The Case Against Open Space

It’s high on the wish list for many city residents. It’s what they moved to the suburbs to find. It’s what environmentalists say we’re losing and must be preserved. It’s open space.

From the urban pioneer living in a New Jersey Brownstone to the dot.com crowd in low-rise San Francisco–from the Ohio farmer to the suburban Seattle housewife, people want more space. But they’re also fed up with traffic, want shopping and employment to be closer and miss an intangible quality called “community.”

It’s a dilemma to which there is no solution. As some wise person of the past said: you can’t have your open space and live in it too.

The more space there is for grass to grow, the less space there is for people to live. The more space that’s in between home and work, the further away each is. The more space that’s between you and your neighbor, the less likely there is to have anything approaching a sense of “community.”

It’s easy to understand why the farmer and rural resident wants open space. Farming is about having room for vegetables to grow and cows to graze. Suburban tract homes that encroach on farmland and a farmer’s way of life raise the value of real estate and thence the farmer’s taxes. Suburbanites complain about the noise and smell from farm equipment and animals and bring new noises from cars, highways and big box retailers to what everyone hoped would be a quiet neighborhood with a sense of community far from the commotion of the city.

The loss of farmland is perhaps more disturbing to the new suburbanites than the farmers waiting to profit from the switch from growing corn to growing real estate.

Suburbanites are naive about open space. After buying a square quarter or half acre piece of open field, the residents often seem surprised and disturbed that other new homes have sprung up just feet from their own. The open space and seclusion they were seeking is now lost to the equal desires of their neighbors.

The driveways, garages and lack of well-placed public open space make a sense of community hard to come by. There are often no public services, there are neighbors erecting fences and paving paradise for a basketball court. Strip malls and office parks follow the rush to the new suburbs, and soon, it’s time to move out again, to somewhere far away from it all where it’s quiet and there’s lots of open space.

City residents are not immune to the open-space delusion either. Even though they live in the city to be near people and activity, somehow many urbanites feel it would be better if they were near activities and people in open space. It sounds strangely like a Wal-Mart parking lot, this space they want…. To city residents, there’s nothing as pleasing as a well-landscaped, well-used city park in a high-density residential area. But many in cities call reflexively for more “open space,” which can even be where concrete is–service station lots, useless traffic circles, and lot setbacks barred to pedestrians. Fewer buildings, they say, improve the view, let the air in and provide a place for people to gather. But so does Wal-mart parking lot.

That’s the thing about open-space. People like the idea of it, but there’s often little use for most of it. City vistas, suburban lawns and parking lots alike, open space isn’t open when people are in it.

Foot Jammin'In the city, where it’s ideal to live without a car, open space is even a stranger goal because when things are farther apart, they’re lots farther apart if your traveling on foot. If you decided to put a square of open space every three blocks, what was three blocks away is now four blocks away, what was ten blocks away is now twelve blocks away, and what was 25 blocks away is now up to 33 blocks away. The same thing happens when you start adding parking spaces. Plus, unless urban open-space is placed in a high-density, high-traffic area, it often goes unused by residents. Which leaves it open for homeless camps, drug use and criminal activity, making city neighborhoods less attractive places to live.

There was a time when a house which bordered a park was worth more, rather than less. Homes on Pittsburgh’s Cedar Avenue which border a Victorian park were left to decay following years of the neighborhood’s depopulation. Being near a park that’s used for criminal activity is no more desirable than being near a noisy highway. Now that the number of middle-income residents in the area is increasing and the park being used more, the houses are being reclaimed and many are once again the most desirable in the neighborhood.

Cities are made to be traversed on foot. Any space between a pedestrian and a destination is not likely to be desirable, and buildings, in general, are far more beneficial to the urban environment than “open space” that can’t or won’t be used for leisure or recreation.

Urban man was made to live amidst doorways, windows, and walls. Open space is best left for the farmers, loggers, goats, prairie dogs and ground hogs, so it will be there should we want to visit it once in a while. Open space for people is kind of like the mythical trafficless highway: we see it on commercials all the time, and while it seems like something we should have, it’s never something we’ve ever really been able to create.

Open space is the cake we ate. If we go to it, it goes away.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me