Friday, February 15, 2008

Greenbelts for Grandchildren

February 20, 2008, 6:30 a.m.

[Note: In the course of exploring possibilities for a "Greenbelt" around the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids "Corridor," I was surprised and impressed to discover both the numbers, and the diversity, of individuals and organizations already working to preserve Iowa's land for future generations. This is a major movement!

I'm still a believer in the multiple values of Greenbelts, but I also see the contribution to be made by a Web site of resources for those working on related efforts. The newly-created GO IOWA! (Great Outdoors of Iowa, is that resource -- a regularly updated collection of relevant news stories, listing of organizations and agencies, along with background information about Greenbelts.

Check it out. -- N.J.]

Now here's an op ed column from this morning's [Feb. 20] Iowa City Press-Citizen with some observations about this exciting popular movement.

Preserving for Our Grandchildren

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2008, p. A13

Conservative Christians and political liberals, animal rights advocates and hunters, farmers and realtors, bicyclists and bird watchers, golfers and environmentalists, regulators and libertarians, wealthy and poor, academics and entrepreneurs, young and old.

What do these Iowans have in common?

A surprisingly diverse array of individuals have independently come to the same conclusion: We need to do something, now, to preserve Iowa's natural resources.

The Johnson County Heritage Trust already has purchased and put aside five substantial areas. Friends of Hickory Hill Park have raised more than $100,000. The Johnson County Conservation Board is considering a $20 million bond issue to preserve more land. The new GO IOWA! (Great Outdoors of Iowa, Web site lists more than 60 such organizations.

And yet in spite of their efforts, Iowa still ranks 47th to 49th among the 50 states in acreage, funding and percentage of preserved public land.

There's something about having great-grandchildren to get a fellow thinking a little further into the future. What will be left of Eastern Iowa's natural resources in 2058 and beyond? How many trees to reduce our carbon footprint and global warming? Trails? Recreational land? Forests? Family farms? Clean lakes and streams? Wildlife?

Is it too late? Is our land already too expensive to save?

That was the question confronting some New York legislators in 1853. New York City's population had nearly quadrupled since 1821. It was a terrible time to buy land with prices at an all-time high. The 700 acres they wanted would cost $5 million -- then an extraordinary amount of public money. But in a triumph of foresight over political fear they did it. Today we call it "Central Park," and this gem of Manhattan has increased 100,000 times in value to something over $500 billion -- a half-trillion dollars!

The opportunities confronting Johnson and Linn Counties today are no less politically challenging --and potentially rewarding.

There are two parallel and mutually consistent paths to our stewardship of Iowa's land. One is to continue what we're doing and create more open spaces wherever we can:

• wildlife habitats,

• parks,

• urban boundaries,

• wetlands,

• set asides,

• golf courses,

• smart growth and

• trails and prairies.
Whether from private gifts, voluntary sales, zoning, use of land trusts or the proposed bond issue, every plot helps, no matter how small.

The second path is to "think outside the corridor" about something called "greenbelts."

Greenbelts are an idea that has been contributing ecological value, economic growth and quality of life to communities around the world for nearly 200 years. As the name suggests, it refers to a swath of land, a "green belt," surrounding an urban area -- such as our Iowa City-to-Cedar Rapids corridor.

One of the first was in Adelaide, Australia, in the early 19th Century. Greenbelts really took off in Britain in the 1940s, doubling in acreage during the 1980s to 3.8 million acres, some 12 percent of all the land in England.

Greenbelts help to clean the air and water while holding the soil, reduce greenhouse gases, provide unlimited recreational opportunities of all kinds, preserve family farms, increase real estate values both inside and outside the greenbelt and serve as an unbelievable magnet in attracting new, clean businesses.

Greenbelts -- plus urban growth by "building up instead of out" -- are much more rewarding and economical than urban sprawl for cities, their taxpayers, businesses and homeowners.

A corridor greenbelt won't be easy. It will require lots of planning, education, politicking and compromising. Like New York's Central Park, it will cost some money -- although, also like Central Park, a lot less today than 150 years from now.

Meanwhile, there's a new Web site available to provide us some resources and a little coordination for what we're already doing, and what we may do in the future. It's called GO IOWA! (Great Outdoors of Iowa), with links to organizations (if yours isn't there, let us know) and the media coverage of their activities. It also has background on greenbelts, and suggestions of what you can do.

Check out
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and contributes to GO IOWA!, and

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