Friday, January 9, 2015  |  0 Comment(s)  |   Email   Print

The value of small-scale urban green space

[image: Slavic Village neighborhood, Cleveland, OH, 1962. From the Plain Dealer Historic Archive.]

by Sandra Albro

At Nature of Cities, McPhearson and Marshall write about tiny, in-between spaces in New York City that they call micro_urban:

Micro_urban spaces are the sandwich spaces between buildings, rooftops, walls, curbs, sidewalk cracks, and other small-scale urban spaces that exist in the fissures between linear infrastructure (e.g. roads, bridges, tunnels, rail lines) and our three dimensional gridded cities.

But most of these micro_urban spaces are overlooked, unrecognized, and even invisible parts of our urban lives. Perhaps our inattention to these spaces is because they so often exist in between our more highly valued built spaces such as large parks, plazas, waterfront promenades, urban forests, rivers and much loved neighborhoods. One of the great biodiversity challenges for urban ecosystems is to solve the problem of high levels of habitat fragmentation in cities.

What if the micro_urban were the missing piece to solving the connectivity puzzle in our fragmented urban ecologies?

With our thousands of acres of vacant land, cities like Cleveland struggle to imagine what a dearth of green space would look like. While we were never as densely packed as Manhattan, during the population boom of the mid-twentieth century, our neighborhoods were filled to the brim with houses (sometimes two-per) and free-standing garages on narrow residential parcels.

When residents envision revitalized neighborhoods, often they use the past as a benchmark—in Cleveland's case, the neighborhood will be considered healthy when parcels are again filled with occupied houses. Given the current state of many Great Lakes cities that have been gutted by depopulation, there is even some skepticism that our neighborhoods will ever be full again. It seems unlikely, however, that Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, Buffalo—and other cities that are situated so closely to abundant, fresh, clean water—will shrink into oblivion.* So what form will revitalization take here?

Vacant land management is a temporary problem—when there is demand for property again, no one will be asking what vacant parcels are good for. The larger point of vacant land management goes beyond finding interim uses for parcels until they can be redeveloped; the larger point is helping determine the best use for parcels in a healthy city and developing criteria for how parcels should be developed, or whether they should be redeveloped at all. By describing the full suite of benefits that urban green space provides, including ecological and social benefits and the monetary value of those services, we can incorporate informed decision-making into the planning process for redevelopment. Good policy will be crucial for ensuring that adequate green space is preserved for neighborhoods as parcels are acquired and developed one at a time, over the city and across decades.

We can look toward cities like New York, where ecological considerations are being retrofitted into the micro_urban, and do one better: preserve urban green space that is sized appropriately for future, healthy neighborhoods and located equitably across the city.


* At a recent conference, I was on a panel of speakers from Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. The final question from the audience took us aback: "Why try to save these cities at all? Maybe they should be left to die." Of course, there are valuable (and difficult) conversations about whether some cities won't realistically be repopulated. But we wanted to think that this person had never been to any of our cities and so had not seen how much there is here worth saving, and how much potential our cities have for regrowth. So while residents of Great Lakes cities may not want to entertain the question of letting our cities die natural deaths, other people are certainly asking that question.


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