Region's Parks Are a Source of Pride, but Can There Be There Too Much Green?

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, July 7, 2007

There is no better time to appreciate the extraordinary greenness of Washington than the week of the Fourth of July, when our thousands of acres of public parks are the site for countless picnics, cookouts and outdoor games.

Covered by diverse and abundant vegetation, parks constitute a wonderful amenity for residents and visitors.

Parks are also ecologically beneficial. Think about all the rainwater retained and soaked up by parklands instead of running off into gutters and storm drains. Contemplate all the carbon absorbed and oxygen emitted by park vegetation through photosynthesis. Consider how much hotter Washington would be in summer without the city's deciduous tree canopy providing shade and heat-absorbing transpiration.

Parks can take many forms. Some are maintained in a natural state. Others are designed as gardens, with carefully chosen trees, shrubs and flowers, along with lawns, scenic pathways, terraces, walls, pavilions and water features. Others combine natural and formal landscapes.

Public parks can accommodate organized recreation with ball fields, tennis and basketball courts, children's playgrounds, and tot lots.

Because much of this region's extensive parklands, especially those associated with stream and river valleys, are contiguous and interconnected, they also provide habitat and natural migration corridors for wildlife: white-tail deer, red foxes, coyotes, raccoons, possums, chipmunks, gray and black squirrels, an occasional black bear, and scores of bird species.

As development sprawls ever farther, Washington's unique parkland enables wildlife to expand its habitat in the opposite direction. That habitat includes tree-lined roadways and yards in urban and suburban neighborhoods. Nowadays, deer not only wander wooded city parks, they routinely exit the woods to graze only a few feet from the edges of busy city streets, the same streets crossed periodically by foxes, raccoons and humans.

Outside of cities and suburbs, large tracts of land may be set aside for agrarian and landscape conservation or for watershed protection. These, too, are parks, but they are not usually available for intense recreational development and use. This rationale, for example, underlies Montgomery County's agricultural preserve.

Is there perhaps too much parkland in Washington?

It would be hard to prove that we have an excess of parks, but not every public park works well. Sometimes they are too big or too small for their intended functions. They may be poorly maintained, insufficiently lit at night and inadequately supervised. Or they may be inconveniently located and thus rarely visited.

Park-building opportunities can be lost when jurisdictions require developers to provide minimum amounts of "green space" with new projects but don't specify how the space is to be designed and used. Labeling "green space" on a plan is no guarantee that it will yield an attractive, functioning park. Such space frequently ends up as little more than residual acreage surrounding buildings and surface parking lots.

To be successful, an urban park must be truly inhabited by the community it serves, inviting community use with its favorable location, accessibility, size, configuration and character.

Happily, Washington has few dysfunctional parks.

However, one park policy affecting the nation's capital is questionable. Much of the District's Potomac River frontage is federal parkland. Consequently, the city and its architecture have been unable to engage the Potomac shoreline at appropriate places, where concentrated waterfront development would enhance both the cityscape and riverside landscape.

In fact, Washington needs more venues, other than vegetated river banks, where people can sit, dine, socialize and stroll near the water's edge. This is possible in only a few places now -- Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown and the District's Southwest waterfront.

Fortunately, change is in the air. Redevelopment of the District's Southwest and Southeast waterfronts, further development of the Georgetown waterfront, and new development planned for both sides of the Anacostia River promise to expand the number of structured riverside destinations. Maybe the National Park Service can be persuaded to relax its rules and allow additional, well-located concessions to be erected on federal parkland abutting the river.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. cities are spending billions of dollars to build parks "at a rate not seen for 100 years." The article observed that park development in numerous cities -- Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Houston -- is motivated by economic, marketing, environmental, symbolic and, of course, functional considerations.

Reading the Wall Street Journal article, I had boastful thoughts: These cities aspire to catch up with metropolitan Washington. How nice to already be one of the best.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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