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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Friday, April 25, 2014

Strategic Mapping for Suburban Open Space

Urban parks like Hyde Park in London, Le Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris or Central Park in New York are famous the world over. Nobody would suggest that they are wasted space and should have been developed.
Jardin de Luxembourg, Paris (photo: Robert Doisneau)

But in suburbia the situation is quite different. Here open space is just raw land waiting for development. Parks and great public spaces are rare and even designated open spaces are usually just leftovers on the fringe and not central places. Park departments consider themselves as stewards for ball-fields and playgrounds, not unimportant spaces, but with the typical emphasis on fences, parking, lighting, bathrooms and support buildings, they rarely are good civic spaces, they don't serve general purposes and are not meant to connect with nature.

Recent fiscal austerity has taken a heavy toll on the departments of park and recreation all across the country. ("Underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed").We often talk about failing infrastructure and mean roads and bridges. But parks, another piece of infrastructure, are much worse off.
Ill maintained tennis court in Austin, TX

Land trusts have stepped up nationally and locally and play an ever increasing role in conserving natural lands and open spaces by buying land with private funds or by providing tax benefits through easements. Land trusts and non-profits for small suburban open spaces are a new but rapidly growing trend.  This article is about how they are part of the nascent movement of reinventing the suburb.(New York Times: Parks Department Takes a Seat Behind Non Profit Conservancies).

All the private yards of a suburban subdivisions cannot substitute for public parks and spaces. Even less so when smart growth policies call for densification and infill. Thus, preserving open spaces and taking some space away from the supply of possible development lands can be pro development in much the same way the famous urban parks made surrounding development so much more valuable. In suburban centers, strategically located protected spaces make infill and added density tolerable.

Smart growth cannot be simply the the inside-outside game of a growth boundary or urban rural demarcation line, where inside "anything goes" and the outside gets preserved. This model isn't good enough anymore because it doesn't create livable communities. Reinventing suburbia has to include good public space and create a meaningful tension between density and nature, between development and the absence of it even inside the designated development envelopes. Only if existing communities will see investments for a better quality of life will they accept additional development. (see why citizens are against development).
Baltimore County, the Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (URDL), the inner ring
suburban centers and the protected NeighborSpace open spaces (numbered)

How can additional green spaces be conserved in a time of downsized government lack of funding but continued growth ? How can one determine which spaces provide the biggest bang for the buck, or how would "bang" even be defined?

I will try to explain the fledgling concept of an "urban land trust" and an innovative approach to strategic land conservation with the example of Baltimore County NeighborSpace, an organization which I currently chair as board president.

For the last 10 years the organization responded to community requests and protected tiny (down to a tenth of an acre) and larger open spaces (up to 21 acres) on demand. Even though attention was paid to a good geographic distribution and to the qualities of the individual sites, one could hardly call this approach strategic. We didn't work from an overall data base of available open spaces nor did we know which possible sites would rate high for "bang" since we had no criteria for how we would define the benefits. NeighborSpace made communities happy with this type protection but it couldn't optimize its role in re-shaping suburbia.
Pumkin market on a small plat of protected land in
Woodlawn, Baltimore County

Enter the Spatial Multi-Criteria Analysis framework developed by West Virginia University's Michael Strager, an "equitable and efficient means for incorporating people's preferences in social decisions.
[which] includes criteria that are locally relevant and measurable in a spatial framework." (Strager).

This method allows a comparative evaluation of an entire landscapeThe method allows to create maps that indicate where conservation  would be most important. It has been used for large scale land conservation strategies, but never before for suburban or urban areas that consist of development and fragmented open spaces.  Still, the method is the same: Overlay collectively developed goals, criteria and metrics to a geographic area in a manner that is blind to the actual presence of real open spaces and mash it up with available GIS information for the area. 

How exactly does the spatial multi criteria analysis work? 

The first step is consensus building about what I casually called "bang for the buck". What should open spaces do? NeighborSpace invited environmental and community stakeholders, its own members and government agency representatives to discuss this very question in a series of worksessions. It was easy to see that livability falls into three columns, environmental, economical and social, the same troika that is often used to define sustainability. 
Step 1 of Spatial Multi Criteria Analysis: Criteria selection


Objectives like access to open space, a desire to create a green infrastructure network, environmental justice, proximity to environmental features like streams or vistas were grouped and parsed out into criteria and measurable metrics. It is important to only include metrics for which actual data are available and coded spatially in geographic information systems (GIS).

Soon we had pages and pages of goals, objectives and metrics but no idea which ones would be more important. To find out where stakeholders see their priorities we invited all the stakeholders, agencies and members back for a "pairwise" evaluation. In questionnaires participants did speed dating: Is this more important to you than this? And to catch it all, each metric was paired with another one, each time a range of options was provided from less, equal to more with gradations in between.  Once the questionnaires were fed into a computer overall priorities became clear, either by running the analysis per constituent group (environmental stakeholders naturally would have different preferences than economic development folks etc.) or in the aggregate.
Pairwise Comparison example


The last step, finally, consisted in mashing up the priority scores with geographic information (property values, stream buffers, revitalization areas, exactly one GIS map for each metric). And voila: Color coded maps would take on the high and low priority colors for each metric across the full "landscape" that is Baltimore County inside the development envelope. (Note: Remember, the system is blind to actual land use, so any area, whether developed or not would take on these colors).

The only last thing to do, then, is to see how actual open spaces would score. For this, we would simply run a data base of all known open spaces in the county and eliminate the developed areas from the map. Thus each open space would take on a priority value (color) for either the individual metrics or for the aggregate. 

Now by overlaying quantity and quality we could see which and how many of the available green spaces have a high ranking. This would give us a clue about the magnitude of the tasks ahead and what kind of resources would be needed to tackle them. In other words, a real strategic plan!
Priority mapping for conservation using all criteria 

Gray to Green.

To add just one more interesting twist to this: Of course one can also run certain already developed areas through the process to find out where in areas of biggest open space deficits one could potentially revert development to open space. Inner ring suburbs are littered with abandoned paved over spaces: The commercial lands that lie fallow as either abandoned industrial spaces or as abandoned or severely underutilized  retail spaces and parking lots line all the major arterials. 

At this point it is simply a hypothesis of NeighborSpace that the greening of such "gray spaces" could be a viable method of creating valuable public green spaces. But the notion is certainly fueled by the evidence one can gather by taking trips through the landscape of the inner ring suburbs and by increasing attention given to stormwater runoff. Each jurisdiction in the Chesapeake watershed has to address run-off and under a consent decree of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Baltimore County along with all the others has begun to levy fees on impervious surfaces. Gray fields could be fertile ground for offsets and an interest in avoiding run off fees by reverting gray (paved) back to green. 
Gray spaces: Abandoned Randallstown car dealership


In April 2014 NeighborSpace has completed the rankings, the maps and is engaging GIS professionals locally and on the state level to perform a peer review of the process. For "calibration" purposes we will take our already protected spaces and compare how they rank in the mapping process with what we know about them from managing them. This will show us if the mapping process holds up to our common sense judgement and experience of existing sites. Stay tuned, we find ourselves at the tail end of a now over two year long process. Hopefully we will know soon if the scientific numeric approach of Spatial Multi-Criteria Analysis works in the suburban setting.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
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Related blog articles on Community Architect:

Open Space the Stepchild of Planning
Opportunity Knocks for this Historic Streetcar Village
What Watershed Improvements Have to do with Smart Growth
Regulations that Prevent Revitalization of Suburban Centers

External links:

Cities and towns are greener
Michael Strager, West Virginia University, Spatial Analysis Techniques
Peter Harnik: Urban Green, Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities
City Parks Blog
City Parks Facts
Urban Conservation

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