Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
The gap between demand and available parkland has resulted in conflicts among users and between users and adjacent communities negatively impacted by intensified use. Examples include controversial conversion of “multi-use” green areas at Virginia Highlands Park to sports uses, limitations on multi-use of a baseball field at Bluemont Park and plans to install new lighting on fields at Discovery ES/Williamsburg MS.
The current approach to resolving these conflicts seems ad hoc, with at least the appearance that those users who are best organized and advocate the longest will prevail. As I noted last month, County staff may not always be serving as neutral facilitators in proposing changes in use and then resolving ensuing conflicts.
The POPS Update Advisory Group is currently working on an update to the Public Spaces Master Plan, and has recognized the importance of responding to the wide range of park and recreation needs in the community.
Current parkland uses
Although there are many uses of our parkland, one possibly useful perspective is that there are four overall “use” categories:
- (1) natural areas and wildlife habitats,
- (2) designated sports fields and court areas,
- (3) “multi-use” green areas, and
- (4) other use-specific facilities, e.g., dog parks, playgrounds and pavilions.
Staff has undertaken mapping current natural areas, sports fields and other uses in our parks. Completion of this project could provide a baseline against which to assess proposed new uses or changes in current uses.
Guidance as to desired uses
The County has published the results of its statistically valid 2015 Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment Survey which indicated that natural areas and wildlife habitats–as well as hiking trails–were two of the three most important outdoor facilities to respondents.
Possible framework principles
Therefore, one core principle for approaching conflicts in use is that we must preserve and enhance our remaining natural areas. Once lost they are unlikely to be replaced. Other core principles are ensuring continued adequate availability of multi-use green areas as well as distributed and equitable access to all park amenities. Finally, with limited park resources, not every possible use can have its own allocated, exclusive space, nor should it.
Longer term approaches
The primary driver of these conflicts remains the demand/park resources gap. The best way for the County to minimize these conflicts is to undertake an aggressive parkland acquisition program, including the Board adopting the goal set forth in last year’s Civic Federation resolution for the County to acquire on average 3 acres of new parkland per year. The Board must then authorize sufficient ongoing funding to support this goal through both planned and opportunistic acquisitions.
Even aggressive land acquisition will not by itself adequately close the demand/resources gap, and the County needs to also “create” new space, especially for sports activities, e.g., basketball and tennis courts and soccer fields in high rises and on top of buildings.
With 63,000 more residents by 2040, people will need parks more than ever. Committing to and funding the aggressive land and space acquisition goals discussed above, and implementing a conflict resolution framework, can convert too limited parkland into diverse and accessible parkland.