A few years ago, my wife, our three kids, and I moved to a new town. It wasn't far, as these things go—only about 10 miles, from one small suburban town in Northern Kentucky to another small suburban town in Northern Kentucky, both inside the Greater Cincinnati metropolitan area. Yet the two towns reflect vastly different understandings of common spaces like sidewalks and parks.
Our first house, in Erlanger, had been built in 1891, as had almost all of the houses in the surrounding several blocks. To take advantage of the nearby railroad depot, a group of investors had created one of the first planned subdivisions outside Cincinnati. Though the six-room house was small by contemporary standards, the surrounding neighbourhood made us forget about the cramped space—during summer, at least. We could walk the tree-lined sidewalks to the Ameristop for an Icee, across the highway to the small Greek restaurant, even to the supermarket and local library. Our favourite part of the neighbourhood, though, was the four parks within a ten-minute walk.
The newest of the parks had been built when the old railroad depot was converted into a museum. A portion of the funding for the park and museum came from sidewalk bricks sold to raise money. Several of our former neighbours have their names written in the sidewalk, as does my father-in-law, a local politician. For several summers now, he's hosted an ice cream social in the park so constituents can see him and chat. Parking is always awful—there are only five parking spots for the park—but most people don't park. They simply walk up.
As much as we loved the neighbourhood, our family outgrew the house. So we moved to a much newer subdivision of a very different kind, one county over, in Burlington. Our new house is a century younger than our first one, even though the town is much older. Burlington itself was founded in 1799 and made the seat of Boone County about twenty years later. The Baptist church up the street from us dates from 1848.
As cars replaced the river and horse as the main mode of transportation, though, Burlington stopped growing and remained a small administrative centre for the county, with a "downtown" only four blocks square. Its incorporation was allowed to lapse; as recently as 1986, only 600 people lived in the town. By then, however, interstate-enabled growth of the Cincinnati suburbs was beginning to remake the town. Today, with a population over 10,000, Burlington sits on the growing edge of the suburban sprawl.
Once again, the nearby parks are one of our favourite parts of our home. We visit three most often, which range from a five-minute to fifteen-minute drive. Between the three of them, there are four different playgrounds, a dozen baseball and soccer fields, an arboretum, two disc golf courses, three mountain bike trails, a dog park (with separate areas for dogs of various sizes), a community garden, several miles of running paths, tennis and volleyball courts, an amphitheatre that hosts concerts and shows movies on summer nights, and even a two-story wooden fort complete with a secret escape tunnel. And those are only the three parks that we visit the most; there are ten more in the county system.
In Erlanger, the parks are part of the neighbourhood; in and around Burlington, they are destinations. Most of Burlington was built with the assumption that everyone would own a car. The subdivisions do have sidewalks, but they don't go anywhere—they end at the edge of the subdivision. Even though the elementary school is only half a mile away, there's no sidewalk to get to it. The easiest and safest way of walking up to Burlington's court square is actually to jump over our back fence, slip through a gap in another fence, and cut through the apartment complex behind our house.
Shortly after we moved to Burlington, the county proposed a new greenways plan that would have created a comprehensive network of walking, biking, and horse trails throughout the county. I was thrilled at the prospect.
To my surprise, though, local opposition quickly formed against the plan. Our newly-formed county Tea Party identified the greenways proposal as its principal rallying point, labeling it as wasteful spending and an unjustified increase in taxes. (The plan would have added $1 or $2 to the yearly tax bill on a $100,000 home.) The greenways plan was repeatedly portrayed as something that would benefit only a few people, as if "children, parents, and anyone who enjoys being outside" were some small special interest group. It was like one of those crazy town hall meetings on the show Parks and Recreation, except it was really happening. The plan was narrowly defeated in a county referendum.
It might have actually been the separation between the parks and neighbourhoods that led to the plan's defeat. Unless you get out of your house and drive to the parks, you don't see how many people are using them, and you might assume that everyone just stays inside or in their backyard like you do. Meanwhile, in Erlanger, it's impossible not to notice how many people are using the parks. You might complain to city hall about the parking problems and noise from late night basketball, but it's obvious that the parks are full. In Burlington, the parks are even busier, but they are isolated. I wonder if the people who voted against the greenways plan even realize we have parks.
Beyond my own family's preference for neighbourhood parks and walkable communities, why should these be priorities for the public interest? I mentioned that between 1987 and 2010, Burlington grew from 600 people to more than 10,000. In the 2010 US Census, Boone County was the third-fastest growing county in Kentucky, and added more people (32,000) than any area outside Kentucky's two major cities, Louisville and Lexington. It's this rapid growth that convinces me of the need for small, neighbourhood-based parks and a system of useful sidewalks.
Neighbourhood parks can grow with their neighbourhoods. Because of the expense and time involved in developing large "destination parks," they often lag behind population growth. At our daughter's recent T-ball game, held on a Monday evening in early May, virtually every parking space in the 300-acre park was taken, and every baseball field was in use. What happens if the population grows another 30% over the next ten years? In contrast, land for neighbourhood parks can be set aside as new subdivisions are built.
Sidewalks create flexibility for the transportation structure. Even though my daughter's T-ball game was held only about a mile from our home, there were no sidewalks or bike trails to get there—only a busy, narrow road built when Burlington was mostly farmland. The only safe option for us or any other family in Burlington was to drive there, resulting in a parking lot filled to capacity and a minor traffic jam while exiting the park. Walkable neighbourhoods also enable public transportation—such as bus lines—to become viable options in the future. As Burlington—and the rest of Boone County—becomes denser, its transportation options will remain limited without sidewalks to supplement its roadways.
Neighbourhood parks can unify a diverse community. Much of the population growth in Boone County has been the result of newly-arriving immigrants. The Greater Cincinnati airport and Toyota's North American headquarters are both located in Boone County, making it an attractive destination for immigrants. The county's Hispanic and Asian populations have more than doubled in the last ten years. Through the quirks of relationships and opportunity, we're home to a growing community of Muslims from northwest Africa. My wife teaches music classes for young children, and she has a steady stream of Japanese families signing up for her classes. What better place for neighbours to get to know each other than at neighbourhood parks?
Even without the greenways, things are getting better. The county has been gradually extending the sidewalks as funding becomes available. Meanwhile, the opposition to new parks seems to be dying down as the Tea Party moment passes. In a few years, I hope that I'll be able to walk up with my kids to get an Icee on a hot summer day—without having to jump any fences.
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