MetroGreen: Connecting Open Space in North American Cities

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In metropolitan areas across the country, you can hear the laments over the loss of green space to new subdivisions and strip malls. But some city residents have taken unprecedented measures to protect their open land, and a growing movement seeks not only to preserve these lands but to link them in green corridors.
Many land-use and urban planning professionals, along with landscape architects and environmental advocates, have joined in efforts to preserve natural areas. MetroGreen answers their call for a deeper exploration of the latest thinking and newest practices in this growing conservation field. In ten case studies of U.S. and Canadian cities paired for comparative analysis-Toronto and Chicago, Calgary and Denver, and Vancouver and Portland among them-Erickson looks closely at the motivations and objectives for connecting open spaces across metropolitan areas. She documents how open-space networks have been successfully created and protected, while also highlighting the critical human and ecological benefits of connectivity.
MetroGreen's unique focus on several cities rather than a single urban area offers a perspective on the political, economic, cultural, and environmental conditions that affect open-space planning and the outcomes of its implementation.

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Editorial Reviews

Ecological Restoration - Kara A. Whittaker

"Throughout the book, I was impressed with Erickson's attention to defining jargon so that the material is easily understood by non-landscape architects. Given that the process is inherently multidisciplinary, MetroGreen ought to facilitate a common understanding and help to bridge the gaps among the diverse practionaers involved."

"The book begins with a careful review of the surprisingly slippery concept of 'open space,' the many ways of classifying different design meaningful open space that enhances both landscape ecology and human ecology....In the end, she endorses four strategic approaches: Pursue green infrastructure. Map what you have and show what you want. Build on small successes rather than 'big bangs.' Integrate open space with growth management. Even if it weren't so thoughtfully framed, this book would have special value for its coverage of a variety of institutional arrangements."
Landscape Ecology

"This book is a valuable addition to the current literature of the green infrastructure of cities"
Research Social Scientist, USDA Forest Service - Paul H. Gobster

"Erickson's rigorous scholarship and engaging style will inform and inspire a broad audience of readers—students, professionals, and decision makers alike."
ASLA; coauthor, Designing Greenways; President, Conway School of Landscape Design - Paul Cawood Hellmund

"Donna Erickson's MetroGreen will set you imagining interconnected greenspaces all across your city- and her book will give you expert guidance for making such a network a reality. Erickson's analyses of ten case studies are insightful and instructive and make fascinating reading."
Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of British Columbia - Moura Quayle

"I see our open spaces as the living rooms of our cities, places where we meet and reflect. MetroGreen has great examples to help us understand our open spaces, in a clearly written and well-researched text. This book should be a must-read for every local politician and public servant—to refresh or inspire."
Ecological Restoration

"Throughout the book, I was impressed with Erickson's attention to defining jargon so that the material is easily understood by non-landscape architects. Given that the process is inherently multidisciplinary, MetroGreen ought to facilitate a common understanding and help to bridge the gaps among the diverse practitioners involved."
President, American Trails; coauthor of Greenways: A Guide To Planning Design and Development - Robert Searns

"Not since Olmsted has there been such a profound vision for re-shaping our cities. Erickson chronicles, with successful examples, the city-beautiful movement for our time: sustainable networks of interconnected greenways, green infrastructure and trails—places for people and for nature. This is more than an informative, thought-provoking read. It is a must-have reference to be kept in easy reach!"
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559638913
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 10/9/2006
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Donna Erickson researched and wrote MetroGreen during her tenure as associate professor of landscape architecture in the School of Natural Resources and environment and associate professor of urban and regional planning in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. She has published extensively in design, planning, and conservation journals and books, and is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. She is now a consultant on open-space conservation in the Rocky Mountain West and is an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan.

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Read an Excerpt


Connecting Open Space in North American Cities

By Donna L. Erickson


Copyright © 2006 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-612-3


Connected Open Space: The Metropolitan Scale

There are a lot of open spaces around us and if they're all gobbled up, we've lost something big. Once it's paved over, it's gone forever.

—Mayor John Hieftje, Ann Arbor, Michigan

* Mayor Hieftje expressed this lament for the potential loss of open space as he promoted a protected greenbelt around his Michigan city. Ann Arbor is consistently rated as one of the country's most livable small cities; easy access to open space is one of many assets. In November 2003, voters approved an $84 million, thirty-year property tax levy to preserve about 8,000 acres of open-space land around the city's edges. For the first time in Michigan history, city residents voted to pay for land (and/or rights in land) outside the city's borders. Two-thirds of the money will be spent in eight neighboring townships to buy development rights for a greenbelt around the city.

Record numbers of voters turned out for the off-year election to weigh in on the highly controversial proposal. Local and state homebuilders' groups were stunned. They had spent a quarter of a million dollars to defeat the proposal, arguing that the greenbelt would raise development costs, thereby further limiting affordable housing (in an environment where few affordable houses are being built to begin with). Since the election, developers have been scrambling to purchase land in the county for housing, retail complexes, and office parks. One executive for a national homebuilding corporation said, "Green space is like world peace: everyone is for it, but there can be bitter disputes on how to achieve it."

One of this book's main themes is the tension between the widespread desire for open space and the complexity of and controversy over providing and protecting it. As often as not, the importance of urban open spaces is neglected in debates about land development, architectural design, and urban form. More theoretical and practical knowledge about creating greenspace is needed. Creating and protecting open-space networks across jurisdictional lines and with assorted land uses is a challenge. People have many different objectives for creating open-space networks—personal, community, and regionwide. However, using the criteria of landscape ecology and human ecology we can better understand both the motivations for and the benefits of greenspace. Landscape connectivity at a metropolitan scale can serve important human and natural functions; multiple objectives are often more effective and sustainable than one-dimensional solutions. A connected public realm is better than a fragmented one, and open-space connectivity can take many different shapes. Green infrastructure is explored as an approach that incorporates these multiple forms and functions.

Everyone Loves Open Space

Open-space protection is a topic of growing public dialog and concern. Where perhaps two decades ago planners, landscape architects, environmentalists, and park planners quietly pursued open-space planning and protection, today open space is on the front page, linked with issues of sprawl, health, lifestyle, and ecology. The smart-growth movement probably deserves the credit for this awareness. More and more people are fighting against sprawl and looking toward the promise that we can grow in more responsible, beautiful, and efficient ways. In fact, the protection of open space is a primary driver of efforts to curb sprawl.

Many people feel widespread remorse about the loss of open space in many land-use contexts and at many scales, which has generated significant funding for protecting open land. According to the Natural Resources Inventory for the United States, 2.2 million acres are being converted to development each year. The backlash against sprawl has, among other things, created a blitz of programming, funding, and rhetoric for open space. In reviewing the environmental impacts of sprawl, Michael Johnson found twelve main factors, many of them connected to open-space destruction, such as the loss of environmentally fragile lands and the paving of farmland. In particular, concern for the quality and quantity of open space at the local level has grown. Carys Swanwick and colleagues claim that worries about the declining condition of parks, growing emphasis on urban densities, priority for developing brownfield rather than greenfield land, and increased knowledge about the benefits of urban greenspace have helped fuel this concern. These worries have been converted to votes. In 2002 three-quarters of local and state open-space conservation ballot proposals were passed. According to the Land Trust Alliance, these measures generated $10 billion, including about $5.7 billion specifically for land acquisition and restoration.

The provision of green, open space in urban areas may lessen the desire for residents to move farther out of cities. A study of Leuven, Belgium, showed that 50 percent of families that moved out of the city core did so because of lack of greenspace. "Improving the presence and quality of greenspace might help to deter commuting, so enhancing a city's sustainability," the study found. These types of studies have proliferated, generally pointing toward the importance of open space in housing preference in the United States and Europe. Claims from real estate research show that nearly 78 percent of all American homebuyers rated open space as essential or very important. Another national survey in 1994 found that among people who shopped for or bought a home, of thirty-nine features critical to their choice, consumers ranked "lots of natural open space" and plenty of "walking and biking paths" as the second- and third-highest-rated aspects affecting their choices. One conundrum lies in the fact that increasing development of urban areas through infill (a primary smart-growth solution) sometimes drives residents toward more roomy suburban areas. Trade-offs of one open-space type for other types seem inevitable as populations grow.

On the other hand, population growth has not been the main concern among smart-growth and open-space advocates. Alarming statistics about the ratio of developed land to population increase in various metropolitan regions demonstrate the extent of sprawl and consequent loss of open land. The amount of urbanized land in the United States increased by 47 percent from 1982 to 1997, with only a 17 percent population increase.

In response, nearly every spatial plan for an American municipality or urban region (and in some cases, states) includes the protection of open space as a component of land-use plans or ordinances. Open-space planning and walkable neighborhoods are increasingly a part of large-scale plans for American cities. For example, Chicago's Metropolis 2020 plan, completed by the Commercial Club of Chicago, claims, "We can build a better region. We can spend less time in traffic. We can live nearer to our jobs. We can build communities that are friendlier to walking and biking—and therefore healthier for the people who live in them. We can make economic opportunity available to more of our region's residents." Similarly, the new Envision Central Texas effort, like Metropolis 2020, developed alternative growth scenarios for the five-county Austin region, in the Texas Hill Country. Through extensive public participation, a preferred scenario for future growth was developed.

The planning literature is filled with studies proposing open-space plans and planning processes for various metropolitan areas around the world—Nanjing City, Warsaw, London, Phoenix, and New York. For example, D. A. Goode suggests five categories of open-space sites for Greater London that will encompass 20 percent of the total land area to produce a comprehensive nature-conservation strategy. These include sites of metropolitan importance, sites of borough importance, sites of local importance, wildlife corridors, and countryside conservation areas. For Warsaw, Poland, Barbara Szulczewska and Ewa Kaliszuk attempt to reconcile two main functions of open space—ecological and recreational. In addition, their greenspace plan tries to balance "green city" and "compact city" objectives through careful consideration of open-space types and objectives. Their work addresses an important tension between more dense human development (sacrificing certain types and quantities of open space in city centers in order to save it at the edges) and greening city centers (at the expense of density).

These plans are not only proliferating but taking on new characteristics. They incorporate new spatial territories, connect with new social and environmental initiatives, and involve new participants and constituents. Open-space planning has traditionally been linked to the design of new housing tracts. As subdivisions are laid out, so too are parks, nature reserves, and trails. Increasingly, though, open space is being thought of in new ways. For instance, natural areas can be incorporated into commercial landscapes, as brownfields are converted to new urban uses, and as farms, forests, prairies, and wetlands are embraced as amenities within the urban fabric. Rather than leaving open-space planning to the city parks department, other arms of municipal government are taking more active roles in open-space planning. In addition, the number of grassroots groups tackling these issues is impressive. Hundreds of citizens groups have organized across the continent in the last twenty-five years, dedicated to the protection and planning of open-space lands. They are concerned about the paving of open space, declining quality of remaining open space, diminished management budgets, universal access to open space, and lack of a strategic vision about open space in relation to new growth.

The Preliminary Blueprint for Renewal, a plan for Lower Manhattan following the September 11 tragedy, is a perfect example. "Open spaces," it asserts, "are essential to the quality of life downtown, providing alternatives to steel and glass skyscrapers and, perhaps more importantly, a physical and psychological center around which the city can grow. Public open spaces stimulate and promote private and human development." Although efforts are being made to preserve open space, agreeing on one definition of open space is often difficult.

What Is Open Space Anyway?

Just what is this open land that planners, designers, and citizens in hundreds of towns and cities are trying to designate and protect? Is it simply land without buildings? What is its spatial dimension? How does it function? At what scale is open space important for cultural and ecological values? Do connections between open-space sites matter? In order to protect open space, we need to know more about what we are trying to achieve. There is considerable ambiguity about the forms and functions of open space, as well as diverse approaches for incorporating these landscapes into larger land-use plans.

Each year I choreograph an exercise with my graduate-level, land-use-planning students to illustrate this point. We brainstorm and debate the meanings, settings, and purposes of open space, in order to prepare a land-use plan for open-space lands at the fringe of our city. The typology that develops usually swings widely between several perceived dichotomies—public/private ownership, functional/aesthetic purpose, urban/rural land use, natural/human-made elements, open field/tree cover, and visual/physical access. To the ecologically minded, open space implies a level of environmental integrity. To others, it is simply an aesthetic issue. Some think of neighborhood parks, and some think of productive farmland at the edge of town. Open space can comprise vast swaths of greenspace in urban areas, as in Figure 1.1, but it can also be small, seminal pieces in the center of the city, as shown in Figure 1.2. The constructs in people's minds around the idea of open space are wide ranging and often conflicting.

Likewise, the professional literature on open-space planning is often ambiguous and confusing. Some authors have crafted definitions that help readers understand what they mean by open space in specific locations or for specific research issues. Many focus closely on recreation. For example, Karen Payne uses the recreational focus: "Open space, or green space, can be thought of as a mix of traditional parks and reserves, hiking or biking corridors, scenic vistas and other areas that provide for informal recreation and natural resource protection." Anne Beer usefully defines greenspaces based on their spatial and environmental qualities: "Greenspaces are 'places'—areas of land with mainly unsealed surfaces within and around the city—these 'places' carry human activity as well as plants, wildlife and water and their presence influences quality of life, as well as local air and water quality." While this definition highlights environmental processes, the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation's definition ironically omits the most ecologically important lands from its definition of open space: "Open space is undeveloped sites that don't meet the criteria for natural areas because of human disturbance, but still provide habitat, scenery and other benefits. Open spaces can include areas such as farm land, recreational areas and utility corridors."

Hollis and Fulton classify open space as land conserved for

1. production (e.g., working lands)

2. human use (e.g., recreation)

3. high-value natural areas (e.g., national parks) and

4. natural systems (e.g., ecosystems).

According to this definition, open space often means land with nonurban activities. However, this meaning leaves out many landscapes that people clearly value as open space—public and private urban lands, including cemeteries, empty lots, streamsides, community gardens, and schoolyards.

Increasingly, urban design and planning critics address this open-space ambiguity head-on. Beer and others cite an "increased level of confusion concerning the role of greenspace in cities: whether it was an aesthetic issue, an ecological issue, perhaps something more." Similarly, Jane Holtz-Kay asks, "... what exactly is this thing called open space, this creed of the wild or wide-open spaces that makes the nation wax lyrical? ... But why the phrase 'open space'? Why a concept that seems more a void for free-for-all pavers and ballpark proponents than a promise for the future. Can't we find a less vacuous phrase?" Lisa Nelson and Andrew Kalmar illustrate how this confusion hinders our effectiveness on landscape-scale issues. They maintain that water quality, wildlife habitat, agricultural productivity, and recreational opportunities are all connected to the preservation of open space, but that the public is largely unaware of the many connections between these activities and their relevance to open-space planning.

To make those links more apparent, and to help structure the open-space idea, several authors have expanded the definition of open space beyond parks and recreation, to embrace and prioritize alternate forms of urban open space. For instance, Catherine Thompson asks what should be expected of open space in the twenty-first century and advocates a more flexible approach, which she calls 'loose fit' landscapes. Similarly, Quayle and Driessen van der Lieck describe "hybrid landscapes," spaces like beaches, community gardens, and greenways that mix the processes and forms of both public and private landscapes. And Mark Johnson describes the "open-ended environment": a landscape "that is neither an empty vessel nor one that is a deterministic composition." All three authors relate public open space to ideas of democracy and social equity. "What remains true for public open space, and for the urban parks in particular, is that they are the places where democracy is worked out, quite literally, on the ground, and therefore, the way such spaces are designed, managed and used demonstrates the realities of political rhetoric."

To build on these ideas we need to know more about how the public perceives, uses, and values open space. Social values about open space vary, depending on whether we are talking about the protected land in a private cluster development, a multi-jurisdiction public greenway, a preserved farm, a brownfield site, an urban square, or a small community garden. Yet it is startling how many times these places are lumped under the broad term "open space," even though different social groups use and appreciate open space in very different ways. In fact, one line of scholarship examines the influence of ethnicity, generational status, and social class variables on recreational preferences. Citing Lee's work, Carr states that "recreation sites are rarely perceived as free spaces without social definition. Rather, individuals seek outdoor areas occupied by others they perceive as similar enough to themselves to feel at home or that they belong. One of the most basic elements of a social definition of a site is the ethnic composition of the people occupying it."

So it is clear that, like the term "landscape," open space has diverse dimensions, definitions, and proponents. The two words "open space" cannot, in fact, integrate the inherent complexity of the field. And open spaces, especially when viewed at the scale of metropolitan regions, are truly complex systems. Homer-Dixon identifies six factors that define complex systems, all of which pertain directly to open space embedded in an urban structure. He claims that complex systems

1. Are made up of a large number of entities, components or parts. Systems with more parts are generally more complex. For open-space networks, these components are open-space sites, social groups, transportation corridors, and a host of other entities.

2. Contain a dense web of causal connections among components. The more causal connections, the more complexity. The causal connections among open-space networks involve, among other things, political processes, citizen perceptions and preferences, ecological processes, and economic impacts.


Excerpted from MetroGreen by Donna L. Erickson. Copyright © 2006 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

PART I. Open-Space Networks for Metropolitan Regions
Chapter 1. Connected Open Space: The Metropolitan Scale
Chapter 2. Learning from City Stories: Ten Case Study Comparisons
PART II. Connectivity and Human Ecological Planning
Chapter 3. Ecology—Home: Toronto and Chicago
Chapter 4. Recreation - Well Being: Milwaukee and Ottawa
Chapter 5. Transportation - Movement: Calgary and Denver
Chapter 6. Community—Neighborhood: Vancouver and Portland
Chapter 7. Green Infrastructure - Hard Working City Systems Minneapolis and Cleveland
PART III. Synthesis: Key Ingredients, Challenges, and Strategic Trends
Chapter 8. Lessons for Realizing Connected Open-Space Networks in North American Cities
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