationwide campaign seeks to heighten crime and drug prevention awareness; generate support for, and participation in, local anticrime programs; strengthen neighborhood spirit and police-community partnerships; and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back.

Roughly 40 people of all ages turned out with folding chairs, blankets and tiki torches for the event, along with a contingent of officers from the Baltimore County Police Department and representatives from the Red Line, the 14. 1 mile mass transit corridor planned to extend from the Social Security complex in  Woodlawn to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus.  Graystone Community Association President, Jim Amos, expressed his appreciation for the 13 years he had spent in the community and urged those in attendance to get to know their neighbors.  Kerri Lastner,  past president of the association and event organizer, underscored the importance of getting together as a community “just to have fun.” Woodlawn Christian Fellowship Pastor Michele Perrera and her husband, Tom, were also on hand to share in the festivities and to provide a movie staple, fresh popcorn, to all in attendance.

In the movie, Mr. Limpet struggles for acceptance and has few passions in his life as a man, but finds great reward and happiness, with the help of his underwater friends, once transformed into a fish.   There are some parallels, here, for this very diverse community, in terms of its ability to come together in acceptance and celebration of individual differences and, thereby, to strengthen the neighborhood and to overcome the challenges targeted by “National Night Out.”

A painter’s tarp stretched between two apple trees on a quarter acre of otherwise vacant land is hardly fodder for a masterpiece – unless and until we can appreciate it in a broader context.  When it serves to bridge the all too familiar divides of race, age, socioeconomic status and religious belief and to knit diverse individuals together as a community, it becomes a magnum opus and a hallmark of sustainability.  Imagine what our inner suburbs could become if every community had a small parcel of land like the NeighborSpace site on Gwynn Oak Ave. and a community association like Graystone to manage and program it.

[1] Kaid Benfield, A Trip to Sustainaville. Switchboard, March 2011.
[2] Ibid.

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