29 February 2012 – Second of a two part look at the problems and solutions to government neglect of the one quarter of our cities that’s taken up by roads and parks

I sometimes hear the noises of the neighbours’ kids getting in or out of the family car.  Often I hear the mums or dads suddenly say, “Don’t go on the road”, “Stop! Stop! Stop!

“How many times have I told you don’t run on the road!”

In those moments the kids and parents are second-class citizens, reduced by roads that give cars priority and speed to maim or kill a child who behaves as a child. As children we’re taught, and as parents we teach our kids, to feel fear in the streets – to avoid the car.

Who is local government to say kids should grow up to associate fear with play or being in a road?  Perhaps we can agree that it’s time to undo the agreement.

Here are solutions to make roads and parks safer, more civilised and pleasurable.

Firstly, consider some examples of government inventing new ways to use roads and parks and which use money well.

Parks Charity
A sole purpose body is likely to manage roads and parks well – for example, the Milton Keynes charity in the UK, referred to in part I.

Business Investment Districts
New York City Council defines a BID thus: “an organising and financing mechanism used by property owners and merchants to determine the future of their retail, commercial and industrial areas. The BID is based on state and local law, which permits property owners and merchants to band together to use the city’s tax collection powers to “assess” themselves.

“These funds are collected by the city and returned in their entirety to the BID and are used for purchasing supplemental services ( such as maintenance, sanitation, security, promotions and special events) and capital improvements (street furniture, trees, signage, special lighting) beyond those services and improvements provided by the city. In essence, the program is one of self-help through self-taxation”.

There are over 30,000 BIDs in the US.

Private investors in parks
In 1999 New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced plans to sell 114 community gardens to developers to help fund city budget shortfalls. Bette Midler, the singer, and a charity she established, New York Restoration Project, bought some of these plots. Working with the Trust for Public Land and other non-profits NYRP is  keeping these public gardens in perpetuity.  NYRP owns and manages 55 community gardens throughout New York.

Working in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, NYRP staff, AmeriCorps members and corporate and community volunteers have planted hundreds of thousands of trees, shrubs and flowers to support the restoration and maintenance of NYRP’s community gardens, as well as four New York City parks.

This has resulted in the removal of nearly 133,000 bags of trash from the city’s green spaces. NYRP engages New York City residents in the long-term stewardship of their open spaces.  NYRP bought a concession for a restaurant on council land and runs a restaurant, New Leaf, which offers seasonal dishes made from only the finest locally grown ingredients and inspired by NYRP’s 55 community gardens. Profits are invested back into the gardens.

Community Urban Farms
The Flatirons Neighbourhood Farm was set up in 2008 in the urban University Hill area of Boulder, Colorado, US.

The multi-plot farm uses over 6000 square feet (557 square metres) of urban yard and road verge space donated by neighbours and feeds over 20 families in the area. Families buy half or whole shares of vegetables or do work shares of four to five hours a week. A regular share costs $325 and feeds 1–2 people for 20 weeks. A Large Share costs $575 and feeds 3–4 people for 20 weeks. The produce is distributed locally to Community Supported Agriculture shareholders, restaurants and organisations supporting families in need.

Reward citizen investment
It’s not essential to abolish local government to achieve more civilised parks and roads. Simply changing the financial relationship between citizen and government can work by redirecting taxes, rates and investment and energy directly to the roads and parks. Rate rebates and other devices are effective when they financially reward citizens who invest in their roads and parks. Examples follow.

Tree rebate
In Portland, Oregon, US, residents who plant trees on their property can get a rebate from the city of as much as $50 for native tree species. The city, via its Grey-to-Green Canopy program, aims to get 50,000 street trees and 33,000 yard trees planted over a five-year period.

Compost rebate
A range of rebates are proposed in a new plan to make an existing suburb sustainable (Chippendale in inner city Sydney), perhaps the first such plan to be created (1). One is a compost rebate intended to grow local soil, divert food waste from landfill and replace huge garbage trucks with smaller ones.

To qualify, the residents, businesses and workers of the suburb who garden in the road are entitled to a rate rebate if they:

  • plan, garden and communicate according to the plan’s pre-approved methods and designs with  flexible guidelines
  • provide and maintain at least two local points of contact accessible to any person including, for each contact, phone number and street address
  • attend at least one gardening and compost workshop each year provided by Council.

Secondly, let’s look at some practical ways to develop and use parks and roads.

It’s all about the garbage truck

Smaller garbage trucks
It’s the size of our huge garbage trucks which dictates road width, tree and plant choice (to avoid being hit by the top of the trucks) and which drive up the capital and maintenance costs of most of our roads. Thus, the amount of waste we put out shapes the size of our roads and trees.

With smaller garbage trucks we can get narrower, safer roads, safer traffic and a richer mix of trees and plants. And lower rates.

A small garbage truck (10 cubic metres) costs ratepayers about $11,000 a year in fuel to run and emits 1062 kilograms of air carbon pollution. With a $40 a tonne carbon price $805 will be added to that cost. A large garbage truck (19 cubic metres) costs $16,405 a year to run and pollutes 1431 kilograms. A $40 a tonne carbon price adds $1306 to the running cost.

The examples above illustrate that there are at least two parts to the answer to the question, how can we better use our roads and parks?

One part of the solution for better roads and parks is the answer to this question: how do we create governments that give priority to us and our roads and parks?

The other part is, how do we physically improve our public land?

The history of New York’s High Line gardens, of the road gardens the community has made where I live in Sydney and the other examples recently discussed in Burr  shows local government is hostile to innovation.

The final question then, is how to bring innovation to our roads and parks and make them more pleasant, better maintained?

The examples here show good governance can be achieved by government enabling change rather than by doing or controlling it in every detail.

With some light-handed guides, capable of flexible application, mixed with a minimum of clear rules the councils can empower their communities rather than control them.

The park charity model works because it has a clear direction and legal obligation to invest its income in the parks as the first priority.  So, too, does the self-help model chosen by Bette Midler, the Business Investment Districts and the Flatiron urban farm.

In sum, the examples tell one story – how we citizens need to actively take responsibility to give ourselves a role in nurturing, designing, building and maintaining our roads and parks.

(1)   Some of the examples given here are in a plan Sydney City Council asked me to make the suburb of Chippendale sustainable.  The plan is here: www.sustainablechippendale.com. The Council’s yet to formally implement the plan and while it’s considering this the plan is attracting international interest.  Two delegations from China have recently visited Chippendale to inspect the area and to enquire about the plan’s suitability for cities in China. Some Australian councils elsewhere are taking up some of the plan’s ideas.

Michael Mobbs’ book, Sustainable House, is the best selling account of how to build a sustainable project, what works and doesn’t.The book shows how Sustainable House has recylced more than 1.5 million litres of sewage in a five square metre garden in Sydney’s inner city Chippendale since 1996, uses rainwater for drinking, solar power for energy and provides accommodation for four people for utility costs of less than $300 a year. See also www.sustainablehouse.com.au