Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Challenges of Open Space Preservation: A Texas Case Study

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Challenges of Open Space Preservation: A Texas Case Study

Article excerpt

Municipal effectiveness in conserving open space is a critical yet confounding topic, warranting more systematic attention. In the United States' Sun Belt in particular, new development continues rapidly to transform pristine acreage. While potential remedies are more likely to emerge from local government than the federal or state level, if they appear at all, such efforts have been erratic. Yet, academic treatments lack general explanations of the inconsistent appearance and success of preservation initiatives, possibly because the subjectivity of the goal makes it difficult not just for governments to accomplish, but for scholars to capture. The term 'open space' encompasses many incarnations, from landscaped areas around stores and apartments, to playgrounds, to discrete ecosystems. Function is varied and subjective as well, especially in regard to whether preservation is meant to serve the needs of humans, the natural world, or some combination.

But, while these ambiguities are not new, they have grown incongruous against a backdrop of ascendant green infrastructure/green urbanism, in which precise attention to terrestrial functions and interconnections is critical. To be sure, open space protection per se does not neatly overlap with green infrastructure scholarship. Most obviously, land preservation is only a subset of that comprehensive approach to ecosystem resilience and sustainability. On the other hand, open space strategies, albeit inadvisably, may be divorced from environmental objectives, e.g. park siting decisions based solely on political considerations. While green orientations may ultimately shift the open space conversation to an exclusive focus on environmental (and human/environmental) linkages, not all cities have reached that point. As the greater Portland, Oregon area and other exemplars implement integrated resource sustainability programs, many cities struggle to realise discrete policies safeguarding mere portions of the open space fabric.

Still, while the two topics are not seamlessly aligned, this global movement provides constructive insight on the narrower question, especially in regard to how and why land should be protected. That perspective is combined here with literature on policy making in general, and natural resource protection in particular, to structure a model of effective municipal action, premised upon the relative strength of civic resources, problem identification, and policy logic. The model is assessed through three case studies in San Antonio, Texas. This city's suitability for investigation derives from a context that simultaneously calls for and resists conservation, a tension tightly linked to recent, explosive growth.

Currently the nation's seventh largest city, with a population of approximately 1.4 million, the overall metropolitan statistical area has grown by almost 30 per cent since 2000 (Kotkin, 2013). Furthermore, as Texas home-rule municipalities may annex contiguous unincorporated areas, the city has expanded physically, currently to 467 square miles, with a relatively low urban density of 3,393 persons per square mile. As the influx of new residents exacerbates open space and resource depletion, public demands to address that loss have intensified. Yet, this plays out against a backdrop of robust legal and political support for private property rights, with little tradition of innovative environmental initiatives.

The inquiry focuses on a park dedication requirement, creation of a popular regional park, and a land acquisition program to protect the city's primary water supply, presenting an array of narratives and outcomes. Overall, the application supports the utility of the model, as policy success appears tightly linked to its determinants. The most successful policies, those that delivered efficient and intended results, possessed strong civic resources, a sharply defined problem and a basis of rational logic.

Conceptual framework

This background framework is built from several sources: the (relatively small) work on open space preservation per se; the broader field of environmental policy, including the vanguard discipline of green infrastructure/urbanism; and, the general public policy literature. …

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