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Urban open space: color it valuable.


To many people, the phrase urban open space is a contradiction in terms. Mention city and they envision back-to-back skyscrapers and rowhouses. To those people, urban open space means vacant lots, areas that detract from rather than add to the value of surrounding properties.

If you are among the three-quarters of America's population who live in a metropolitan area, you know better. To you, urban open space means green, growing things-individual street trees as well as large public parks-that add to the experience of living in a city as well as they increase property values.

Brooklynite Tom Fox is very familiar with this type of green space. Fox formed The Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, an organization that has persuaded New York's mayor and the state's governor to take a serious look at the open-space system in the nation's largest city.

The turning point in Tom Fox's life came as he finished his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He recalls standing on a Vietnamese beach thinking that he would like to be a forest ranger. He returned to the states, took a degree in biology, and did just that. Back in New York, as a National Park Service ranger at the Gateway National Recreation Area (the nation's first urban park), he enjoyed teaching city youngsters about the natural world. But as gratifying as it was to watch a child's face light up with newfound knowledge about the earth, he realized he was sending them back to Bronx ghettos where trees and open space are nonexistent.

Frustrated that his message was not getting through to people where they live and work, Fox left his job and hooked up with the Green Guerrillas, a group that has established some 600 community gardens in the Bronx.

Through the Green Guerrillas, Fox discovered that the folks researching the effects of urban open space and the people out in the trenches trying to see that open space is set aside were not communicating. He founded The Neighborhood Open Space Coalition to bring together those working toward the same goal so that their efforts could be better coordinated and thus more effective. The coalition has grown from 30 professionals who attended the first conference in 1980 to 125 organizations and 90 individuals who are members today

To Tom Fox and other city dwellers, greenery-city parks, tree-lined boulevards, rooftop gardens, street trees, pocket parks-are as much a part of urban life as concrete sidewalks and office complexes are. When we visit a city like Washington, DC, chances are it is the museums and monuments that draw us. In New Orleans, it's the French Quarter. In Los Angeles, it might be Disneyland. All of these urban tourist areas have open spaces associated with them.

What makes greenery and green spaces so appealing and necessary to tourists and city dwellers alike are benefits like shade, a place to retreat from city noises, space for recreation and even viewing wildlife, and a haven from heat, pollution, and stress. But these benefits have never been the driving forces behind the creation of urban green spaces.

Instead, the catalyst is usually economic. "Open space shouldn't be justified by its economic benefits alone," writes Tom Fox in a monograph titled Urban Open Space: An Investment That Pays. "But if this economic argument isn't made, urban open spaces will surely suffer further neglect and abuse."

The point is this: Property next to urban open space is worth more than property that is not. The economic factor was there when Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park and was there when today's greenways and urban waterfront parks were established. Try booking hotel reservations near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and you'll find that rates become more and more "reasonable" as you move farther from the waterfront.

An advertisement in 1869 for the auction of a city block off Central Park stated: 'Improvements will be made in this locality in a much shorter time than people suppose ... the value of the Lots will increase ... to a point as high, if not higher, than has been reached in any other part of the city, thus making a good investment ......"

If you were to read a claim like this in a newspaper today, you might brush it off as sales talk, though in this case the copy writers were absolutely right. When only half completed, Central Park began to generate revenue. In 1864, Olmsted documented a $55,880 net return for the city from taxes on the park, and in 1873, income from property tax in the three wards surrounding the park was over $4.4 million.

A more visual way of looking at this is to imagine a time line for Fifth Avenue. In the 1870s, it was a country road bordered by farmland. By the 1890s, America's richest families had built homes directly across from the newly created park. And by the 1900s, corporate America was moving in.

In Kansas City, Missouri, landscape architect George E. Kessler, like Olmsted in New York, predicted that new parks and parkways would increase real-estate values. In the late 1800s, city officials agreed to take Kessler's advice and make new parks and connector boulevards the main organizing element in this midwestern city, a choice they and their successors have surely never regretted.

A 1910 report of the Board of Park and Boulevard Commissioners concluded that subsequent to the creation of parks and boulevards, the assessed value of real estate in two districts had risen 43 percent. A newspaper story at the time stated: "While a system of parks and boulevards has cost tens of millions of dollars, the property fronting on these boulevards has been advanced by more than that amount. This statement is based on a careful investigation conducted with the cooperation of real-estate dealers."

Sale prices and property-tax receipts were used in these early studies. The same methods are still employed today to help quantify the impact of open space on real-estate values. Recently, researchers have added other tools such as surveys, which provide understanding of perceptions of worth and people's willingness to buy, and multiple regression analysis, a statistical technique for eliminating unrelated factors such as house size and type.

The Regional Science Research Institute used multiple regression analysis in 1974 to study how 1,294-acre Pennypack Park in Philadelphia affected nearby real estate. The researchers held constant such variables as house type, year of sale, and whether the house was next to a retail area, highway, or another large open space. Their results supported earlier research. At 40 feet, the park accounted for 33 percent of the land value, 9 percent at 1,000 feet, and 4.2 percent at 2,500 feet.

Urban open space has come to mean more than just city parks and treelined parkways. In the last 20 years, studies of street and yard trees have shown that they may increase a home's selling price by as much as 20 percent. Developers who preserve vegetation in order to adhere to building restrictions report an increase in the value of their projects. Here again, the intangibles gained by retaining a little of the natural world are reflected in the prices homeowners are willing to pay.

Designers and developers of golf courses are taking advantage of the reality that people will pay more to live near open space. The Wall Street Journal reports that developers building golf courses these days do so primarily to attract people to high-priced developments.

According to John Rooney, a professor at Oklahoma State University who has done research in this area, "Merely being in a golf-course community, even without a direct fairway view, can add more than 20 percent to the value of a home site ... being located next to the golf course can add another $15,000 to $20,000. And if the view includes a pond or other body of water, tack on still another 15,000."

Golf courses are especially popular in the South, where many cities have one or more within their perimeters. Traditional golf courses were compact, but these days they are sprawling and usually linear-similar to the parkways and boulevards of the 1800s and the greenway trail systems of today.

Golf courses, greenways, and urban waterfronts are the areas city planners and developers are looking to today as spaces that may attract businesses and tourists while increasing real-estate values. Changes in transportation and manufacturing and a transition to a service-oriented economy have left large sections of waterfront property vacant in most major cities. Reconnecting the city to the waterfront is seen as a major opportunity for cities and towns to provide additional open space while adding to municipal

When a community makes this kind of commitment to reviving its waterfront, businesses see the dollar signs and follow suit. This has happened in Baltimore, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, New Orleans, and a host of other cities. The designers of a waterfront apartment building in Manhattan-The Regatta-capitalized on the desirability of river views by zigzagging the building so that the percentage of apartments with a view was greatly increased. As a result, The Regatta was one of New York City's hottest properties in 1989, which benefitted the city as well as the developer.

Tom Fox sees two additional opportunities for creating open space in metropolitan areas. One is to reclaim the land evacuated in the early 1970s by what Fox calls urban removal." There are 2,000 acres of vacant lots in New York City that were created under the guise of urban renewal and remain so 20 years later, Fox says.

The other opportunity is to connect existing resources via greenways. The Neighborhood Open Space Coalition is currently working on a 40-mile bike and pedestrian greenway that will link 13 parks, two botanic gardens, four lakes, a reservoir, two environmental education centers, and other existing resources from Brooklyn's Coney Island to Queens' Fort Totten.

The loss of property-taxes on undeveloped open space is more than compensated for by increased revenues on surrounding properties. Consequently, plenty of money should be available to maintain those vital open spaces, right? Unfortunately, no. Today one of the biggest problems facing those who would like to see more urban open space is that open space is not getting its fair share of tax revenues. According to Fox, city parks encompass 13 percent of the land mass in New York City but receive only 0.7 percent of the municipal budget.

Open space that is not maintained generally becomes undesirable to the public and may be adopted by troublemakers and criminals. Ironically, the open spaces discussed here as being a potential boon to business and tourism, when not maintained, can end up having the opposite effect on real-estate values and the other benefits associated with parks.

Another problem is the uneven distribution of open space in metropolitan areas. With the economy now becoming more service- oriented, the older, industrial sections of the city are being converted to residential areas, often with no allowances for open space. The result is large stretches of greenery in the tourist and more affluent areas of the city and little or none in the working-class sections.

Other problems include: overdevelopment near public parks, developers using the promise of open space to gain public acceptance of large-scale development, and privately developed open space being viewed as private parkland rather than public space-all problems not normally associated with open space.

This brings us to the biggest concern of all: many people do not understand the value of open space, economic or otherwise, and what it will mean to cities of the future. Tom Fox puts it this way: With 80 percent of the population living in metropolitan areas by the end of this decade, most of the nation's decision-makers in the year 2050 will have grown up in cities. "It behooves the traditional conservation movement to recognize the need for quality open space in cities," writes Fox.

An investment in urban space today will result in a better educated user of all open space, and it will help lessen the impact of urban problems now being felt in the suburbs. If urban open spaces can draw people back to the city, much as the open space of the suburbs lured them 30 years ago, then open space everywhere will fare better.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Urban Forests; planting of trees in urban open space
Author:Boerner-Ein, Deborah
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:Land of the pampered plantation.
Next Article:Environmental Restoration.

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