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Urban land trusts

  • Subject: [cg] Urban land trusts
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Fri, 24 Feb 2006 09:46:51 -0800 (PST)

[Poster note: As you'll read in 25 years of Community
Gardening, land trusts were once seen as a key
strategy for obtaining and protecting land for
community gardening and greening. Simplifying a more
complex story, "greening" became part of the community
garden vocabulary as community gardeners formed
alliances with environmental activists and
organizations. The following piece raises important
issues about urban habitat and land trusts. However,
it doesn't even mention urban agriculture or community
gardens at all - the 'human face' of urban greening.

Recently, millions were spent here in Charlotte on a
urban creek restoration project in a working class
black neighborhood, Some environmentalists (who don't
live in the neighborhood) see it as a model;
meanwhile, the host community is very unhappy - it
looks like swamp to them, and they are now trying to
find a place for a community garden where they can
grow vegetable and flowers (and meeting resistance). 

For community gardeners, the lessons of the following
essay, framed in the context of such experiences, are
clear: We need to rebuild our bridges to
environmentalists, even 're-wilders'. Developers who'd
love to drain every wetland and who see no problems
with America's economic apartheid would be delighted
to see community gardeners and environmentalists
locked in disagreements, or even 'competing' for land
trusts. Second, as community gardeners, we can help
environmental groups deal with the human side of
sustainability, and the contractions of a food system
that relies on a supply chain reaching halfway round
the world - even for lettuce, broccoli and apples. You
wonder what Johnny Appleseed would say (then again, he
did go around spreading an exotic species...) DB] 

Environmental News Network. 
February 23, 2006 

Urban Land Trusts -- A Guest Commentary

 By Steven J. Moss, San Francisco Community Power

Millions of dollars are spent internationally each
year to buy and protect wilderness areas. Large swaths
of old-growth redwood forests in the Pacific
Northwest, rain forests in South America, even swamp
lands in the southern United States have been
purchased by government agencies and private trusts.
Yet hardly a dime is tossed towards systematically
reclaiming urban eco-systems. With a majority of the
worlds population soon to live in cities, its time
to focus on recreating sustainable wilderness areas in
our own backyards. 

Urban green spaces have traditionally consisted of
vacant lots, pocket parks, and, in some cases,
larger expanses of what might be called
artificial-natural recreational areas  Central Park
in New York, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Rock
Creek Park in the District of Columbia. In some cases
these citified wilderness areas provide important
habitat to native and imported species, ranging from
frogs and birds to even coyotes and mountain lions. 

But, by and large even the largest urban parks can
hardly be considered thoughtful expressions of
eco-system preservation. They tend to be too small to
suitably house migratory, or even walk about,
species, and hyper-focus on activities inside their
boundaries, ignoring what happens to a plant or animal
once it leaves the park. 

There are emerging exceptions, in which significant
care is being taken to reclaim land to close to its
natural state. In San Francisco, Crissy Field, which
for decades was the site of an abandoned and decaying
military outpost, recently was transformed back into
wetlands. The nearby Presidio, another former military
installation, likewise is being slowly altered to be
more hospitable to native plants and animals. But even
in these cases while significant public and private
sector dollars have been invested into restoration
efforts, almost no attention has been paid to an issue
central to true wilderness preservation  whether the
protected area is large enough to provide a home to
naturally free range species. 

In the absence of thoughtful human intervention, urban
animals have found their own way to roam. Relying on
an unintentional patchwork of backyards, vacant lots,
street medians, and other green spaces, raccoons,
coyotes, quail, and snakes find ways to travel through
cities in search of food, shelter, and mates. But they
risk being squashed by cars, eaten by cats, and
poisoned by household chemicals. Less hardy species
dont have a chance. 

The way to solve this problem is to start treating
urban areas as potential wilderness, map out land
purchase or protection strategies, and begin making
the right investments. Thousands of creeks are hidden
beneath city streets and backyards, waiting to be
re-discovered, as are historical migration pathways
for birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. Rather than
slapping up sterile pocket parks or requiring deeper
lawn-planted setbacks on new developments, networks of
green spaces could be formed in a way that creates
thriving, integrated, regional wildness areas. 

My own San Francisco backyard, located in one of the
least green areas of the City, is adjacent to six
other backyards which, if thoughtfully directed, could
form the basis for a sustainable chain of green areas
through the region. Rather than just rats and spiders
 as well as more exotic creatures  my small property
could serve as an integrated habitat for a host of
plants and animals. 

While undertaking this strategy may be expensive 
urban land is typically more costly to buy or
encumber than remote wilderness areas  substantial
existing resources could be leveraged on its behalf.
For example, rather than charging case-specific
mitigation fees for new construction, or requiring
site-specific set-asides, new developments could be
assessed a municipal wildness reclamation fee. A
nascent effort to develop such a system is currently
emerging in San Franciscos Dogpatch neighborhood,
where large swaths of formerly industrial land are
being hungrily eyed by developers. 

More than a century ago forward-thinking civic leaders
set aside valuable land in rapidly growing cities to
create now essential green spaces. Its impossible to
think about Manhattan without Central Park, or San
Francisco without Golden Gate Park. Its now time for
a similar vision to transform the uncompleted business
of greening our cities into a thoughtful expression of
our deep need for wilderness. After all, while several
thousand people may visit the Headwaters Forest in
Northern California each year  protected at a cost
upwards of a billion dollars  millions of people
would visit an integrated and sustainable eco-system
in Chicago, Rio, or Delhi. Thats worth paying for. 

Steven J. Moss is the publisher of the Neighborhood
Environmental Newswire. He serves as Executive
Director of San Francisco Community Power, www.sfpower.org.

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