Analysis of Green Infrastructure

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Green infrastructure is the component of open space that primarily addresses open space located within the public realm.

WHAT IS GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE

Green infrastructure is all of the other elements that constitute open space not including parks, natural features, schools and trails. Street trees are the most commonly identified element of green infrastructure, but green infrastructure also includes other important components of the public landscape such as gateways, town greens, and public landscapes. The value of green infrastructure to a community is more than just aesthetic, green infrastructure also promotes economic development in commercial areas, increases property values in residential neighborhoods, saves energy, improves air quality and mitigates the impact of stormwater. Green infrastructure creates a synergy between open space, public health and economic development.

In built-out communities like Lower Merion where development primarily consists of high-end infill and higher density downtown/transit redevelopment, the open space provided by green infrastructure is equally as important as the roads, rails and sewers of traditional ‘gray’ infrastructure. If properly designed, the open space/green infrastructure created through higher density redevelopment can easily offset the increased mass, traffic and population by providing important aesthetic, environmental and social benefits.

This Plan identifies several important ways that green infrastructure contributes to the community:

TYPES OF GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE

LINKAGES

Street trees and landscaping are essential to developing attractive and safe linkages between Township amenities. Regularly spaced street trees located between pedestrian trails and roadways improve safety for trail users and drivers by creating a physical barrier between cars and people. Street trees help to define the physical space for pedestrians and help to calm traffic. Attractive, landscaped paths also have higher rates of usage. Street trees and public landscape improvements should be incorporated into the design of all new trails in the Township.

ENHANCE COMMERCIAL AREAS

Creation of public plazas, enhancing public landscaping and adding streetscape improvements is essential to maintaining and revitalizing commercial areas. The Township has made the upgrading of its existing commercial areas a high priority and the Economic Development division utilizes green infrastructure improvements as part of its revitalization strategy.

Ardmore has recently installed streetscape improvements, including street trees and planter boxes and City Avenue and Bryn Mawr are in the process of adding new plantings, banners and pedestrian-scaled amenities. The Township has also identified eight (8) gateways and has installed signage to demarcate the entrances. Gateway signage would be significantly enhanced with additional landscaping.

While all commercial areas of the Township are candidates for regreening, City Avenue, Ardmore and Bryn Mawr each would additionally benefit from the creation of additional public spaces. The Project for Public Spaces, a national, non-profit educational/advocacy organization, identifies the introduction of high-quality, multi-functional public spaces into older downtown areas as one of the most effective ways to ‘turn a place around’. Public spaces in commercial areas have many additional benefits beyond providing green relief. Public plazas enhance the shopping experience and give people a place to gather or meet between shops and restaurants. Well-designed public spaces like those at Suburban Square enhance the shopping environment and create an upscale atmosphere. Finally, public plazas create opportunities for programmed events like movies, concerts or festivals.

PROVIDE GREEN
RELIEF IN UNDERSERVED RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOODS

While Lower Merion as a whole has a large and diverse inventory of open spaces it is unevenly distributed throughout the Township. Generally the parts of the Township in the east and south that have the highest population densities also have the least amount of public green space. Public green space is of extra importance to residents of these neighborhoods because the single-family homes and the multi-family structures are generally on smaller lots, with limited green space.

The Township has long-recognized the need for additional open spaces in these areas of the Township. The 1995 Open Space Plan recommended increasing the number of pocket parks in the more densely developed portions of the Township, such as Belmont Hills, Bala Cynwyd, Merion, Wynnewood and Bryn Mawr. This recommendation was one of the few not implemented, largely due to the lack of available funds and the complexity of identifying, acquiring and constructing new parks in established neighborhoods. Creating new spaces in dense neighborhoods requires both a ‘bottom up’ and a ‘top down’ approach and is only applicable in neighborhoods with strong community support.

While difficult, creating new pocket parks in developed neighborhoods is not impossible. The Township GIS system will facilitate the investigation of potential properties through parcel mapping, aerial photography and property data. And while these neighborhoods are developed they are not fully developed and several vacant or hard to develop properties are scattered throughout. Another alterative involves identifying specific locations, assembling property and clearing for a park. This Plan recommends taking a harder look for possible sites and working with community groups and elected officials to create appropriately designed and scaled new public spaces.

Pocket parks are similar to trails in that they are very flexible in their design and can easily accommodate local conditions. The design program should initiate from the community and meet specific needs such as a tot lot, community garden or bocce court. Sometimes the process of designing a pocket park can do as much to build community as the actual park itself.

PUBLIC SPACES

The residents of Lower Merion have a great deal of pride in their Township and are very active in community affairs. However, for all of the public participation, the Township lacks significant public spaces. The lack of central public spaces in the Township can be attributed to the historic separation between neighborhoods and commercial and cultural amenities areas as well as the predominance of the automobile for personal transportation.

Public spaces, like downtown parks and plazas, serve as central gathering spaces for celebrations, protests or communal mourning. Public spaces should be centrally located and accessible to pedestrians and via public transportation. Public spaces are good for communities and create the public realm necessary for the democratic exchange of ideas. Examples of public spaces in similar suburban communities include nearby Wayne and Morristown, New Jersey. Logical locations for new public spaces include the area around the Township Administration Building or the large municipal parking lot on Lancaster Avenue opposite the Bryn Mawr train station.

PARKS AND RECREATIONAL AREAS

Landscaping and the management of natural areas are essential to the continuance of high-quality parks and recreation areas in the Township. Many of the Township’s parks are older, with mature landscapes and contain significant natural features like streams, wooded slopes and wetlands. Many parks require significant attention to their natural features to stabilize stream banks, control invasives and address deer damage as called for in their master plans. The Township has a Parks crew dedicated to maintaining natural features. These natural areas are the green legacy of the Township and their continued maintenance is important.

SHADE TREES

Shade trees provide the leafy-green component that characterizes Lower Merion’s residential neighborhoods. The Township takes shade trees and other trees very seriously and their preservation and establishment is incorporated into every development application by Township staff. The Board of Commissioners as a matter of policy routinely requires new trees to be added and existing large trees to be preserved as conditions of approval on all new development applications.

The Shade Tree Commission, consisting of nine residents and several members of the Township staff, has exclusive custody and control of all trees on Township property and is authorized to plant, remove, maintain and protect all shade trees on public streets and highways, as well as all trees in Township parks and parking lots. The Commission routinely enlists the participation of the civic associations in the Township. Recent tree planting programs are excellent examples of how effective the associations can be in providing help in their own neighborhoods.

Despite the Township’s continued diligence, many areas of the Township are threatened with a significant loss of tree cover in coming years as existing street trees reach maturity and begin to decline. Since the 1930’ the Township has required that street trees be planted as part of all residential construction, however since nearly 70% of the Township’s housing stock was built prior to 1959 many of these trees are reaching the end of their lifespan and need to be replenished.

The declining urban forest is not just a local problem facing Lower Merion, but a regional one as well. In March 2003, the USDA Forest Service and American Forests, Inc, in collaboration with Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) released a study estimating the 5-county Philadelphia region has lost 5 million trees over the past 15 years1. The study equated the loss of tree cover with increased stormwater runoff, lower air quality and increased energy costs. The study concluded that the percentage of tree cover corresponds to the social and economic health of communities and that tree cover is integral to maintaining and improving quality of life in the communities.

This section contains maps showing the percentage of tree cover by census tract for all of Montgomery County and Lower Merion. These maps indicate that Lower Merion has some of the highest levels and lowest levels of tree cover in the County. Of particular concern are neighborhoods with less than 25% tree cover, which includes West Ardmore, East Ardmore, Bala and parts of Penn Wynne.

While these neighborhoods are currently facing critical levels of reduced tree cover many other neighborhoods in the Township may face similar loss of tree cover in coming years. Clearly, the Township must make a more concerted effort to plant more trees to offset this potential crisis.

The problem of declining tree cover is the result that not enough new trees are being planted to replace those that are lost or will soon be lost. According to the Township Arborist, the Township is currently staffed with the ability to plant 100 new trees a year. This limits the ability of the Township to plant additional trees and also maintain the existing inventory.

In light of increasing issues involving stormwater and impervious surface, street trees are more important than ever to the physical health of the Township. Many of the trees that are being lost are street trees planted between the sidewalk and curb or planted close to the curb where no sidewalks exist. Large shade trees along the street help to mitigate the impact of stormwater on the street and reduce flooding. However in recent years many of these trees are not being replaced because of maintenance concerns of homeowners or are being replaced with smaller ornamentals, which do not produce the same stormwater benefits. The Shade Tree Commission should review current policy in light of this problem.

The scope and scale of green infrastructure needs and projects in the Township will only increase in coming years as the tree inventory ages, the trail network is implemented and as revitalization happens throughout commercial areas.

GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE OPPORTUNITIES

ESTABLISH A TOWNSHIP-WIDE
COMMUNITY GREENING COORDINATOR

The Township is approaching a “tipping-point” in regard to its green infrastructure. Lower Merion’s urban forest of street trees has reached maturity and will begin to rapidly decline over the next generation. Simply put, if current practices remain, many more trees will be removed than planted and the lush green canopy that defines large sections of the Township will be lost.

Currently Green Infrastructure is addressed ad-hoc and is the responsibility of several departments and advisory bodies, including the Environmental Advisory Council, Shade Tree Commission, and Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and Building and Planning Departments. While each department or body functions well in performing their own tasks, the Township lacks the comprehensive vision and coordination necessary to address the scope of the issue confronting the Township.

Realistically addressing this will require more than just increasing staff levels and may involve creating a Community Greening Coordinator similar to programs undertaken by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) in Center City and University City Philadelphia (Philadelphia Green and University City Green). Both of these areas have significantly benefited from a dedicated coordinator who is able to work with municipal agencies and community groups in reforesting and regreening vast areas of these neighborhoods.

The University Green organization operates with technical assistance from PHS, but receives the majority of its funds from grants and private foundations. University City Green has planted 200 new trees and sponsored numerous greening projects and workshops since it was established in 2004. Trees are planted with volunteer labor supervised by trained staff or volunteers. Trees are tended with watering, mulching and selective pruning until they become established. The benefits to the community are enormous, not only are more trees planted, but the act of tree planting also helps to build and educate the community. Because of the high levels of citizen participation, private support for cultural activities and green ethic, Lower Merion is ideally positioned to replicate this type of program.

A Community Greening Advocate could be established as either a Township staff position or through the creation of a non-profit. Such an agency could work with Township staff, citizen groups, state and county agencies and the business community in fundraising and implementation. There are numerous small urban forestry grants and opportunities available. Recently the Township Building and Planning Department was able to secure a grant for approximately 115 trees for the Bala area to be administered by the Neighborhood Club. However, many other opportunities are missed because they slip under the scope or priorities of the current arrangement.

By focusing on small-scale neighborhood–based projects a Community Greening Advocate would have the ability to solve the difficult issue of street trees on private property. Township staff is reluctant to advise and is generally prohibited from performing work on private property. However many street trees in the Township are located just outside the public right-of-way. Public education, outreach and assistance is required to ensure that appropriate species of shade trees are planted in these locations rather than smaller ornamentals.

Additionally a Community Greening Advocate would have the ability to develop a Township-wide green infrastructure plan that addressed the need to upgrade landscaping in commercial areas and along the public right-of-way. These are long-term community needs to ensure the quality of the public realm.

REGREENING OPPORTUNITIES

Regreening Map

GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE AND MONTGOMERY COUNTY OPEN SPACE FUNDS

The County program permits up to 20% of a Township’s open space allocation to be used for green infrastructure. Due to current green infrastructure conditions, it is recommended that the Township consider investing a significant percentage of available funds or establishing a specific number of street trees to be planted over several years. Realistically, this project should be phased to accommodate current staff levels or may be accelerated if private contractors are employed.

(Footnotes)

1 Summary provided by Tree Vitalize website - http://www.treevitalize.net


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