Monday, April 6, 2009

"Green" Space

Coco Chanel once said "Fashion fades, only the style remains the same." That truth of fashion also applies to development. There are some needs that have remained remarkably persistent over the years while others have been more of a fad. With talented Realtors hawking properties (Those brushed nickel appliances are really going to hold their value), there is a certain resistance to, and acceptance of change. Change that comes from within is pushed, from outside is resisted. The insider driven business is strongly supported by a study kicking around linked receiving expert advice to a reduction in cognitive activity.

In development, there are certain norms that become established and are enforced by the the professionals in the field. One common norm that has recently taken a dive is the "bigger is better" mantra. We tend to take things too far, we catch a good thing and drive it into the ground. Is a 2,000 sq.ft. house better for a family than a crowded tenement? Sure. Is a 20,000 sq.ft. house better for the family than the one a tenth of the size? I would say no, others would disagree, and the kids would do coke.

One of the enduring fads of development is "green space". It is proudly thrust forth in development plans as a gift to the community. The developer is kind enough to not develop all of their space, and leave it all "green" and shiny. Communities love this space so much that most require certain percentages of green space for every development parcel. Yet developers love green space too, and they often exceed green space requirements. So what is really going on here.

There is very influential research that demonstrates that people have a better quality of life if they can see a tree out their window. The theory goes that the fractal makeup of the natural world has some restorative effect on the brain. Without appropriate urban spaces--think of that nice picture of an ancient city hanging on your wall--that mimic this effect, it becomes important to provide natural ones--green spaces.

In addition, cities are afflicted with storms that dump massive amounts of water onto newly (on a geographical scale) impervious surfaces. It would ease the burden on the city to move all of this extra water around if some of it were allowed to seep into the ground. A norm was born.

It turns out, that certain landscapes are cheaper to provide than others. Trees are expensive, so are flowers, plants and bushes. The cheapest way to provide greenspace turned out the be the lawn. In the US alone, there is over 31 million acres of it. That's more land than all of New York--the state, not the city.

Every American is endowed with over 4,000 sq.ft of lawn. The funny thing about lawn is that it doesn't contain the natural fractals found in trees and other plants. It is almost indistinguishable from the latest generation of AstroTurf. It doesn't even do a particularly good job of absorbing stormwater. It's much better than concrete, but much worse than a forest floor.

In reality, developers use lawn as fudge space. If they don't provide enough green space, buildings begin to define the space, instead of just residing in it. When buildings define space, developers are forced to make a host of decisions that go against dozens of norms that are based on the "building in space" model.

Just as people have limits on their time and money, so do companies and cities. They can landscape a bit of open space, but most of it ends up lawn in the end. Instead of finding ways to economically "deal" with our space, perhaps we should be finding ways to distribute land so that individuals, businesses and institutions have the right amount of land at their disposal. Enough to meet their needs, but not so much that they feel compelled to waste it on grass.

Space is precious in cities. If there were 10 square feet less space in your yard, would you miss it?

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