by James R. Lyons,

Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment

From Park Talk, the newsletter of the Urban Parks Institute (Spring 1999).

When I think of parks, I think not only of the parks that are designated on a map, but the greenways and brownfields, vacant lots and waterfronts and all the other kinds of “places” that residents invest in these days to improve their neighborhoods and communities. All these places are vital because they bring identity to a community, give it focus, and can, in fact, be part of its rebirth.

It wasn’t so long ago that the concern of mayors and other elected officials with the urban infrastructure resulted in huge investments in roads, bridges and schools. Now it is time to invest in what I like to call the “greenfrastructure,” that part of the urban environment which is important to both our quality of life and to preserving the places to which we feel a commitment.

Even though 80 percent of Americans live in urban environments, we commit less than one tenth of one percent of our resources in the Federal government to these areas, as opposed to national forests and parks, etc. Part of what this tells us is that our elected officials don’t always understand the urban component of open space issues, and that’s our responsibility, because we haven’t told that story well. In my opinion, the way to make this case as compelling as possible is to define parks in as broad a manner as possible – as all the potential “places” in our urban environments – and to rigorously quantify what the benefits of those open spaces are to our quality of life.

Research verifies what we intuitively know about the value of open spaces: they reduce energy use and storm water runoff, increase property values, and improve academic performance among teens. Studies in New York show that crime is reduced in the neighborhoods where these places have become a community focus, and visits to hospitals and emergency rooms are reduced when kids are given a safe alternative to playing in streets and parking lots. There are some very real and tangible reasons to invest in urban open spaces. So when we think of urban parks, let’s think of that entire greenfrastructure, not just of the jurisdictional boundaries of any individual park or park system. Words are powerful and giving this issue a broader scope helps make the case for broad investment.

There are already several programs that are the foundations for a toolbox of urban conservation funding mechanisms. At the Forest Service we administer a $30 million Urban and Community Forestry program which works directly with communities and cities, and also through state agencies, to make investments in community-based projects to improve urban environments. Another program developed at USDA is the Urban Resources Partnership, which allows us to experiment with putting money on the ground and really leveraging local resources, whether they’re private dollars or people’s energy.

In addition, the Clinton-Gore Administration has put forward two proposals – the Lands Legacy Initiative and the Livable Communities Initiative – that will help communities plan for, develop and maintain open spaces and natural resource areas. The Lands Legacy Initiative proposes the largest one-year investment ever in the protection of America’s natural resources – one billion dollars. Not only does it expand federal efforts to save our natural treasures, it also provides significant new resources to states and communities to protect local green spaces. The Livable Communities Initiative will help communities grow in ways that ensure a high quality of life and strong, sustainable economic growth. Members of Congress have also introduced similar bills.

Ultimately, the community groups that benefit from these programs must make their cases known to their elected officials. It’s up to these groups to go out and work with partners and share success stories with elected officials. If we work together to communicate a message about the need to invest in the urban greenfrastructures, I believe we can secure all the support needed from Congress, local officials and the Administration to permanently fund these programs.

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