Making Green in Richmond

“The biggest paradigm shift that needs to happen is to see the importance of: one, beautification and two, parks, which have been considered a nicety, not a necessity.”

“The biggest paradigm shift that needs to happen is to see the importance of: one, beautification and two, parks, which have been considered a nicety, not a necessity.”

So says Drew Becher (rhymes with “checker”), Executive Director of the New York Restoration Project—an organization with a fifteen year track record of revitalization of green space and waterfront in New York City—when asked about the principles that should guide urban development.

Echoing themes from Ethan Kent (vice-president with Project for Public Space who spoke recently at a Department of Community Development event on Richmond’s waterfront) Becher champions the importance of building places, not just projects. Development must be, he says, “a place people want to be.” Restaurants are a component of development. Affordable housing is a component. But, Becher cautions, “You can’t expect people to thrive and survive without green space.”

Although he’s never been to Virginia’s capital, Becher’s ideas are eerily germane: “People thought stadiums were the Savior. But there’s no silver bullet,” he offers. As an alternative, Becher suggests that an essential part of urban lifestyle is access to hyper-local green space. “Everyone,” he claims, “deserves to live around a Central Park.” Byrd Park cannot alone serve all of Richmond. The James River Park System cannot be the only option for useable green space. “Each neighborhood,” Becher says, “needs its own village green, its own little Central Park.”

A positive Richmond micro-example of this approach is the current renewal of Paradise Park—a Fan ‘pocket park’ bordered by Floyd, Grove, Allen, and Vine Streets. All volunteer Friends of Paradise Park is catalyzing redevelopment of the space, working alongside the City Parks and Recreation Department to restore and re-program it.

The ongoing programming of green space is almost as important as its restoration, says Becher. NYRP parks are open from 8 AM to 10 PM, filled with a dizzying schedule of camps, festivals, arts, and activities.

Strategy

The NYRP was founded about fifteen years ago by celebrity-activist Bette Midler to “partner with individuals, community-based groups, and public agencies to reclaim, restore, and develop under-resourced parks, community gardens, and other open spaces in New York City.”

Becher’s strategy for rallying support (particularly among politicians and business leaders) for this work moves along various fronts. On a micro level they use a personal approach. “Find out where the elected official lives,” he suggests. “Nine out of ten times they live in a mixed use area. . . across from parks and open space.” Then he asks, “What do you like about where you live?” Their answers provide the justification for developing green space proximate to all city residents, not just those who can afford it.

On a macro level, the NYRP uses public health data to make its case. A few years ago as they envisioned development of a park in East Harlem, the NYRP discovered that asthma rates were sky high in six adjacent neighborhoods. When they compared those rates with the corresponding tree canopy coverage, they found the lowest coverage level in the city. Quantitative data (particularly related to health and lifestyle) made a compelling case.

Waterfront

Given some of the recent conversation within Richmond Becher’s perspective on waterfront development is timely. It has been noted by many (those inside Richmond and those outside) that the James River is a natural asset that deserves a central place in the City’s future. Consider the 2007 Crupi Report in which, Texas-based consultant James Crupi opined, “The James River is the community’s most under-utilized natural resource.” But in Richmond the James serves more as an everyday reminder of division than a source for unification.

Becher says the NYRP’s goal in their project resuscitating and developing the waterfront along the East Harlem River was to increase access to the water for all. The resultant twelve acre park with gardens and a public boathouse (in a nod to the history of rowing on the Harlem River) is a decidedly different way to develop a waterfront than the model used in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with its malls, restaurants, and retail. Becher says they opted for “a more natural development aimed at promoting healthy, active lifestyle.”

Private/Public

There’s no doubt that Becher, while working alongside governmental agencies, is suspicious of the effectiveness of government-driven development. Private entities, he says, offer greater creativity in branding and selling development ideas. A few years back New York City proposed an initiative to increase the city’s canopy coverage. It was a good idea, but lacked popular appeal. In contrast NYRP’s A Million Trees (an initiative with an identical outcome as the city’s proposal) is, in Becher’s words, “sexy and fun and people want to be part of something fun.”

NYRP’s experience is that “things get watered down when the government gets involved.” He continues, “If the plan doesn’t excite anyone it becomes a dusty old binder stacked all over the place.” Becher relies on the government to “put in the un-sexy stuff,” so that the privately-funded and -run NYRP can offer “the icing on the cake.”

Is your interest piqued? Want to hear more from Drew Becher? He (and other national experts) will be at Green Tonic hosted by Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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Erik Bonkovsky

4 comments on Making Green in Richmond

  1. Great post Erik. I’m glad that Becher will be discussing the private/public dilemma at tomorrow’s symposium. I can’t wait to hear his thoughts on Richmond after he views our beautiful city.

    Also, I’ve posted a few of my own thoughts here:
    http://lewisginter.org/blog/2009/08/03/green-tonic-stirs-richmonders-to-think-about-what-we-want-for-our-city/

  2. Yes, yes, and yes:

    “a decidedly different way to develop a waterfront than the model used in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with its malls, restaurants, and retail.”

  3. Scott Burger on said:

    Glad to see this.

    Keep in mind there is more to Richmond than just downtown and waterfront-

    http://scfoj.tumblr.com/post/156077903/national-night-out-along-the-cannon-creek

  4. Fritz Kling on said:

    Great post, Erik, and well-balanced. Thanks.

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