By Adam Searing
I ran for Chapel Hill’s town council last year to protect and improve our parks and natural areas. Being a kids’ mountain bike coach, trail builder, and outdoor columnist gave me at least a little preparation for that role. What I wasn’t prepared for was the realization that the way we develop—how dense, what mix of residential and commercial, and how to serve and connect these new places to our existing communities—is critical, too. As a new elected official, I’ve talked to hundreds of folks from developers to community activists. I’ve joined bicycle, road, and natural area planning committees, read endless development proposals, and spent hours talking to professional staff and consultants.
My conclusion? If you care about our parks, you’ve got to care about development. We can’t have one without the other—and that’s true across the Triangle and in Chapel Hill. With that in mind, I’ve pulled together some principles for development from my green perspective:
- Connectivity for bicycles, pedestrians, scooters, and any other vehicle that isn’t a car is very important. These connections can be made through natural surface trails built to ADA standards, traditional paved greenways, and smaller trails that allow preservation and use of natural landscape. And at a tiny fraction of the cost of traditional paved greenways, the exploding technology of building natural surface trails can connect many more areas of town faster—and more inexpensively than ever before.
- New development must take place in tandem with new preserved open space, park facilities, greenway and natural surface trail development. We can’t do one without the other. New residents deserve access to trees, parks and open space just as much as anyone else—and this should be true regardless of income or type of housing from rental apartments to single family homes. New development should require new parks and open space.
- Strips of grass and a few planted trees are not “green space.” A stormwater retention pond or maintained utility corridor is not “green space.” Developments should strive to preserve large trees and the tree canopy as much as possible. Green space can be (but is not limited to) preserved groves of trees, preserved open space, creeks and features such as useful playgrounds, a playing field or walking trail. Green space should connect to other green space to provide for trail connectivity, protected wildlife corridors and watershed health.
- Outside of urban centers, large apartment buildings above 3-4 stories should be rare or non-existent. Rather, we should concentrate more dense and higher development in downtown areas while allowing a mixture of innovative multifamily housing in other newly developed areas. Large apartment buildings surrounded by nothing but parking lots are particularly discouraged.
- A top priority must be to extend development in already developed areas and make full use of current paved parking lots, underused shopping centers and other similar spaces.
- With the skyrocketing cost of single-family housing, construction of more townhomes/condos for sale is preferred. Large student housing apartment complexes should be discouraged. If we are building a community that is not attractive enough for individuals and families to want to buy and live in—or get excited about renting in—then we are not building community but rather building “housing units.” And no one wants to live in a “housing unit”—they want to live in a home.
- Stormwater management is critical and becoming even more important with intense rains due to rapidly accelerating climate change. We must plan with entire watersheds in mind and not just by individual project. Clearcutting and building upstream of our creeks has major downstream effects and will only get worse. We must prepare for a much wetter future now.
I love the parks and forests our area offers. I also recognize we need more places for folks to live. If we plan comprehensively, we can do both.
Adam Searing is a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council. He is a donor to Friends of Local Journalism Inc., the nonprofit publisher of The Local Reporter, at a level comparable to the general readership. Searing can be reached by phone, 919-903-3146; by email via email@example.com; or on Twitter, @AdamSearing.
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