Monday, December 13, 2010

Unpave Paradise…and Put Up a Park

Enhancing quality of life can encompass improving education, developing the arts, stimulating local business creation, or improving the physical amenities of an area…just to name a few. But one idea that has taken off across the globe is the creation of green space. In an effort to attract and retain residents and skilled workers, cities are using parks and open space to leverage investment into their local economies.

In the 1980s, Chattanooga, Tennessee suffered an economic recession due to the closing and relocation of factories…not to mention the area was wrought with air pollution from towering smoke stacks. Due to the increasing unemployment rates and the declining quality of life, residents were quickly moving elsewhere. As a result, the local government, businesses, and community groups came together to explore ways in which they could improve Chattanooga’s quality of life. They decided to purchase land for parks and open space, and, as a result, things began to turn around.

In their case study of Chattanooga, the Trust for Public Land found: “the environmentally progressive redevelopment of Chattanooga’s downtown riverfront [there is a 75-mile network of greenways and trails located along river] involved $356 million in public and private investment. In eight years between 1988 and 1996 the number of businesses and full-time jobs in the district more than doubled, and assessed property values went up over $11 million, an increase of 127.5 %. Over the same period, the annual combined city and county property tax revenues [in the downtown riverfront area] went up $592,000, an increase of 99%.”

Chattanooga’s success is one of many. People want to live in areas that are adorned with open space and that are visually appealing. Countless studies have shown that corporate CEOs and small company owners alike equate parks/open space (ie. quality of life) as the highest priority for choosing a new location for their business.

The Cape Fear Future Quality of Life Team understands this rationale and is currently exploring/supporting efforts to create green space. Other efforts are also already underway: the newly sworn-in New Hanover County commissioners wasted no time, voting unanimously to purchase approximately 63 acres near Castle Hayne Park in an effort to create a multi-use park. In their list of prioritized initiatives, the Vision 2020 Committee has also endorsed ways in which we can create more waterfront parks and green corridors.

There are, however, other “green” projects that improve an area’s quality of life. While traveling in Europe this summer, I had the fortune of seeing multiple projects that were pioneering, creative, progressive, and downright sensible. There were few new large-scale development projects, but instead, revitalization and improvement efforts that enhanced the unique infrastructure already in place. For instance, the European Environmental Agency in Copenhagen launched their “Europe in Bloom” campaign which built on the concept of façade improvements- a brilliant idea. The project puts a twist on the traditional ideas of green space, gardens, and external building improvements. Several agencies came together in Copenhagen and designed a vertical garden, the first outdoor green façade in Denmark. It serves multiple purposes: acts as a home for animals, produces food, insulates buildings, absorbs urban noise, reduces dust (improving air quality), and improves the overall aesthetics of the area (see the link below for photographs and more detail).

The European Environmental Agency explains: “The EEA Living Façade wants to illustrate the significance of vertical gardens as urban green areas. These areas represent a backbone for human health, biodiversity and ecosystem services in cities. For most urban dwellers, the perception of "greenery" in or nearby their cities is an integral part of what constitutes the 'quality of life'.”

In closing, the acquisition of land and redevelopment projects like the aforementioned are not always feasible… in large part this is a result of the current economic state and reduced budgets. But it is important to remember that conservation and open space have overwhelmingly proved to have incredible return on investment. If we want to improve the quality of life in the Cape Fear Region we must formulate strategies that are sustainable and innovative, but that represent our regional brand and satisfy the community as a whole.

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