Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Discounts that Can Also Spell Doom

I shudder whenever I hear local officials announce there won’t be a property tax increase.

Since nothing is really free, and we, as property owners, are always banking on “quality of place” driving values each year, I am suspicious when someone exclaims that the value of those services stayed stagnant.

I would feel better if these “no tax increase” pronouncements were accompanied by a laundry list of what we’re not going to get next year because of it.

This would hopefully include a list of efficiencies achieved, of course, and a list of deferred maintenance, along with a list of what's being hollowed or starved out as well as a list of the things we should be doing but now won’t due to holding the line.

Of course, we’re to blame, or at least those few souls who go apoplectic whenever there is a change, such as the recent announcement where I live of a $7.50 annual rental fee on optional yard waste roll out carts for those of us who don’t own them.

Unfortunately officials spend far too much time and energy placating this tiny but vocal minority rather than listening to the overall silence among the vast majority of residents.

We all like a discount, such as the one I received at my grocery store on Thursdays for being over age 60.  But what if that discount comes with a steep price, such as lower grade produce?

Then, maybe, not so much.

It also makes them see things tactically rather than strategically, e.g. viewing curb appeal as merely planting a few flowers rather than overall appearance or viewing trees as “nice” but not as “green infrastructure.”

This is why even though it seems to have retained more than so many other places, I am not very optimistic that Durham, North Carolina where I live will do what it takes to preserve what’s left of its sense of place.

The “canary” or sentinel warning of its demise is not its “built” or even its “cultural” aspects, two in the trinity of place-based assets that when woven distinctly give a particular location its overall sense of place.

The early warning of its demise is the way local officials view its tree canopy, the most visible and distinctive element in its “natural” aspect, that completes the trinity.

“Infrastructure,” according to Webster’s Dictionary is “the substructure or underling foundation…on which the continuance and growth of a community or state depends.”

So I refer to this trinity as sense of place infrastructure, and the most fragile component is “green infrastructure.”  Trees, for instance, can convey sense of place without buildings but buildings really can’t without trees and vegetation

This isn’t new.  The term “green infrastructure” has been used in government now for more than two decades and taught in various disciplines, such as planning and public administration, long before that.

It emerged as a tool in management of urban settings some 150 years ago.

Yet it appears some in government still haven’t received the memo.  So a few months ago, the EPA connected the dots by publishing a guide to “Green Infrastructure Opportunities that Arise During Municipal Operations.”

It is written for “old schoolers” who still see infrastructure only as streets, sidewalks, curbs, parking and storm drains as well as sewer and water lines.

It reminds me that when Durham inventoried the status of its buildings not long ago, no one thought to include an assessment of the landscape surrounding each structure, including trees, signaling how endangered this aspect of sense of place is.

It is a myopia currently undermining a proposal to inventory the community’s overall urban forest canopy, by limiting it to just the trees on the property the City, itself, owns rather than a more strategic best practice “ecosystem” approach.

The former is a public works view of urban forest, a dumbed-down misuse of the term.

Urban forestry has been a discipline since the 1960s when it took on an ecological meaning, although its roots go back 100 years earlier.  It came to refer to a community-wide ecosystem in the 1970s.

It was embraced by city planners in the 1980s.  A strategic, community-wide approach was made a priority in 1990 at the Urban Forestry Research Summit.

Cities, including Durham began appointing urban foresters.  Some such as Chicago in the early 1990s took the ecosystem approach and began to develop assessments and urban forest management plans.

A few such as Durham took the less strategic approach and have yet to develop assessments and plans for “city-owned” trees until now, a quarter-century after a more comprehensive approach should have been on its radar and despite clamoring from residents.

Anything is a start, I suppose, but in the meantime, Durham’s ecosystem is losing 18,000 trees a year just to man-made destruction.  That doesn’t count tens of thousands more being clear cut just for pulp or to make shipping pallets.

It suggests a lack of urgency as well as strategic insight that leads me to wonder if Durham’s sense of place is ultimately doomed.

I suspect some in local government are prone to resist the idea of green infrastructure because it isn’t yet a perspective held by residents, but this overlooks local government’s role in community education as part of its role in the stewardship of place.

Infrastructure moved beyond streets and mains in the lexicon of public administration and planning in the early 1990s to incorporate trees and other elements of green infrastructure.

But even many officials who earned degrees more than two decades ago seem to have missed out on the coursework common then regarding green infrastructure.

It would be interesting to know if schools of government such as the one at nearby UNC-Chapel Hill teach this concept of inventory to newly elected public officials during orientation.

Not everything “green” is considered green infrastructure.  For instance, some parks, such as Rockwood down the hill from where we live, are while many others aren’t.

Of course trees are not the only sure-fire elements of green infrastructure.  It also includes constructed or restored wetlands, storm water initiatives such as rain gardens, green roofs and walls, permeable pavements, etc.

Trees are symbolic of green infrastructure because they create windbreaks and shade to reduce energy costs, eliminate air pollution, sequester carbon, slow storm run-off and erosion, increase property values, curb crime including domestic abuse, defer street maintenance costs and reduce healthcare costs.

The aesthetic and other psychological benefits - such as vitality - that they bring to entire neighborhoods and business districts as well as their economic development appeal should be enough to justify the preservation and fostering of urban forests.

But it is their role as green infrastructure that should guarantee them a much higher priority in cities including savings of billions of dollars over traditional infrastructure.

Frankly, any community that fails to safeguard them is more than likely doomed to surrender overall sense of place.

No comments: