From The San Diego Union Tribune
by Richard Louv
On the first page of “Canyonlands: The Creation of a San Diego Regional Canyonlands Park” appears a curious juxtaposition of two graphic images.
One is a depiction of a set of human lungs, with stem branches, lobes, trachea and bronchi. Directly below this image is a satellite view of Mission Valley, revealing the bronchi and branches of San Diego's urban canyons lacing outward through the region's vast watershed.
“Our canyons bring us nourishment, maintain our health and ventilate our lives. They are our lungs and bronchial tubes,” according to the report produced by San Diego Civic Solutions, a collection of business and grass-roots leaders. The white paper will be presented at tomorrow's “Greening the City” symposium, sponsored by the local chapter of Partners for Livable Places.
Comparing our canyons to lungs is no exaggeration, not to anyone who understands their natural role in cleaning our air and preventing flooding and providing a natural water filtration system that would cost billions to replicate; they offer breathing room for wildlife and people; they connect our neighborhoods, towns and cities; they nurture the region's spirit. No other city in the world can claim such a unique topology.
“The idea (is to create) a visionary open space park ... a framework for our region ... a green infrastructure for the future – a necessity, not a luxury,” according to the proposal, which recommends that most canyons would be open to the public, while the most ecologically sensitive canyons would become plant and wildlife preserves.
“This is the time to create the Canyonlands Park,” the authors write. “We will not have another opportunity to create a coherent open space framework for the region.”
This proposal (to be posted at www.sdcivicsolutions.com) summarizes several years of work, including two public charettes and dozens of meetings by Civic Solutions, Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, the San Diego Design Council, Partners for Livable Communities – and Friends of the Canyons groups, sponsored by the Sierra Club, which adopt canyons in their own neighborhoods, haul out trash, remove invasive species, and, in the absence of city maintenance and security personnel, patrol the canyons.
The challenges are considerable. Aerial and satellite photos reveal hundreds of miles of canyons; ownership is sometimes unclear and the canyonland classification is vague.
Among the threats: channelization of creeks; expansion of water, sewer and power lines; utility roads and bridges; languished funding for open space maintenance; encroachment by new housing and businesses; and a school district that would rather grade, say, the 32nd Street canyon into a flat playing field than use it for teaching – though studies show outdoor classrooms improve test scores in science and math.
Thus the necessity of creating one entity, the San Diego Regional Canyonlands Park, which would send this message: If you hurt one canyon, you hurt them all.
The canyonlands proposal for a public/private partnership calls for a variety of funding mechanisms, including grant writing to nonprofit groups and federal and state government agencies, private capital campaigns, alongwith fees and assessment districts.
“For canyons not already in the public realm, incentives could be offered such as tax relief for property owners that provide conservation and public access easements,” according to the report. (Not incidentally, property values adjacent to parks are usually enhanced.) In addition, the application of Transfer Development Rights could help divert development away from canyons to “more agreeable areas.”
The ongoing benefits of saving the canyons would be enormous: natural drainage and protection of the bay from runoff pollution; visual, psychological and physical relief; educational opportunities; habitat preservation; ecotourism (birding is now big business); more pedestrian links; and the enhanced character of surrounding neighborhoods.
Does San Diego have the political will to create such a park in the current era of civic retrenchment? Maybe. Historically, big city mayors and other officeholders hope to leave some sign of their passage more visible, decades into the future, than a balanced budget. Today, expensive brick and mortar won't do.
But our canyons already exist. As hawks circle above and the scent of sage drifts into our neighborhoods, these trachea and bronchi already breathe for us. To survive, they need signage, observation platforms and people power.
In 1868, San Diego civic leaders set aside 1,400 acres for Balboa Park. Today we have the chance to create a regional park every bit as important.
A San Diego Regional Canyonlands Park would be one of the longest-lasting gifts we could give to future generations. The most important thing to do now is to declare it so, and the future will come.