In Defense of Greenspace

Maryland’s Capital Crescent Trail–is it parkland or a transportation corridor? (Credit: Dan Klotz)

Tuesday, November 17, is the deadline for proposals to knock down hundreds of trees and pave over a stretch of the popular Capital Crescent Trail in Montgomery County, Maryland.

If that sounds kind of backwards, well, it is. The planned conversion of a greenspace corridor into a transportation corridor—for the commuter train system called the Purple Line—is taking place even though the land is flanked by two active transportation corridors, the I95 Beltway and the East West Highway, route 410.

But the thought of adding the Purple Line to either roadway and altering car traffic patterns was deemed unnecessary, given that the greenspace was just sitting there.

Officials in Maryland of all stripes—from the counties, state agencies, and the legislatures—are unable to look past the origins of this greenspace. It was once a one-way rail line for freight trains, not even wide enough to fit a second set of tracks for the return trip. These officials have insisted that it is still a viable transportation corridor. It is after all one of the more heavily used bicycle paths in the country, one that I use in my daily commute. But that’s not what they mean, of course.

To them, it’s still meant to be a place for trains; despite the Capital Crescent Trail’s popularity, no one ever updated the government maps to reflect reality. And this is a region that was once praised for how it values parks.

Choosing cement over trees and prioritizing cars over parkland is a textbook symptom of suburban sprawl. The value of greenspace, especially in urban and suburban locations, has often been overlooked. Parks are always expendable, prime targets for infrastructure development.

Several years ago, for example, New York City decided to build a massive filtration plant for its drinking water system. It had two choices: build the site on an unused industrial plot in the suburbs just north of the Bronx, or build it in the Bronx—within city limits—at the site of the only municipal golf course located next to a stop on the subway system.

The builders chose to dig up the golf course. Even though the City installed a new course on the roof of the still unfinished plant, the neighborhood impact has been tremendous and the loss of trees, irrevocable. It’s also been noted that the fairways of the new course are too narrow, and a different experience than the previous course.

Shortly after these plans were finalized, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) released a report quantifying the value of urban greenspace. In looking at Washington D.C., just below the planned Purple Line route, researchers found that the DC government collected almost $7 million more in property taxes in 2006 because of its parks and greenspaces.

Researchers have also found that urban parks and greenspaces improve the health and wellbeing of residents. The TPL report mentioned above found that the city of Sacramento lowered its healthcare costs by almost $20 million in 2007 because of its parks and greenspaces.

The concept behind the Purple Line, having a part of the Washington DC Metro rail system that connects the suburban region, is certainly laudable. A functional mass transit system is an important component of a healthy, modern metropolis. But so is greenspace. The choice between parkland and transportation is a false paradigm. Both are equally important, and one should never be sacrificed for the other.

Residents are supposed to appreciate that the plans call for adding a bike path next to the train tracks. We’d rather keep what we have, though—especially the trees. It’s healthier.

The destruction of the Capital Crescent Trail is not the only problem that the Purple Line spawned. To the east, the railway will exist alongside major roads—but advocates from the working-class communities that would host the railway call the plan disastrous. Their concerns—from unsafe pedestrian crossings to noise and stormwater issues—could be alleviated if the line was simply built underground.

An underground train line would eliminate almost all of the Purple Line’s impacts and disruptions along its entire route. It would preserve greenspace and the character and safety of the neighborhoods bordering the route. But placing the train underground would also cost more money, and the government is trying to do this as inexpensively as possible.

A nice idea done on the cheap provides bad solutions, oftentimes much worse than the original problems. The Purple Line is no different. It would be much better to scrap the current plan and figure how to do it right rather than to pave over greenspace and permanently plant more suburban sprawl.


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems. Dan's career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability and research needs of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean.