Smart Growth

September 1, 2013, Department, by Barbara Tulipane, CAE

Barbara Tulipane, NRPA President and CEOThere’s been a lot of buzz about Detroit’s financial woes, and with that have come a lot of opinions on what led them to file for bankruptcy. Some are saying Detroit’s problems are a result of the increase in taxes, which drove residents from the city and eroded that same tax base. Some say it’s due to unsustainable pension costs in which ever-mounting debts were repeatedly passed on to new city administrations with no hope of reducing the obligations. Others argue that it was the city’s inability to diversify its dependence on a single industry that was ill-equipped to deal with change and competition. No matter what the reasons, Detroit’s current plight is a cautionary American tale, and there are some sharp lessons to be learned by all American urban communities.

After reading Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s book, The Metropolitan Revolution, which speaks of the growing clout metropolitan areas have received, I’d like to offer my own opinion on what it will take to avoid the destructive spiral that Detroit and other cities may be approaching, and it’s innovation. Katz and Bradley define innovation as “new developments in science and technology, either breakthroughs that create entirely new systems or products, or new applications of existing technology.” It’s the creation of a “new system” that is the core of the metropolitan revolution.

Katz and Bradley define “metropolitan” as an area comprised of a several municipalities that share a labor force. They rightfully place a strong growing economy at the heart of every successful metropolitan revolution, but they note that “metropolitan,” in their view, is more than just a collection of the same old city, county and municipal boundaries. They see metropolitan revolutions growing from interconnected local economies that represent the hub of larger regional, state and even national economies. Enlightened elected officials who can work across these boundaries for the welfare of their citizens will emerge as leaders as their communities will thrive.

In my view, quality park and recreation services are an essential component of a successful metropolitan revolution. Citizens of these communities want growing, vigorous economies, but they also want livable, sustainable communities, built with conservation, health and social justice in mind. And it is for this reason that parks and recreation must assume a leadership position, a position that is already recognized by city planners and elected officials. We need to contribute to the solutions on how communities can apply smart-growth principles to meeting their challenges.
Questions for which we have the opportunity to provide answers include: What role will parks and recreation play in reducing carbon footprints? How will parks and trails become part of planning safe, walkable, bikeable transportation routes that calm high-speed vehicle traffic and enable children and families to safely get to schools, recreation centers and other daily destinations? What will we do to serve aging-in-place populations? How will we enable the benefits of green infrastructure in using parklands and urban forests for stormwater management, groundwater recharge and buffers against climate change?

With this objective in mind, we have recently had several productive discussions with the American Planning Association (APA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) about forging a richer partnership between planners, landscape architects, and park and recreation professionals. One potential outcome of our discussions is a planned summit that would focus on how we can collectively meet the challenges of the metropolitan revolution and produce true returns on public and private investments.

Innovation must be part of our vision for the future of parks and recreation as much as it is for the new economic systems that are enabling metropolitan revolutions across America. This is an exciting time for parks and recreation. Innovators will thrive, and we intend to be at the forefront.