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Peter’s Take: County Short-Changing Parks’ Open Green Space

Peter Rousselot

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.

As Arlington grows and urbanizes rapidly, conflicts are increasing among different users of our parks.

Arlington should give higher priority to open, un-programmed and natural parkland

The county government continues to demonstrate that it is not giving fair, transparent and due weight to the wishes of those who desire access to multi-use, un-programmed, open or natural spaces.

Instead, the percentage of open green space in existing parks is declining, while:

  • dedicated, programmed space is increasing despite usage data not being publicly available for a transparent analysis
  • uses of existing programmed space are intensifying through paving, turf, lighting, fencing, expansion, pay-per-use only and access restrictions
  • not enough parkland is being acquired to accommodate residents’ needs

Some examples of prioritizing organized recreational use over other needs include:

  • refusal even to consider community proposals to convert existing softball fields to un-programmed space at Virginia Highlands Park
  • initial proposal to fence off entirely the diamond at Bluemont Park
  • more dedicated playground space at Nelly Custis Park
  • proposals to install new lights at Discovery Elementary School/Williamsburg Middle School
  • a request to buy more land for open green space in Alcova Heights denied because the proposed acquisition in part was too small “which limits recreational opportunities”

These decisions are at odds with the results of the county’s 2015 Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment Survey. That survey established that natural areas and wildlife habitats — as well as hiking trails — were two of the three most important outdoor facilities that Arlington residents want.

Best practices elsewhere do give higher priority to open green space

The best city park planning is based on the principle of the most uses for most of the community. Travel and Leisure magazine listed the World’s Most Beautiful City Parks where “for city dwellers and tourists alike, an urban park becomes a shared backyard.”

In New York City, many playgrounds and basketball courts are designed into urban space, e.g. on rooftops or located between buildings, and not into natural parkland.

New York is enormously more populated and denser than Arlington, but the principles of giving sufficient priority to natural, un-programmed spaces can and should be similar. Current efforts in Arlington appear to be designed to provide enough paved sports courts, playgrounds, and playing fields to accommodate every league, paying user and sports type – all occupying a larger percentage of our limited public parks.

In contrast, cities around the world place a high priority on their parks’ function as natural spaces interspersed and accessible throughout city landscapes: e.g., Atlanta’s BeltLine project and an excellent report from Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority on sustainability and parks planning.

Conclusion

The POPS Update Advisory Group is currently working on an update to the Public Spaces Master Plan. The Parks and Recreation Commission should propose, and the POPS Group should be directed now, to develop principles giving due weight to open green space based on best practices elsewhere.

Pending adoption of such principles, the County Board should direct the Manager to report how to prevent open green space from being short-changed.

Continued shoehorning of single-use sports fields into our limited park space guarantees increasing conflict. Applying reasonable principles of equitable expectations of use, while simultaneously expanding our parkland to keep pace with population growth, are the correct solutions for a rapidly growing county.

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