Open space must be more than just a buzzword

Open space must be more than just a buzzword

By Kathryn Papp, Alexandria

To the editor:

Open space is a place that can hold almost anything, and for the waterfront and Beauregard redevelopment plans it does. Unlike conservationists’ view of open space, which is essentially land made off limits to man, Alexandria’s city planners see open space as a home to an eye-popping set of components.

Even in the context of planning urban open space, what has been shoehorned into the waterfront and Beauregard plans would be amusing — if what we are all being denied wasn’t so very sad: green, clean, airy and welcoming places to picnic, meditate, reflect and just walk and breathe freely.

On the waterfront, we find crowded onto those 5-and-a-half acres of new and much vaunted open space things like lobby floors of hotels, concrete walkways, piers, pools and fountains, as well as small areas of roof tops, inner and outer courtyards and patches of grass ringing buildings. They also include flower and tree pots, hardscaped plazas, and a few genuine green places.

This is essentially what we already know all too well as the hot pavers surrounding the Torpedo Factory Art Center and Chart House. It gets so roasting hot in summer that tourists avoid it and head for the real thing at Founder’s Park. And who would picnic in the inner courtyard of any building? Truly, the devil is in the detail – and it is the detail that we would have to live with, not the landscapers’ drawings and a misleading definition of open space.

Recently, I have heard City Councilor Del Pepper repeatedly laud the Beauregard small area plan for setting aside 44 acres of open space. Apparently, she has not taken enough time away from her committees and board work to look at the elevation map for the site.

If she had done her homework, she would have seen that most of the development’s open space is on steep slopes. According to the map’s legend, most are at a 25-degree angle. This makes the proposed Beauregard plan’s open space a very unfriendly place, indeed.

The other main component of Beauregard’s open space is not very attractive for walking. Why not? Because it does not flow, is surrounded by high buildings rather than a mature and dense tree canopy and offers little respite from the noise of a dense neighborhood.

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognizes that the quality of life and well being of his constituents depends, in part, on open space. Now, in that densest of cities, New York, the parks and plazas are pruned, planted and flowering. Central Park’s rolling and grassy lawns are a tremendous pleasure and relief from the city’s concrete canyons. And a recent study in Sheffield, England, found that the psychological benefits enjoyed by visitors to urban green spaces increased with the locations’ levels of biodiversity. Green alone is not sufficient; the quality of that green is important in delivering health benefits.

Open space should not be a lovely flag for city officials to wave in order to justify bad planning. Promoting Alexandria as an eco-city in the face of this kind maneuvering assumes a gullible and uncaring citizenry — it is not so.