Open space is available in a fixed amount and thus is also a constraint. Open space, however, is visibly disappearing at an exponential rate. Once gone, it’s gone, unless, of course, rural communities, and perhaps even cities, are torn down to reclaim it—an unlikely event.
Space was once sacred to indigenous peoples, but today it all seems to have a price and to be coveted for that price. Whether it’s “outer space, inner space, sacred space, forbidden space, your space, or my space, the more removed we are from original participation with space [which includes the sanctity of all space], the more all space will continue to be desecrated,” writes poet Geoffrey Hill.1 So it is that continual economic growth, at the expense of open space, will line the pockets of a few people in the present, but it will ultimately pick the pockets of everyone in the future.
Open space for communal use is not only central to the notion of community but also is increasingly becoming a premium of a community’s continued livability and the stability of its real estate value. For communal open space to have maximum effectiveness over time, a community must have a clear and compelling vision of what it wants so that the following questions can be answered in a responsible and accountable way: (1) What parcels of land are wanted for the communal system of open space? (2) Why are they wanted? (3) What is their functional value: capture and storage of water, habitat for native plants and animals, local educational opportunities, recreation, aesthetics? (4) How well are they connected as habitat? (5) If necessary, are migration corridors possible from one parcel of open space to another? (6) How much land is necessary to fulfill the first five questions? (7) Can one project the value added to the quality of life and/or the consequential value of real estate in the future, including that outside the community’s urban growth boundary?
Thus, while there are multiple reasons why a community might want to save open space, its irreplaceability and value added to community life are critical ones because in the plurality of options saved and passed forward lies the kernel of diversity and choice. Open space, as the non-negotiable constraint around which a community chooses to develop, places the primacy of development on the quality of human relationships to both people and Nature. The ability and commitment to maintain a matrix of open spaces within and surrounding a community are critical to the sustainability of its quality of life (its cultural capacity, which is based on protecting its natural wealth) and ultimately the economic viability of the community, especially a small community in a non-urban setting. A well-designed open-space system determines where both urban development and the transportation system will be located, thereby either protecting or eliminating the land’s ability to capture and store water.
Seventy-five percent of the surface of the Earth is covered with water, but more than 97 percent of it is salt water that makes up the oceans. Another 2 percent was, until recently, frozen in glaciers and the polar icecaps, which means that only 1 percent of the water is available in useable form for life outside of the oceans. In fact, without fresh water from precipitation, even the oceans would become so salty that life in them as we know it would either have to change or become extinct.
More than 70 percent of the human body consists of water. A 1 percent deficiency of water in your body will make you thirsty, a 5 percent deficit will cause a slight fever, and an 8 percent shortage will cause your glands to stop producing saliva and your skin to turn blue; you cannot walk with a 10 percent deficiency, and you die with a 12 percent deficiency. Today, according to United Nations authorities, 9,500 children die every day from lack of water or, more frequently, from diseases that are carried in polluted water.2
Water is a non-substitutable requirement of life, and its source and storage capacity are finite in any given landscape. The availability of water throughout the year will thus determine both the quality of life in a community and consequently the value of real estate. It behooves a community, therefore, to take every measure necessary to maximize and stabilize both the quality and quantity of its local supply of water.
Local supply refers to water catchments under local control, as opposed to water catchments in the local area under the control of an absentee owner with no vested interest in the community’s supply of water. Such absentee ownership could be a person, corporation, government body, or agency beyond local jurisdiction.
Fresh, useable water, once thought to be inexhaustible in supply, is now becoming scarce in many parts of the world, in addition to which worldwide use of water doubled between 1940 and 1980. The per-capita consumption of water is currently rising twice as fast as the human population of the world is growing. Today, 70 percent or more of all potable water is devoted to agriculture, which uses water inefficiently at best, and forecasters predict that additional water will be needed keep pace not only with increases in irrigated agricultural land but also with the burgeoning growth of the human population.
In the western United States, for example, water pumped from deep underground aquifers is today such a valuable commodity that it is often referred to as “sandstone champagne.” Much of North Africa is suffering from droughts that have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee rural areas for low-paying jobs in cities. In Cherrapunji, a town in northern India that receives 1,000 inches of rain annually—the most precipitation in the world—the people walk long distances to get drinking water, limit bathing to once a week, and have trouble irrigating their crops.
Water, not oil, will be the next resource over which nations and factions within nations will go to war. Twenty-two countries are already dependent on the flow of water from sources in other nations. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Middle East, Egypt, and Ethiopia are among the areas with the potential for armed conflict over water. There are even serious disagreements over issues concerning the sharing of water between nations on the best of terms, like Canada and the United States. In addition, China and the western United States may well have internal factions that are willing to compete for water in armed conflict.
“It is no exaggeration to say,” according to Paul Simon, former senator from Illinois, “that the conflict between humanity’s growing thirst and the projected supply of usable, potable water could result in the most devastating natural disaster since history has been recorded accurately, unless something happens to stop it.” That something would have to be far wiser leadership at home and abroad than I have thus far seen in my lifetime.
With this in mind, it is wise for communities to purchase as much of the local water catchments as possible and maintain them as open space expressly for the purpose of capturing and storing water in the ground, where it can purify itself as it flows slowly toward the wells it recharges. This will help prevent those people with wells from needing municipal water, which in turn will assist in maintain a more predictable demand over time. And those people with wells, who do not pay for municipal water, could be charged a fee for using water from the community-owned water catchment as a means of helping defray the costs of maintaining the catchment’s health.
If outright purchase of a water catchment is not possible, a community could conceivably enter into a long-term lease or contract to rent the catchment, with control over what is done on it. Then it might be possible to accrue monthly or annual payments toward the price of purchasing the land at a later date. Such an arrangement could benefit the owner in terms of a steady income at reasonable tax rates, while allowing a sustainable use of the land for the benefit of present and future generations.
Another alternative might be a tax credit payable to the landowner if the community could work in conjunction with the owner to protect the water catchment’s inherent value to the community itself. There are probably other options, but the important consideration is to secure the purchase of local water catchments in community ownership as part of the open space program to maintain and protect the quality of life and the local value of real estate. An added value may be that some part of a water catchment could also be used as recreational space for the community as a whole, as well as islands of quiet amidst the daily bustle of town life.
The past quiet of my hometown is but a memory. Today, there is an increasingly noticeable din from autos, buses, and trucks that seem in perpetual motion at all hours, as well as the rumblings of trains that whistle at the numerous road crossings. If a community designs its system of open spaces to dampen the constant stimulation of urban background noise, people could, for many years to come, find a peaceful quiet in which to relax and hear the songs of birds and the stories of faraway places told by the wind blowing from the Earth’s many exotic places.
The relaxation experienced in a quiet place can be consciously enhanced in an open-space system by including farm- and forestlands, riparian areas, and floodplains as buffers against city noise. I know this is possible because I have experienced it in the beautiful Shinto shrine in downtown Tokyo, Japan, an exceedingly busy city.
The land surrounding a community’s urban-growth boundary gives the community its contextual setting, its ambiance, if you will. The wise acquisition of open spaces in the various components of the surrounding landscape, whether Nature’s ecosystem or culture’s, protects, to some extent at least, the uniqueness of a community’s setting and hence the uniqueness of the community itself. And the value added in the quality of community life, both spiritual and economic, will accrue as the years pass.
© Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.