By Dom Nozzi
I have a view that seems counterintuitive to many, and therefore tends to draw indignant ire from many intelligent, well-meaning environmentalists who seek to create a better city.
My seemingly shocking view is that introducing nature into a town center nearly always degrades the town center. I say this even though I have a degree in environmental science, which gives me a thorough understanding of the importance of protecting and restoring natural ecosystems.
I also say this even though in childhood, one of the most profound, critically important, priceless experiences I had was to be able to play in the neighborhood woodlands. I did that all the time. In fact, the main inspiration for my becoming a city planner was that I wanted to be in a job in which I could work to see that future generations of kids had that same opportunity. My childhood experience with nature made me realize that not having that exposure to nature would lead to an awful, sterile, barren childhood. Indeed, a research study once evaluated a large number of variables to determine if there was a correlation between childhood experiences and wanting to conserve the environment as an adult. The study found that there was one variable that stood out head and shoulders above the others. Adult conservationists typically were able to engage in unstructured, unsupervised play in natural areas near their home when they were kids.
For the above reasons, as well as a strong interest in promoting transportation choices in cities, I am a leading advocate for establishing urban greenway trail systems in cities. Greenways provide an effective way to allow kids (and adults) to have easy walking/bicycling access to the natural world, on a regular basis, right outside their back door. I know of nothing that is better able to create the army of conservationists than greenways.
However, I must add an important qualifier on the topic of introducing nature to a town center. The urban town center habitat (in contrast to the suburban and rural locations of a community) must be compact and walkable if it is to be a high quality urban habitat. That means that if we are to introduce nature into the urban world, we must be as careful as if we were planning to introduce human activity into a sensitive wildlife habitat.
In the case of the town center human habitat, the introduced nature must, again, be compact and walkable. In other words, small, vacant woodlots, plazas, squares, piazzas, utility corridors, creek corridors, and other similar, relatively small spaces are perfectly compatible with walkability. One can easily walk from origin A to destination B without an enormous amount of physical exertion. By contrast, putting a golf course or even a 50-acre park in the middle of a city creates an utterly unwalkable condition, as the distance between Point A and Point B then becomes too excessive to easily walk.
Central Park in New York City is an exception that can work because that city has extremely high densities and a quality transit system that means you can easily walk or ride to all of your daily needs along the perimeter of the park without having to cross it on foot. In cities with much smaller densities (and nearly all American cities have quite low densities compared to New York City), big open spaces in the town center would create unwalkable spaces that would degrade the urban habitat.
The key for nearly all American cities, then, is to preserve and create compact urban open spaces while retaining walkability. Greenway trails that wind their way through neighborhoods, as well as small parks and squares, are compatible.
Big, unwalkable parks are not.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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