Editor’s Note: This is part two in a small series of articles by author James Wisniewski about the important and significance of green spaces in Greenbelt. Read his first article here.
“Perhaps nature is our best assurance of immortality.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
It is easy for us to take Greenbelt’s beauty and green spaces for granted in much of the same way many Washingtonians take the monuments and other DC landmarks for granted. We do so knowing that green spaces are only a short distance away. After the Prince George’s County Council introduced a new zoning ordinance on October 23, 2018 allowing for increased density, increased building height, and less green space, Greenbelt Homes, Inc. (GHI) and the City of Greenbelt acted quickly to get the county to create an exception based on the historical significance of Greenbelt, known as the Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Zone (NCOZ). Due to the complexity of the terminology in the proposed NCOZ, we need to make sure that the regulations:
- Do not allow for the removal of green spaces and
- Keep the integrity of historic Greenbelt intact.
If the NCOZ is approved with terms that allow development in the green spaces that define Greenbelt, it would be accepting and embracing the worst aspects of capitalism. We cannot betray the definition, spirit, and history of Greenbelt. Protecting our green spaces and Greenbelt is a fight that we must take on.
Noted in Kathy D. Knepper’s book “Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal,” Greenbelters have historically fought to keep the city green while simultaneously influencing the rest of the county to do the same: “Greenbelt’s political influence in the county has changed as much as its image. From being almost nil in the 1960s, Greenbelt’s power gradually increased as Greenbelters gained positions in the county power structure. When the results of massive over-development in parts of the county became apparent during the 1980s, the wisdom of Greenbelters began to be appreciated, and the town now has a great deal of influence in planning and zoning process. An insistence on planning and the desire for green space are now county policy.” Greenbelt sought to limit over-development in the 1980s to such an extent that it changed Prince George’s County policy on green spaces!
Knepper goes on to emphasize that there was push-back as many residents in the county and surrounding areas looked upon Greenbelt with disdain, lashing out while we fought to protect the history of our town from further capitalist development: “During the 1960s, when fighting against development, Greenbelters continued to be regarded by outsiders as “kooks and Communists” for not supporting the “American way” and for insisting on being different.”
As Greenbelters, our calling to protect green spaces spans decades. The demand to put our health and green spaces over development isn’t just a Greenbelt issue. New York City fought for just these issues in the 1850s when then-Mayor Ambrose Kingsland proposed setting aside land for Central Park as it was seen as less profitable than other uses in a city growing and with real estate prices on the rise. Developers and city officials debated the practicality of allotting such a large portion of the city to this green space when it could be commercially developed to ”benefit” the city.
One hundred and fifty years later we can see the direct and indirect benefits of such a large green space in an urban setting. Central Park offers the hallmark benefit of green spaces: increased happiness and well-being with decreased levels depression. A Scientific American article noted these benefits are quite significant in their impact: “People who live one standard deviation above the green space mean, as compared to one standard deviation below, experience a decrease in mental distress that is about one-third as large as the difference between being single and being married—and one-tenth as large as that between being unemployed and employed.” Even more interesting they found: “Central Park may well be one of the reasons that New York City now boasts the single fastest increase in life expectancy of any city in the U.S, to the point where its citizens’ average lifespan—82—now equals that of Japan.”
Prince George’s County has labeled Greenbelt “urban” due to its “inside the beltway” location and steered development projects to our doorstep for years with GHI and the City fighting back to preserve our green spaces and the historic features of our community. Clearly our city and its residents have enjoyed green-space benefits similar to those of New York City; we see it every day as people use paths and walkways to get around town, stroll or run around Greenbelt Lake or in Greenbelt National Park, hike GHI’s forest trails, play at one of dozens of playgrounds or fields in the city, or use the city’s outdoor recreational facilities.
Protecting these green spaces not only has a direct impact on our happiness and well-being, but perhaps, like New York City, it is increasing our life-spans and making us healthier. A Harvard School of Public Health study concluded that women living in areas with higher density of green spaces had a lower rate of death than other women. Not only did this study have the same findings as previously-mentioned studies that reported less depression and increased happiness and well-being, it also found lower levels of pollution due to green spaces.
Allowing rezoning for further development will have adverse effects on our health. With Prince George’s County’s air quality receiving a grade of F from the American Lung Association, destruction of our natural resources is not the answer. Putting capitalist gains above environmental impact created climate change and is “making it harder to protect human health,” notes the American Lung Association. In an interview with John Bellamy Foster, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, Mr. Foster states, “In its narrow pursuit of profits, the capitalist system points inexorably to creative destruction.” Once again, we must stand up and demand that our city and county representatives plan for and protect our green spaces and, by extension, us.
Rules permitting higher density in Greenbelt could be dire for its citizens. Just as research notes the importance of green spaces to health, other studies report on the significance of location to health. A 2017 WebMD article by HealthDay reporter Alan Mozes noted that a British study on staying fit found that one’s location has a significant impact on obesity levels if the individual lives close to a gym. The study also found that reducing access to fast-food locations in residential neighborhoods could lessen obesity. Kate Mason of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine noted in the article that the design of one’s neighborhood could improve health: “Designing and planning cities in a way that better facilitates healthy lifestyles may be beneficial and should be considered as part of wider obesity prevention programs.”
Perhaps no one person in Greenbelt’s history embraced the protection of green spaces in our city’s design than the man largely responsible for its existence, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In “Celebrating FDR’s Conservation Legacy,” the National Park Service describe measures he took throughout his life in service of green spaces: “As governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt cited the benefits of forests during a radio address on March 31, 1930. “They protect the headwaters of our rivers and streams, they prevent the too-rapid run-off of rain and melting snow and tend to equalize the flow of streams. They return to the land more than they take from it and maintain its fertility.””
Franklin Delano Roosevelt left a legacy of conservation wherever he served, from governor of New York to President of the United States. Whether it was protecting his home state from deforestation or “[raising] public awareness of the outdoors and the importance of natural resource preservation” FDR sought to expand green spaces, going so far as to create Greenbelt in a verdant natural setting.
Conserving our green spaces through the NCOZ is vital to the City of Greenbelt, its citizens, and Prince George’s County as a whole. As Franklin Roosevelt said: “Men and nature must work hand-in-hand. The throwing out-of-balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men.” Just as the New Deal carried out conservation initiatives and efforts, it was responsible for the creation of the City of Greenbelt. As Central Park defines New York City, so too do our green spaces define Greenbelt; it is right there in our City’s name.
We might be seen as “Kooks and Communists” and selfish by demanding higher quality of life and preserving what we have, but after all it was self-interest which made Central Park a reality. This vision of self-interest is responsible one of the best-known green spaces in an urban landscape. Maria Konnikova in her Scientific American article “Want to be happier and live longer? Protect green spaces” put it best: “If vanity can trump direct commercial motives, perhaps one of the ways toward greener designs and environmental preservation on a broader scale is to appeal to that vanity more directly. Protect nature and you may well find yourself living a longer—and happier—life as a result, through no direct effort of your own.”