Goodbye, Green Space?

It's time to plan now for Charlotte's future parks

If you feel like Charlotte and Mecklenburg County aren't as green as they used to be, you're right. Charlotte's green stuff is disappearing at an alarming 140 acres per day. The chief culprit? Rapid population growth and the homes, neighborhoods, and more homes that go along with it. The race for green space is on, and it's pitting developers against local land trusts and the county's Parks and Recreation Department.

Smoggiest Cities

1 Los Angeles, CA
2 Bakersfield, CA
3 Visalia-Porterville, CA
4 Fresno-Madera, CA
5 Houston, TX
6 Merced, CA
7 Dallas-Fort Worth, TX
8 Sacramento, CA
9 Baton Rouge, LA
10 New York,
11 Washington, DC
12 Philadelphia, PA
13 Hanford, CA
13 Modesto, CA
15 Phoenix, AZ
16 Charlotte, NC
17 Las Vegas, NV
17 Milwaukee, WI
19 St. Louis, MO
20 El Centro, CA
20 Kansas City, MO-KS
20 Beaumont, TX
20 Chicago, IL
24 Grand Rapids, MI
25 Atlanta, GA
25 Cleveland, OH

"We need to focus on land acquisition of green spaces as soon as possible so they're not lost to development," explains Greg Jackson, director of park operations. The department oversees more than 200 parks totaling more than 17,600 acres of green space. At current rates of development, however, the remaining green space could be gobbled up within the next twenty or so years, according to a recent study by UNC-Charlotte.

As a result of the rapid development, Charlotte and Meck County are sliding in the eco-rankings. Charlotte ranks fifteenth out of twenty-four comparable cities nationally in acres of park as a percent of total land area, according to the Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence. Although that percentage has remained fairly steady at 5.2 percent, the amount of park acres per 1,000 residents has dipped from 22.1 acres in 2005 to 20.4 last year.

The region doesn't rank much better. Park spending by the local government per resident is well below the national average: $60 per resident in Meck County, compared to $91 per resident nationally. It's not just about a strained park system, though.

All the new homes, the people who live in them, and the cars those people drive have a negative impact on the region's dwindling green space in another way: by undercutting the area's green infrastructure (the air- and water-quality benefits parks provide). Last year, Meck County received an F rating for ozone and air pollution from the American Lung Association, and Charlotte was rated the sixteenth-worst city in the nation for ozone (see chart, right).

To combat this green-to-brown trend, Parks and Rec unveiled a new ten-year master plan that outlines the addition of 100 miles of greenways and nearly 7,000 acres of nature preserves. But that costs money, of course -- up to $1.5 billion by some estimates—prompting speculation about a Parks and Rec bond referendum come November's elections.

Success in preserving the region's green spaces will require heightened public awareness, support, and, ultimately, votes should the bond make it to the ballot. "We need to be smart about our green space," says Marianne LeVigne, development associate for the Trust for Public Land in North Carolina. "We don't want the region to be all concrete and buildings."

Park Activists, Unite

On September 19, the Charlotte office of the Trust for Public Land is participating in National PARK(ing) Day. In the worldwide movement, local organizers plug change into an on-street parking meter, "buying" the space for a few hours. They then build a temporary public park there, usually with sod, chairs, a tree or two, and even a game of Frisbee. REBAR, a San Francisco-based art collective, created the event in 2005 as a way to reimagine metered parking spaces. Now, the Trust has taken the reins and uses it to heighten awareness about the need for more parkland. Last year, the event created more than 200 public parks in fifty cities. This year, two months before the event, more than forty cities were already signed up, including Charlotte. To participate, visit www.tpl.org/parkingday.  -- P. B.

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