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Really Go Green –Build Urban Parks!

Lee Walton

Last week, after a downtown business meeting and with a few minutes to spare, I drove to White Point Gardens and parked to watch one of the larger Tall Ships enter the Harbor for this past weekend’s Maritime Festival. As I gazed about the park that I remembered playing in as a young boy, something seemed missing from the majestic canopy of old Live Oaks that shaded this still beautiful, albeit now shop-worn creation of Olmstead’s genius. It took a few minutes until realizing that there wasn’t a hand-full of moss (Spanish Moss – neither Spanish nor moss, but an epiphyte) to be seen anywhere. Later while driving around the Lower Peninsula, I began consciously searching for any sign of this commonplace vegetation that still graces and accentuates most mature oak canopies throughout the more rural settings of the Lowcountry. One can’t help but be impressed by the beautiful old gray beard oaks that still line most heavily wooded roadways throughout the Sea Islands and surrounding rural landscapes south of Charleston. Ever the curious, I called an acquaintance who was in the landscape business and asked why there was no longer any Spanish Moss in the Peninsula. His answer was short and to the point – air pollution.

Spanish Moss obtains all of its moisture and nourishment from the same air we breathe. With no other source to sustain this distant relative of epiphytic orchids, it is very susceptible to increased urban air pollution, especially the by-products of the internal combustion engine, particularly hydrocarbon emissions. The presence or absence of Spanish Moss is an excellent local indicator of relative air quality, particularly the higher concentrations of what are now labeled as greenhouse gases. This wispy gray little plant functions not unlike the proverbial “Canary in the Mine Shaft” as an early warning indicator of hazardous urban air quality in southern cities.

There’s a simple lesson that the absence of Spanish Moss in the Peninsula and the City’s denser suburbs can teach Charleston’s own World Class city planners, one that big city dwellers throughout the world have learned all too well. High building and population densities equate directly to increased air pollution and the increased risk of respiratory distress and other health complications, particularly in the very old and very young.

Charleston and its all-too-often reelected Mayor and sycophantic Council need to give more than election-year lip service and polemic rhetoric to the issue of global warming and the reduction of greenhouse gases. Before they cajole all of us into changing Edison’s incandescent bulbs for poisonous mercury laden CFB’s (compact fluorescent bulbs) or claim that finally replacing the failing mechanical systems at the Gaillard Auditorium was an award winning energy conservation effort worthy of another tin star, our lustrous leaders need to pause and consider the unanticipated consequences of high-density infill development and redevelopment throughout the Peninsula.

Instead of buying swampland for a park in Long Savannah from a deal-estate development crony with our hard earned half-cent sales taxes, why not redevelop some of the last remaining undeveloped urban property into meaningful urban parks that will mitigate the current trend to build on every square inch downtown? Without the cooling effects of evapotranspiration from healthy, abundant, large and well-landscaped urban parks, the Peninsula will become a stifling, polluted asphalt and concrete covered “heat sink” absent of shade and cooling breezes except for the few isolated strips of green bordering its periphery.

Charleston’s current urban redevelopment strategy is counter-productive to the reduction of greenhouse emissions, because it increases coal-fired energy consumption by increasing dependency upon an air-conditioned environment to comfortably survive. Absent are redeveloped neighborhoods with vegetated yards, gardens and densely shaded canopies of evergreens– all sacrificed to satisfy the misguided visions of a despot and his handpicked court of jesters. Mercy!

Your Comments:

Lee,

Your assertion that "high building and population densities equate directly to increased air pollution and the increased risk of respiratory distress and other health complications" is misguided. High building and population density does not produce these side effects. Rather, it is the methods of energy production and transportation historically associated with high building and population density that is the direct cause of air pollution and respiratory disease.

As more people continue to choose to live in metropolitan areas than ever before, the methods of producing energy become paramount, not the density of people nor the height of buildings. Couple this migration to urban centers with growth control policies and you're left with these options: build to accommodate greater density or close the gates.

If we close the gates (there weren't any last time I checked), development pressures will eventually erode the growth control measures meant to preserve the surrounding greenbelt.

Building to accommodate higher density will require drastic changes to methods of energy production, distribution, and consumption to preserve and enhance the quality of urban life. Currently, this country is lagging far behind in making progress to that end.

It is not an issue of building higher or lower. It is about building smarter and more sensitively.

Best,

Tommy

Posted by: Tommy Manuel at May 22, 2007 08:51 AM

While I agree with your complaint about air pollution and its connection with automobile traffic, I disagree with some of your assertions. Spanish Moss is readily visible along many streets downtown. This afternoon, during a short bicycle ride, I saw it on the campus of Cof C, along King Street (particularly at the Library Society), on Tradd Street, on Meeting Street (St. Michael's no less), and on Anson Street for almost an entire block above Motley. While my limited survey is by no means conclusive, there are large concentrations of the plant scattered around the city. Doing some research, I found that a large percentage of the plant was killed off by an invasive mold in the 1970's, which is why there is not as much as you may remember from your childhood. I do not dispute that the plant is harmed by air pollution, but one must be careful not to make correllation causation; ie. polluting cars are killing off the moss, it could be argued that the industrial boom on the peninsula during the late 19th C. created vastly larger amounts of air pollution - not to mention all the coal and wood fires in the hearths and kitchens of the city at that time.

I do agree that auto traffic contributes to the destruction of the city - the vibrations of heavy trucks destroy our foundations,and the soot from the city buses blankets my house (I wash it 2x a year).

In closing, perhaps the city would be wiser to restrict the pollution at the source by either limiting autos downtown, or by creating emission standards for them (since the State doesn't). In order to get a residential parking permit (or taxi license), perhaps an auto must also pass an emissions test - how hard would that be?

The irony of complaining about increasing urban density is that density actually increases energy efficiency and decreases waste of natural resources. People who live close together have less need to hop into an auto at all, and larger buildings have greater thermal mass, meaning they are easier to maintain at comfortable temperatures than smaller independent buildings.
Roy

Posted by: Lee Roy Brandon III at May 24, 2007 02:11 PM

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