Monday, June 30, 2014

Keeping it Real - Green is the Key to Sense of Place

The science is clear about the importance of green infrastructure.  It supports the Durham (North Carolina) City Council’s recent move to dedicate a half-cent of property tax for partial maintenance of a tiny fraction.

It was an important step but not nearly strategic enough.

Oh, it is very strategic in execution.  It will fund 12 new FTE’s (the equivalent of full time workers) to keep parks and trails in better repair, maintain clean bathrooms, keep the turf mowed (in most cases weeds,) and maintain basketball goals and ball fields in better condition.

The plan also stipulates inter-agency coordination and defines performance metrics.

On the down side, it neglects the vast majority of green infrastructure, areas even more at risk, such as urban forests.

At the same time, officials quietly axed a popular and effective summer youth litter patrol.  Why?  The grant wasn’t renewed.

Durham, like a lot of communities in the years after I first moved here, did this with the grant-inspired Durham Service CorpsBut they don’t really get what grants are for.

They aren’t intended to subsidize operations but to momentarily leverage innovations until grantee communities can make their capacity sustainable.

The problem is not only that what the City Council just did for parks and trails is woefully insufficient, but the angst by which it was forged will likely mean that expectations will be as though it were.

Rather than serve to pilot strategic scalability, far too often officials everywhere wearily turn instead to the next crises.

To be truly strategic, a move such as Durham’s for parks and trails should have comprehensively addressed overall green infrastructure as an overarching strategy (a means to spearhead and achieve many others.)

Green infrastructure, including upkeep, is correlated scientifically to:

  • Reduce crime (especially domestic violence,)
  • Improve public and mental health outcomes,
  • Invigorate neighborhoods,
  • Reduce homeowner costs and street maintenance,
  • Develop and foster workplace skills such as executive function skills,
  • Engage civic participation and organizational citizenship
  • Develop the economy from both supply and demand sides,
  • Improve curb appeal/property values, and more.

Strategic mindset, unfortunately, isn’t a requirement to run for office, although it should be for governing.  Nor is this mindset sufficiently found or exercised enough by day-to-day public servants or administrators.

This oxygen becomes even thinner at higher levels of government.

To put what the City Council did in perspective, this new tax will generate $1.2 million annually to improve one tiny corner of green infrastructure, a fifth or sixth of what local governments spend each year related to the ten-year-old American Tobacco Complex, revealed by recent news reports.

Both are key, the former strategic and the latter tactical, to retaining Durham’s status among the fewer than 1-in-3 places still considered “real and authentic.”

This core sense of place asset correlates with appeal to talent, resident passion and engagement, relocating and expanding business and visitation but belies how quickly it is eroding.

Historic and natural or green infrastructure rank highest in perception as real and authentic, according to national surveys.

Even among those drawn to attractions and entertainment - sports, performing arts (especially musical theater,) generic events and other amusements and fantasies rank least as contributing to “authentic.”

The nationwide study was conducted by PGAV Destinations which has developed or revitalized attractions visited by 75 million people each year.

When it comes to sense of place appeal, it can be both/and but as in wine parlance, always historic/natural character forward.

To get a sense of how determined officials are to keeping our community “real and authentic” or falling vulnerable to surrendering sense of place, follow the money.

Lets hope the long overdue attention given to to even a fraction of its even more crucial green infrastructure is more than a “one off.”

No comments: