Saturday, October 20, 2007

Downtown Greening

Roger Birkel of Selby Gardens recently wrote a letter to the editor (SHT) concerning a proposed Sarasota Green Policy:

As President of Selby Gardens, and a neighbor of downtown Sarasota, I have had the good fortune to work with many fine citizens interested in the creation of a vibrant downtown business district.

As merchants, developers, residents, and visitors, they share a vision of downtown that is a dynamic and thriving heart of the community, a place to conduct business, to shop, to dine, a place where people gather in the daytime or evening to socialize, a place that draws tourists and residents from our neighborhoods to enjoy a special moment in a beautiful urban environment. Downtown Sarasota can sing with beauty and purpose, and enhance the quality of life for the entire community.

I believe there is a window of opportunity right now to approach the future of downtown Sarasota with vision and creativity and cooperation, to implement the dream we all share.

Success will depend upon many things, but at its most basic level it will be a sense of aesthetics, of “place making,” that drives our urban renaissance. To put it simply, people will gather in places that are beautiful and comfortable.

The human experience cries out for a connection to nature. We are more comfortable when surrounded by “green”.

At Selby Gardens I see this basic truth played out everyday.

However, in many people’s minds there exists a dichotomy between the built environment and the natural environment. One is bare, hard, hot, and alienating, while the other is lush, cool and comfortable.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Great cities of distinction like Chicago and Toronto are showing that it is possible to combine the two and create magnificent destinations.

And there are added benefits to increasing the prevalence of parks, plantings, trees, green walls and green roofs in the core of downtown Sarasota. Vegetation cools the air, slows rainwater runoff, absorbs carbon dioxide, produces oxygen, offers habitat, and improves the aesthetic quality. What more can you ask?

There is one more thing that we can and should ask. Developers, planners, business owners and others often voice a concern that green design compromises the merchant’s prerogative.
Can a downtown sidewalk accommodate a merchant’s need for seating and visibility and be a greenscape at the same time?

Recent studies show that trees, and greenscape in general, increase people’s positive perception of central business districts, causing them to stay longer and spend more. Wouldn’t it benefit everyone if we collaborate to ensure that the addition of plantings does not hinder a merchant’s success but in fact increases profitability?

At present, the addition of paving and hardscape to our main downtown streets is the default strategy in the City of Sarasota Downtown Master Plan. The term “urban character” is used to advocate a reduction in greenery of all kinds. This should not be so.

We must strive for the best in urban design and living. When coupled with our continuing commitment to our spectacular and precious natural environment, we will realize a community that supports all of our citizens and neighborhoods, indeed all life, in the best possible way.

Roger Birkel
The writer is president and CEO of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

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