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When Washington lawyers think about real estate, they’re usually thinking of ways to facilitate the purchase, sale, rezoning, or development of land. But maybe we all should remember and understand that there’s more to real estate than buildings, development, and title insurance premiums. As a former private-firm real estate practitioner turned conservationist, I was reminded of some of real estate’s other virtues — in the context of Washington’s complex, loving, and confused relationship with our parks and green space — during a fall walk in Glover Archbold Park in Northwest Washington, near American University. While walking through the woods for exercise and relaxation, I started thinking about a complex problem I was having at work. I did not want to lose the thought, so I got on my cell phone and left a message on my office answering machine, preserving my pearl of wisdom and then continuing my sojourn. As I walked, I was struck by a troubling thought: Was I violating some sanctity, not to mention the park itself, by using technology? Although I quickly concluded that with phone and dictaphone (I’m showing my age) in hand, I could work with a clear and unfettered head as I simultaneously exercised and enjoyed the park, I did begin to think about our parks through another perspective. BILLABLE PARK TIME That perspective is how parks can actually be useful to our work. In fact, due to our relatively temperate climate, for as much as eight to nine months a year they offer everyone an opportunity to work in a physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy environment without having to close a door or lower a blind. Whether you are on the phone, dictating while you walk, or sitting on a park bench in a small park on Capitol Hill with your laptop, your thoughts and words are likely to be more focused and precise than if you were sitting at your cluttered desk, distracted by e-mail and hallway banter. Of course, we all wind up behind our desks as part of the process of bringing our work to fruition, but think of how such work, and ultimately your clients, would benefit from the increased clarity of thought that such an environment can engender. Parks and nature are for everyone to enjoy, and park designers, creators, managers, and visitors make no judgments about a park’s suitability for legal work. They request only that you clean up after yourself and your dog, are mindful of the safety of others, and otherwise are a good citizen. And the best part is, the time spent is billable, and because all of our parks are free and open every day of the week, there is no overhead! Like most important and valuable land, our parks are not without history and issues. The good news for Washingtonians is that according to the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, 19.4 percent of the land area in Washington is parkland, the third-highest in the nation among cities with a comparable population density. Among cities of comparable density, Washington ranks first in the nation, with 13.1 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. This means that Washington has enough parkland to serve all of its citizens and guests. Having enough parkland, however, is only part of the picture. Unfortunately, like many urban areas, our parks are not always well managed, properly used, readily accessible to all of our citizens and guests, or universally safe. Rock Creek Park, our largest, most environmentally diverse, and most centrally located green space, best illustrates the challenges our parks face and the benefits and burdens resulting from Washington’s unique form of governance. OUR ROCK CREEK More than a century ago, Congress set aside almost 2,000 acres of Rock Creek’s beautiful valley “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States.” According to its Web site, Rock Creek Park gets more than 2 million recreational user-days per year. A once-a-year picnicker constitutes one user-day, while an every-morning jogger represents 365 user-days. That may sound like a lot, but when compared to St. Louis’ Forest Park (12 million) or New York City’s Central Park (25 million), and given our population and number of visitors, Rock Creek Park is woefully underutilized. Why? Some think it is because of Washington’s reputation as an unsafe place. Others blame it on the fact that Rock Creek is a “national” park rather than a “city” park. National parks are managed under the umbrella of the secretary of the Interior, while city parks fall under the management of city government. As such, national parks are not accountable to Washington’s residents or necessarily designed to meet their recreational needs. We have no vote in Congress, and our elected officials do not select federal employees. Among the consequences of this disconnected form of governance, which has a profound effect on usership, is that there is no attractive commerce in many of the parks within our city and not enough places for people to play. For example, Rock Creek Park has no outdoor restaurants or vendor stands. Think of the treats available as you stroll through Central Park and how much they add to the character of your experience there. Wouldn’t Peirce Mill or the Thompson Boat Center be more inviting if there were outdoor cafes or pushcart vendors selling sweets, drinks, or hot dogs? Unfortunately, due to well-intentioned but inflexible National Park Service regulations, this type of commercialization is not allowed in Rock Creek Park. On the other hand, many people think that is the way it should be. The mandate of the National Park Service is straightforward and unidimensional: to preserve natural and cultural resources. The mandate of most city park agencies is subtle and complex: to serve the populace, improve the livability of the community, increase the value of nearby property, attract tourists, reduce youth shiftlessness and violence, minimize the effect of storm water and air pollution, offer opportunities to lose weight and increase fitness, and much more. Thoughtful, careful, controlled commercialization can be perfect for city park agencies, but it is anathema to the Park Service. (Ironically, however, the Park Service has had to make an exception for the National Mall, where — thanks to thousands of tourist complaints — there are now some pushcarts and cafes.) Urban parks should also be part playground, but because many of our parks are actually national parks controlled by the National Park Service, there are a relatively small number of places to play in Washington. There are almost 7,000 acres of national park land in the District, including Rock Creek, the Mall, Anacostia Park, and the Fort Circle parks, yet there are only 11 playgrounds within that area, and each of these playgrounds required federal legislation to be created. Conversely, on the 800 acres controlled by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, there are 71 playgrounds. This compares with 129 playgrounds in Baltimore, 162 in San Francisco, and 504 in Chicago. Soccer fields? Even counting the wide-open spaces and recreational facilities in Anacostia Park, there are only 18 soccer fields for D.C. residents, compared to 75 in Seattle, which has less land. There are also approximately 1,500 acres of open space managed by others, including the National Zoo, National Arboretum, public schools, and cemeteries. NOT YELLOWSTONE The broader problem for all of Washington’s National Park Service-controlled parks is found in the central mission of the Park Service: “to preserve, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources and values of our national park system for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.” While that is a noble and commendable aspiration, many of the national parks in Washington don’t really qualify as being relevant to a national mission. Our parks would be better used if geared toward the urban population they are serving, providing easy accessibility and a mix of recreational activities and natural beauty. The National Park Service does a great job of managing our national parks around the country. But Rock Creek is not Yellowstone. For the Park Service’s fields and playgrounds in the District, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation does a credible job managing reservations for ball fields, picnic groves, and sports leagues. Moreover, the department now has a natural resource division, a horticulturalist, a computer mapping specialist, an urban park ranger force, and a landscape planning team. In addition, it has significant budgetary resources and a mandate to fix old facilities and build new ones. And there is more good news. Several local and federal agencies with distinct planning and management responsibilities for our parks are working together for the first time in 40 years to plan for the challenges and opportunities ahead. The National Capital Planning Commission, the National Park Service, the District Office of Planning, and the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation have joined forces to form Capital Space, a partnership whose mission it is to improve all of Washington’s parks and open space. According to Julia Koster, director of the planning, research and policy division of the National Capital Planning Commission, among the commission’s tasks is bringing more attention, agency coordination, and opportunity for public use to the District’s many unnoticed and underused smaller parks. Four hundred and twenty-five of Washington’s parks are smaller than one acre. Better use of school playgrounds, maximized potential for parks in the city center, and connections between rivers and parks (including the little-known historic Fort Circle parks, former defensive Civil War forts) via green, safe, walkable greenways are among its items of study. The goal is to prepare a physical plan of shared and coordinated actions among the agencies that will provide a framework for the development, accessibility, maintenance, and sustainability of our parks for our citizens and guests. Enough politics and procedure. There is one park problem that all of us can solve, without any government involvement. Urban parks by nature are quiet, thinly populated, wooded environments that can, on occasion, become havens for criminal activity. The best way for a community to reduce such activity is to get into the parks and use them. Criminals don’t like witnesses, and park users like some level of passive communication with fellow travelers, so the more we use parks, the safer they become. Politically, if parks are popular and well-used, they are more likely to be well-maintained and otherwise to be the beneficiary of the municipal resources that are constantly needed to keep them clean, safe, and woven into the fabric of a community. So if you cannot convince yourself to take a walk or bike ride along one of the District’s many beautiful and well-maintained trails in the name of enlightened self-interest, do it for the kids and the kid in all of us. Washington needs a bright, local light continuously shining on our parks so they become fun, clean, safe, and professionally productive places to play. We have great national and city parks everywhere — use them, and volunteer to sustain them.
Richard Ross is a senior project manager in the Trust for Public Land’s Chesapeake Field office, based on Capitol Hill. Any opinions in this article belong to Ross and not to his employer.

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