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Green Lungs 

Parks aren't just recreational, they're a goldmine

Parks are the "lungs" of a city, cleaning our environment and refreshing our collective spirits by contact with nature. The need for more cleansing green space in our city was brought home to me forcibly last week: flying back into Charlotte revealed the dramatic layer of brown smog hovering over the town like a deadly shroud. Our city is more contaminated than we think.

A recent study by the Rand Corporation showed just how big an effect suburban sprawl has on our health. Results from 38 metropolitan areas showed that the life expectancy of people living in walkable, in-town neighborhoods was four years longer than the average suburban dweller. The auto-dependent, fast-food lifestyle takes a dramatic toll, as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure become more commonplace. But one of the worst culprits is air pollution from our vehicles.

Nature can't clean all the pollutants from our air, but it can help, and urban parks can play an important role. Charlotte has three uptown parks in the offing, in First, Second and Third Wards, but progress is agonizingly slow. Our city has fewer urban green spaces than comparable cities, and we're falling further behind.

Urban areas have always struggled with pollution, and the analogy between places in the city and parts of the human body was popularized in the 19th century in reaction to the inhumanity of the industrial environment; streets became "arteries" of circulation and the downtown core was the "heart" of the metropolis. The biological metaphor was part of the reform movement that sought to improve the disgusting conditions caused by the industrial revolution, where life for the workers was often nasty, brutish and short. The average life expectancy for the poorest working classes in Manchester, England, for example in 1835 was a mere seventeen years! A high incidence of disease, workplace accidents and infant mortality all contributed to this horrific figure.

Squalid housing was built amid fetid, open sewers by greedy capitalists eager to maximize their profits and reduce their costs. Open space was unknown. Streets and courts were dark and dank, and the only green thing in sight was the scum that skimmed the dank cesspools. London had parks aplenty, but they were the exclusive preserve of the wealthy classes.

The story was similar in American cities during that same period. In New York, Chicago, Boston and other industrial areas, housing conditions were miserable, sanitation primitive, and greenery non-existent. The situation became so bad that it stirred the conscience of social reformers, including the famous American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who sought to improve urban life through contact with nature. Olmsted designed parks for many cities, including Boston's "green necklace," and most famously of all, Central Park in Manhattan, laid out with his partner Calvert Vaux in 1856. For Olmsted, the purpose of urban parks was not only environmental, but social as well. He believed that mixing the social classes in natural settings would relieve the stresses of urban life and improve society by providing middle class role models of public behavior for the working class to emulate.

He also understood another basic fact: building parks is one of the best tools a city has for making money. Olmsted's research showed that property around Central Park increased nine times as fast as comparable property elsewhere over an 18-year period. Similar increases in property values, and hence in property taxes, have been consistent factors in American city budgets ever since. For example, park improvements in Chattanooga, TN, resulted in nearly $600,000 extra revenue from property taxes between 1988 and 1996. In San Antonio, TX, the Riverwalk Park, built for only $425,000, has overtaken the Alamo as the city's most popular attraction in its $3.5 billion tourist industry.

Olmsted's theories still hold sway in our current thinking about parks. Today, American cities construct and use parks for five main reasons: economic development; community revitalization and engagement; public safety; environmental improvement; and public education. All five factors should be brought to bear on Charlotte's much-needed uptown parks.

The First Ward Park, planned between 7th and 9th streets adjacent to the trolley tracks, involves a complex land swap between the county and private property owners. To be built atop several levels of underground parking, this two-block park -- if and when it ever materializes -- will provide very desirable breathing space and recreation opportunities adjacent to the densest part of the city.

The relocation and rebuilding of Marshall Park in Second Ward is many years off, and in Third Ward the situation is also far from clear. The city, county, and teams of consultants can't agree on the best location, or the type of park. But it's essential that the design process be continued and a solution found. As our uptown population crests 10,000, Olmsted's lesson is especially pertinent: well-designed urban parks are essential for our improved health and greater wealth.

David Walters is an architect, town planner, and Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UNC Charlotte.

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