Partners (Summer 1996)

Urban Green Spaces Add Value
by Marie Easley


Recent outreach meetings with community groups throughout the Sixth District echo a common cry: A community in the true sense of the word must have facilities and programs to turn occupants into neighbors, and residents into viable, long-term homeowners. In many southeastern cities, efforts are underway to enhance the economic vitality of low- to moderate-income communities, and to ensure that the investments made in those communities represent worthwhile efforts and money well spent. These efforts range from budgets for social services, including day care facilities and job training, to environmental concerns such as gardens, parks, and recreation facilities. In this article, we have turned our attention to the subject of urban green spaces.

The link between urban green spaces and community health has been documented repeatedly since 1985 when a presidential commission was appointed to update the work of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC). Published in 1987, the study concluded that 80 percent of Americans would be living in metropolitan areas by the year 2000; hence, the greatest needs for parks and recreation would be in our nation's cities.

Again in 1993, a study conducted by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) found the need for open spaces in America's cities to be severe. The 1993 study, supported by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, found that public open spaces in urban areas are deteriorating, parks are inadequate and overcrowded, and low-income communities are critically underserved.

Increasing Investment

Dozens of cities have enjoyed the windfall from economic development that follows the creation of well-designed and maintained parks, greenways, and other open spaces. In New Orleans, investments in waterfront and other open space developments have succeeded in attracting new business and tourism, with subsequent increases in tax revenues. Chattanooga, once considered an environmental disaster burdened with a downtown strewn with dilapidated buildings and remnants of better days, now has a sprawling riverfront park. The park will be linked to a network of green areas that connect communities, including a low-income, inner-city neighborhood.

Riverwalk path Chattanooga's experience provides compelling evidence that redevelopment is good business. According to Jim Bowen of River Valley Partners, Inc., Chattanooga has realized an investment of $13 in private, state, and federal dollars for every $1 of investment by city and county governments. Notably, private investment represented $5 for every $1 outlay by city and county governments. Based on a 20-year plan established in 1985, eight local foundations and seven financial institutions raised $12 million in non-restrictive grant funds to assemble land, create plans, and serve as a catalyst for public and private investment.

Among a long list of investments, Chattanooga's first new downtown housing development in over 20 years was built. The apartment complex, which enjoys riverfront views and an entrance onto the riverwalk, includes housing for low- to moderate-income residents.

In Atlanta, Japan-based Scripto-Tokai signed a voluntary agreement with the state Environmental Protection Division to pay for toxic clean-up, and TPL agreed to handle the asbestos removal and demolition of the worn-out Scripto pen factory. This reclamation of an abandoned industrial district will result in the creation of a parking lot for visitors to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, the revenues from which will be used to build a new community center. Some of the land will be converted to a pedestrian greenway to connect the King Center to the Carter Presidential Center. And the parking lot will reduce the traffic strain experienced by surrounding low-and moderate-income neighborhoods.

Committed to recapture "Sweet Auburn's" vitality, neighborhood advocates created the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) to renovate 20 square blocks, now known as the King Historic District. With NationsBank providing construction loans and mortgage assistance, residents who make as little as $20,000 a year can now afford to purchase a home. Residents are planning a new community garden and playground while construction progresses on dozens of new homes.

The Trust for Public Land

One organization working to expand and revitalize parks and open spaces in urban areas is the Trust for Public Land (TPL). In its 1993 study, TPL held group meetings, conducted personal interviews, and collected surveys from a wide and diverse population of residents, business leaders, and politicians in 23 metropolitan areas including Atlanta and Miami. Through its Green Cities Initiative, TPL has facilitated the purchase of green spaces and parkland by community groups and government agencies using $28 million in revolving capital funds.

Over the next five years, the Trust plans to help cities acquire up to 250 parcels of land for city parks that meet high priority needs. TPL offers a team of experts in real estate, law, and finance to guide local groups through complex transactions. The Trust will also help devise a strategy for raising the dollars needed to offset some of the deficiencies. This effort will range from purchasing vacant city lots for development into parks, recreation centers, and community gardens, to assembling expansive greenways that join neighborhoods across cities.

Beyond the Internal Rate of Return

When people feel a sense of order in their communities, the intangibles such as self-esteem begin to appear. East Little Havana, for example, is a traditionally Hispanic area in one of the oldest sections in Miami. Jose Marti Park had been an appealing hangout for drug dealers and area homeless. But neighbors organized and cleaned up the park, planting gardens and making the space a part of their community. The park is now a place where children play and the elderly gather in the evenings to socialize. This healthier presence promotes safety and livability, and contributes to the economic vitality of the neighborhood.

In residential areas, the key is to involve the communities in the decision-making process about where playgrounds, gardens, and basketball courts should be located and how they should be operated. Enormous recreation facilities have been assembled in public housing projects, only to fall into disrepair because residents felt no sense of ownership or pride in the facilities. The odds of success increase markedly when people are given the option of choosing what happens in their community, and planners ensure that citizens are given enough information to make intelligent decisions.

In Summary

Communities across the country have enjoyed tangible and intangible returns on investments in urban green spaces through increased development, economic viability of neighborhoods, increased tourism, reduced crime, healthier environments, and a better quality of life. A combination of any of these factors can have a direct impact on property values and on a community's ability to attract small business or, in a word, make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. As TPL President Martin Rosen summarizes, "Our cities—old and new—must be reimagined. Parks and gardens alone cannot solve the problems faced by our cities, but they are crucial to the health of urban communities. We need to take seriously the evidence that open space counts in human lives..."


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