The vision Condon presents in "When Neighborhoods Work With Nature" is dramatic and large in scale, but it’s unclear if he’s writing about retrofitting existing cities or managing the growth of entirely new cities. His examples are historical, taken from growing cities with lots of natural space to grow into, but it’s hard to see where continuous natural areas could be inserted into already populated areas. Second, though the idea of continuous green spaces makes sense from an environmental and design point of view, Condon doesn’t do a good job of outlining the path for realizing his vision, or selling his ideas as politically viable alternatives to standard policies.
Still, the idea of linking green space into continuous “ecologically functional chains” made me think of some variations of that idea, which currently exist or seem poised for the near future.
First, there are plenty of examples of continuous green space of a less grand type than what Condon describes. Again, shaping natural areas of forests and open streams, which has little relevance unless we’re talking about building entirely new cities. But green urban links can be as undramatic as green median strips, trees lining streets or grass planted along sidewalks. The effect would be a lot less spectacular, and carry much fewer environmental benefits than do linked parks, but it would accomplish many of the things Condo suggests in the way of increasing neighborhood attractiveness and property value, and yielding some real ecological benefits in terms of water runoff, carbon capture, cooling, etc. Moreover, these sorts of changes can be implemented around the edges of policy, are politically feasible, scalable and incremental. They’ve already been done in cities like New York. It’s hard to think of who might oppose them, and on what philosophical grounds.
Second, global climate change may force coastal cities to adopt riparian greenbelts to mitigate the impact of tidal flooding. This might occur as residents abandon the most vulnerable sections of coastland, or as cities deliberately build outward to create natural flood barriers to protect inland settlement. As cities become more sophisticated in the skills of place-making and the understanding of its benefits, they will also likely see access to water as an untapped economic resource – a way to improve property values and tourist revenue. Places like Providence and San Antonio have already leveraged access to rivers into tourist opportunities, and other cities are trying to follow suit. The entire island of Manhattan is now surrounded by a walkable, bikeable greenway. It’s not hard to see how, in coastal cities, an “ecologically functional chain” could double as a commuter path, exercise space, and tourist attraction. Even in inland areas, where there’s less pressing need for rings of wetlands, continuous green space centered around access to natural water features, carries multiple benefits.
Third, as cities shrink in population, there is more opportunity for converting developed parcels into reclaimed natural land. Either as locally grown initiatives towards small-scale urban farming, or larger city-wide initiatives to expand park systems. There are probably serious costs to maintaining new parks, and these costs are more pronounced in the face of declining population and local industry. But, especially in rustbelt cities, there exists the possibility for increased green space in already settled areas, and for creating the sort of linked park system Condon advocates.