Though superficially something I would support, this idea from the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown is misguided:
We support requiring that a minimum of 20 percent of the lot area of each individual parcel be devoted to public open space.Thus far, my criticisms of CCD (here and on other blogs) have centered on the inconsistencies of their positions (asking for both low density and Metro), an unnecessary and counterproductive focus on numbers (e.g. 1600, 5500, 14 stories, etc.), and the propagation of an “Us vs. Them” mentality with respect to General Growth, the County and anyone who isn’t a “citizen.”
Since the group recently released its 40-some-page position paper, I’m finding areas for more substantive debate. And though I haven’t had a chance to digest the full paper and its arguments, I did have enough time to further contemplate why the 20 percent set aside is wrong.
First, let’s leave aside the questions posed by Wordbones a while back about whether this requirement would be in addition to the existing New Town Zoning requirement calling for 36 percent of Columbia’s land to be set aside as open space. That seems to be an argument solely for pedants (and I even include myself in that category, as you’ll see in a moment).
My concern with the 20 percent set aside is more substantive. And because I’m feeling lazy and I need to go buy a suit and a new bed for the mutt (just adding some personal bloggy flavor), I’ll just repost my concerns as stated in the comments from Wordbones’ post:
Yes, it's important that open space requirements are met, but it's more important that the open space we set aside adds something to the overall character of the place and fits in with the whole.Which is a long-winded way of saying, quality is better than quantity. And when it comes to open space, quality is defined by the value it adds to the overall health of the ecosystem first and to the community at large second. And in order to understand such values, it is essential that we preserve open space according to a plan -- specifically a Green Infrastructure plan.
Saying that ever parcel must have a 20 percent set aside fails to account for the fact that on some parcels, finding 20 percent that would contribute to the general welfare of Town Center is impossible. Whereas, on some parcels, a larger set-aside would be feasible and desirable. An overly prescriptive plan might allay some fears of the unknown, but it won't result in the best Town Center, which is, I thought, what we all wanted.
I discussed at great length green infrastructure a while ago, so I won't go too far into it now. But I'll share the definition and a few key excerpts to give those of you not inclined to click the link an idea of what I mean:
The foundation for the idea of green infrastructure is similar to that of our "gray" or built infrastructure -- namely, that a comprehensive, interconnected and well-planned network of facilities (open spaces, in the case of green infrastructure) is the best way to ensure the entire system functions effectively and provides the highest return on our investments. Also like gray infrastructure, green infrastructure can be costly, especially in areas where land values and development pressures are high, like Howard County.Green infrastructure is an idea people have trouble wrapping their heads around. Many, including CCD, confuse it for "green" grey infrastructure -- that is, building eco-friendly sewer pipes, roads, sidewalks, storm water management systems, etc. Here's what CCD has to say about green infrastructure:
Just as we expect our roads to connect and our water and sewer systems to be built with adequate capacity to meet our needs, our system of green spaces should also connect and should also have the capacity to ensure healthy, functioning ecosystems. Or, according to The Conservation Fund:
"Green Infrastructure is the Nation's natural life support system – a strategically planned and managed network of wilderness, parks, greenways, conservation easements, and working lands with conservation value that supports native species, maintains natural ecological process, sustains air and water resources, and contributes to the health and quality of life for America's communities and people."
...Similar to land development in general, land preservation and conservation efforts, in their most prevalent current form, are conducted in an ad hoc, haphazard and unplanned manner. Rather than looking at acquisitions and easements in a broader context, investigating how a parcel will fit within and contribute to the overall strength of the existing green network, expenditures are made based on short-term needs, often because of political or economic expediency.
In particular, County officials should develop and foster Green Infrastructure that minimizes disturbances to the land caused by the installation of roads and utilities. This concept, which is receiving national attention, also fosters the idea of using storm-water runoff for park and streetscape irrigation systems. Roads and pathways in Downtown Columbia should be designed to support the environment. Elements of a green circulation system would include the use of environmentally appropriate construction materials for roads, pathways, parking lots; lighting that incorporates solar as well as other alternative electrical power; landscaping that helps provide traffic calming as well as minimizing storm water runoff, etc. In addition, the overall system should be designed so as to maximize appeal and accessibility.
As you can see, what CCD is advocating for is basically the use of green building techniques when designing and building infrastructure. While I'd like to see greater use of permeable pavement and the like, I'd really like to see an integrated approach to land preservation similar to what I described above. Just as it's essential for man-made systems to connect, natural ones must, too. Basically, a patch of open space outside of Cheesecake Factory and one near the library are worthless on their own, whereas the same two patches of open space in a connected natural system along the edges of a stream are probably doing some good.
By requiring a 20 percent set aside for each parcel, we could lose potentially valuable open spaces as the developer meets only the minimum requirements. On the other hand, if we take a wider perspective and mandate a Town Center-wide preservation strategy -- similar to the 36 percent set aside that is part of the New Town Zoning regulations -- we could channel development and open space to the most appropriate areas and maximize benefits for everyone.