Leftside The Bland And The Beautiful

The Preservation Of Open Space Has Long-Term Economic 
And Social Benefits—And Adds To A City’s Holistic Vision, Too

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In 1848, a New York City landscape architect named Andrew Jackson Downing proposed the creation of a 500-acre park in the middle of Manhattan. It would serve, he said, as “the lungs of the city.”

He and the man who was eventually hired to design the park, Frederick Law Olmsted, wanted to create a sanctuary of open space and fresh air. But to their minds, it would also serve as a social outlet—a place where people of different classes could mix on common ground. Indeed, though we now know it as Central Park, Downing originally called it the “People’s Park.”

I often think of Central Park whenever we debate open-space preservation versus development here in Coastal Virginia. Had short-sighted New Yorkers carried the day back in the mid-19th century, the land that became Central Park might have been deemed too valuable to designate as open space. But the Park’s advocates prevailed. Not that their reasons for supporting it were entirely noble; the social purposes that Downing and Olmsted envisioned were coupled with economic incentives. Developers knew that a park of that scale would drive up real estate values around its perimeter.

As a result of these early visions, New York is not just a city of tall buildings; it’s a city of great parks as well, from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village to Prospect Park in Brooklyn—and hundreds of points beyond.

Alas, the leaders of Norfolk and its neighboring communities have often been more short-sighted when it comes to the value of parks and other kinds of open spaces. They and their developer pals see the immediate dollar signs of cheaply-built town houses or strip malls, rather than the long-term economic and social benefits of leaving land alone or cultivating it as parkland.

This has not been true across the board, of course. There are some fine open spaces in this community, from the Norfolk Botanical Garden to First Landing State Park. But in many cases, especially in Norfolk, these lungs of the city are constricted. Town Point Park is the most striking example. It is a lovely waterfront setting. But it is too rigidly controlled by Festevents, the city’s designated manager of the park. Wine festivals and Bayou Boogaloos are all well and good. But where, I’ve often wondered, are the spontaneous daily gatherings of people with blankets, guitars and Frisbees?

The underutilization of the park is partly the city’s fault. A number of years ago, when I was editing a weekly magazine here, I sent a photographer to take pictures of Town Point Park. Just as she was shooting a group of men playing touch football, police came along and ordered them to leave. Confusing regulations regarding buskers—street musicians—have also contributed to this problem over the years. Those regulations have since been relaxed, but buskers remain few and far between. Moreover, there are other telling signs—literally—that city officials remain ambivalent toward parks. At the entrance to a lot of parks in Norfolk are signs saying, “Park CLOSED from sunset to sunrise.” Why not say, “Park OPEN from sunrise to sunset”? The answer is that an old, patriarchal mentality still very much prevails here. Parks, according to this mentality, are places that attract “bad elements” and must therefore be tightly regulated.

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