Saving Places for Open Spaces

Loss of green areas in US cities is a growing concern to land-conservation groups

IN the South End-Lower Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, a once pockmarked stretch of vacant city lots is now the site of thriving community gardens.

In Portland, Maine, an abandoned rail corridor along the city's waterfront will soon be part of a network of commuter trails that will connect the downtown with residential areas.

For years, residents of the inner-city Edgewood neighborhood in Baltimore avoided their backyard - a 1,400-acre stream valley preserve that became an overgrown dumping area. Now the six-mile-long ribbon, called the Gwynns Falls Trails, is undergoing a metamorphosis as an urban green way of hike and bike trails. When finished in 1995, the trails will link more than a dozen neighborhoods with historic sites and Baltimore's downtown cultural attractions.

These projects are part of a growing grass-roots effort by communities, coalitions, and individuals to preserve and create green spaces in urban areas, according to the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit real-estate organization that helped facilitate them.

``People concentrated in and near cities have the least amount of opportunity to experience parks or protected open spaces, and that's becoming an increasing problem,'' says Ernest Cook, a senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land (TPL).

TPL, which is based in San Francisco and has offices around the United States, started 21 years ago with a mission to protect land and public resources for people. It has completed more than 1,000 conservation projects in 42 states and Canada, ranging from historic Walden Woods in Concord, Mass., to land in the Florida Everglades, to urban gardens and green ways. It is also preserving culturally significant sites, such as the Monroe School in Topeka, Kan., where the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit originated.

Most of TPL's work has focused on safeguarding beautiful landscapes and national forests - ``the path of least resistance,'' according to Mr. Cook. But concern about the rapid loss of green spaces in cities and the diminishing quality of life for residents is prompting TPL to make a greater commitment to urban areas. Through its Cities Initiative, launched recently, the organization hopes to increase the number of projects in cities to 50 percent of the total (it's 30 percent now) over the next five years.

Demand for public parks and open space in cities is not new. In 1962 the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission released a report that drew national attention to the unmet need for public recreation land in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. In 1978, the National Urban Recreation Study revealed a greater urgency, noting that many of ORRRC's recommendations for urban areas hadn't been accomplished. And in 1987, the Report of the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors concluded that, by the year 2000, 80 percent of the population would live in metropolitan areas and that the nation's primary open-space needs are in urban communities.

TPL is not the only national land-conservation organization to put more emphasis on preserving green in cities. The Conservation Fund, the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, and others have also increasingly steered in this direction.

``There's been a lot of lip service to [these efforts] in the past, but I think people are getting serious now for all kinds of reasons,'' says Bill Spitzer, assistant director of National Recreation and Conservation Programs at the National Park Service.

These reasons range from the idea that green spaces and recreational programs provide alternatives to youth violence and crime to relief from the asphalt and bricks for those who can't travel to the countryside. Moreover, the continuing sprawl and ballooning population of many cities has highlighted the urgency to set aside space before it is lost to development, Cook says. While urban land is still available in many cities, it will diminish sharply over the next 10 years, according to a 1993 TPL study.

Portland, Ore., is one city receiving national attention for its attempts to innovatively utilize, conserve, and create parks, green ways, and other urban spaces in the face of escalating growth.

``We're anticipating another half million people in the next 20 years,'' says Charles Jordan, director of the Portland Parks and Recreation Department. ``We're trying to ensure that our legacy is no less than our inheritance here, and so we're trying to set aside those special places right now.'' Mr. Jordan's enthusiasm spills into each sentence when he talks about some of Portland's projects.

The city plans to create ``environmental universities'' in a 5,000-acre urban park - one of the largest in the country. Each section will represent a different environment, from wetlands to an arboretum. Jordan also wants to design green ways and trails leading to natural areas that are convenient for inner-city people to reach by walking or riding bikes. This includes making use of alleyways and sidewalks as a way to access these trails. He has a vision for a green way leading from Portland to the Pacific Ocean.

He is most excited about the environmental education programs offered to inner-city kids through the city's recreation centers. They range from spending the night under the stars to taking kids to an urban treehouse - a tree with a platform built around it that might represent a rain forest or a desert where kids discuss the particular environment.

``The response has been overwhelming,'' he says. ``People say [inner-city residents] really don't care about the wilderness, they really want a developed park. That's a myth.''

Though the local public and government for the most part support his projects, Jordan says it's a challenge to get them to think in different ways about parks and green spaces.

``When you start talking about turning this park into a park that's going to challenge these kids - that's sort of new to citizens. They're accustomed to us putting in a merry-go-round, swings, a see-saw - that's more activity based. We're saying what benefits do we want to impart to our customers.''

Many conservation groups often have a difficult time persuading local government to spend money on preserving urban areas. Often, there is a lack of funding even when the backing is there.

``Building funding sources, building political will to protect open spaces'' is the biggest challenge, Cook says.

``Urban areas have been a tough nut to crack,'' Jordan agrees. ``Public officials must have the intestinal fortitude to set aside areas ... they have to be visionary. You can always get rid of land, but you can't always recapture it.''

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