March 1, 2001 - From the March, 2001 issue

National President Will Rogers Highlights TPL's Urban Agenda

Despite diligent efforts to link commercial, retail, housing and open space into a coherent system of integrated neighborhoods, the nation's urban fabric continues to be spotted with an abundance of incoherently planned cities. Believing its experience and talent can be helpful, the nation's premier land conservation organization is increasingly focusing on an urban agenda. TPR was pleased to sit down with Will Rogers, President of The Trust for Public Land and have him outline TPL's suggested course of action for reconnecting people with the land in an urban context.


Will Rogers

Will, give our readers an overview of the Trust's current national agenda, particularly as it relates to your endeavors in urban California.

The primary lens through which TPL looks at land conservation nationally is the overarching relationship between land and people. Because of that, our work runs the gamut from the urban core to the pristine wilderness and from recreation to quality of life and economic viability-conservation that's tied to the link between people and land.

To complete that mission we've historically brought private land into public ownership through conservation transactions-outright purchase as well as the purchase of development rights and conservation easements. But over the last decade we've advanced this process by including a significant amount of "conservation finance" techniques that work at the federal, state and local levels to assist citizen groups in identifying funding necessary to set aside land.

This new process has expanded the historic role of TPL to include the role of technical advisor. Because of that expanded role we've been able to become involved in over $20 billion of conservation finance over the last 6 years around the nation.

Another new thrust for the Trust is what we call "Greenprinting"-a visioning process that helps communities set aside and link recreational lands, watersheds, scenic view corridors and trails to help shape future growth.

Now if we hone in on our California projects specifically, we find that the state's enormous projected growth has not only increased the public's awareness of land conservation, but made the addition of parks, nature preserves and greenways an imperative. We're seeing the fruits of that awareness right now in the bond initiatives that passed last March-Proposition 12 and 13.

And certainly that increased focus and awareness is trickling down to L.A. where the Los Angeles River Greenway is really coming into its own as more land is purchased and converted into local parks. So we're very excited by the upturn in awareness and funding that will ultimately lead to the tangible results that TPL strives for.

The California Chapter of the American Planning Association recently announced a set of legislative solutions to encourage smarter growth. What is TPL's role in the Smart Growth movement both nationally and in California?

One of the unusual aspects of the Trust for Public Land is that our focus includes not only unspoiled and undeveloped land, but brownfields and overlooked land in our urbanized areas. Too often people focus on what's happening at the edge and forget about the core. Our job is to raise awareness of the relationship between city-centers, first-ring suburbs and the urbanizing fringe as they relate to curbing sprawl and growing smarter.

By elevating the discussion we're helping to alter the perception of green infrastructure from leftover land that the development community doesn't want to land essential for a thoughtful network of parks and open space. Unfortunately, without strong commitments from taxpayers and the development community we can't proceed past the discussion and onto implementation.

We realize that no one is ever excited about new property taxes. But where taxes go to envisioning and protecting essential green infrastructure, citizens around the country are taxing themselves at unprecedented rates. And that is definitely proving true in California.

The Trust for Public Land California is obviously considering an urban agenda for itself. It's not a new phenomena for TPL but definitely a departure from what the general populace believes TPL's commitment to open space includes. What's different about the strategies that could be used by TPL in the urban environment from those traditionally used by your organization?

The founders of TPL believed that unless we have vibrant park filled urban cities, the possibility of making a credible case for protecting our resources outside our cities is incredibly diminished. So in theory this urban agenda is not new for TPL.

The fact that cities lack open space makes it essential to have a mechanism in place to convert and rework our cities' urban fabric. But that requires a lot of public outreach, consensus building and technical expertise in dealing with brownfields. That's really the new challenge for those of us that are working to create urban greenprints.

Will, as the National President for TPL, what's unique about the California environment and its metropolises? Is there a new sense of urgency re: TPL's urban agenda?

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For all practical purposes California is several states and the degree of resources that California is at risk of losing is quite extraordinary.

But what makes California different from most other states is the high-level of awareness and support for conservation throughout the state. There's a very broad awareness of what growth is doing to traffic, air and water quality that isn't present in some other states.

Fortunately out of that awareness comes the sense of urgency, immediacy and understanding that time may be running out.

In May of 1999 you made the following statement in front of a Town Meeting for Sustainable America, "Show me a healthy community with a healthy economy and I will show you a community that has its green infrastructure in order and understands the relationship between the built and the unbuilt environment." TPL subsequently issued a publication entitled Inside City Parks which documented the shortage of parkland in many of our metropolitan areas. If you were to give testimony in front of the Speaker's Commission on Regionalism, which Nick Bollman chairs, what recommendations would you offer re: California's regions?

Contextually we understand that a holistic solution is required to deal with eliminating the incentives that drive sprawl. There are obviously enormous transportation and tax pieces to that equation, but we aren't experts in those areas, we're experts in land conservation.

How far is the nearest playground from your house? How long does it take you to get to your nearest community garden? What are the connectors that run from your smaller neighborhood parks to the larger city parks? Are there protected, restored and accessible rivers or creeks running through your town?

Those questions should be asked at the neighborhood, the city and ultimately at the regional level. People have to be willing to go beyond the boundary lines and start thinking regionally. Ecological systems don't stop at county lines–nor does the ecology of commerce. And until we find a mechanism with teeth that encourages that approach rather than pushing our problems next door, nothing is going to happen.

The school facilities needs in California are approaching $20 billion-plus going forward. One hundred new schools need to be built in the LAUSD and a second $10 billion school facilities bond measure is now being drafted by the state legislature. If you were going to suggest language in that bond measure that could facilitate or catalyze using the investment of school funds for facilities so that we link parks, libraries and schools together to rebuild inner-city and inner-suburban neighborhoods, what would it be?

Schools are really the hub of the community and any opportunity that exists to create open space, green space or playground areas that can be enjoyed by the community and used by the school presents an enormous opportunity for the revitalization of our neighborhoods.

Right now school districts won't cooperate with park districts for a host of reasons including insurance and maintenance issues. That is merely causing school playgrounds to be gated and locked up. Not to mention that the current way playgrounds are designed doesn't take into account the possibility that hardscapes can become meaningful community greenscapes. If we don't take this opportunity seriously now, we will really miss out in the future.

One last question. What's the challenge confronting TPL that most engages you? What's giving you a personal charge?

On the one hand, what's driving us is the growing sense of excitement about parks and open space that we're seeing at the neighborhood level.

On the other hand is the challenge of figuring out how to respond to the huge and critical need for open space around the country.

So figuring out how TPL can grow, how it can be a better partner with communities, how we can create more strategic partnerships and how we can leverage the work that we're already doing on the ground are all wonderful and exciting challenges as we continue to deliver our land and people mission.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.