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
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.
But there’s another reason why parks in Coastal Virginia are underutilized in comparison with those in many other cities—our region’s largely suburban character. Most people would rather congregate in their own backyards than spontaneously mingle with other members of the community in public spaces.
All of this might seem to make the case that open-space preservation is a waste of valuable real estate. But it comes down to leadership. When the leaders of a city, state or nation place value on something over time, people tend to embrace it. The creation of our U.S. National Parks is a prime example of this phenomenon.
So where does this leave us, here in this region? The answer, I believe, is that we are in dire need of a grander and more holistic vision of a future cityscape.
Great cities are highly developed by definition. But their landscapes are also balanced with lots of open space—green space. And I’m not just talking about large parks. I’m also talking about walkways lined with greenery, attractive benches and micro-parks. Norfolk had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create such a cityscape with the renewal of Wards Corner. But the city failed abysmally. Instead of a cutting-edge development that integrated open spaces with lovely architecture, we got yet another blob of hideous sprawl, where the only open spaces are parking lots.
What I’m talking about, in short, is the need for a new vision that places a premium on two things: beauty and community. We need to put more emphasis on beauty, in particular. Americans have always had a tendency to dismiss things that don’t have immediate cash value or some kind of “practical” benefit. But now more than ever, our community and our society are in need of things that elevate the soul. Great cityscapes with lots of open space can do that. They can also bring people together. Coastal Virginia will never become a great metropolitan area until its leaders and its people realize this.
Tom Robotham is an award-winning writer and an adjunct professor of American studies at Old Dominion University. He was born and raised in New York City but has lived in Norfolk for the past 22 years. He can be reached at email@example.com or at the Taphouse Grill in Ghent.