THE BLOG

Putting Our Parks in Drive

01/06/2016 03:56 EST | Updated 01/06/2017 05:12 EST

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Remember in Big Yellow Taxi, when the legendary Joni Mitchell sang, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot"? If not, you may recall Counting Crows crooning the same sentiment years later in a not-particularly-inspired cover version. (Ugh.)

Anyhow, the song is about tearing down nice things to put up crappy things. Such occurrences take place every day here in Canada, prompting us to shrug our shoulders and mutter something to effect of, "Well, that's progress, I guess."

But here's the intriguing part: progress doesn't always have to be destructive. A while back, when I lived in downtown Toronto, a curious thing happened. Curious because it was literally the opposite of what Mama Joni referenced in her iconic folk ditty. There was an ugly old parking lot at the bottom of my street. And one day, the city decided to level half that lot and convert it into a parkette. Trees, grass, shrubbery -- even a drinking fountain for the neighbourhood's dogs.

They named it Norman Jewison Park, after the iconic film director and producer. It was -- and still is -- pretty darn beautiful. And unexpected too, given that major cities rarely -- if ever -- convert valuable downtown real estate into things that don't generate revenue. (Hence why roughly 80,000,000 condo buildings have sprung up in Toronto over the past decade.)

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I now live in Los Angeles, where a couple of years ago I moved into a building that backed onto a similar-sized park. Pretty sweet deal for a nature-loving urbanite like myself. Unfortunately, the park was boarded up a few months ago. You know, because of 'progress.' I envisioned all sorts of monstrosities that would eventually take its place. A strip mall. A neighbouring rental structure. Or yep, even a dreaded parking lot.

When the dust eventually cleared and the bulldozers sputtered along their merry way, the 'progress' revealed itself. A new, better park. Much better, actually: benches, plants, paths, fresh grass, and outdoor exercise equipment for the community. All a mere block away from one of the most famous corners in the world, where the TCL Chinese Theater meets the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A valuable real estate area? You betcha. And yet a local park somehow got upgraded to local park 2.0.

Let's do some math. In New York City -- which boasts some of the costliest real estate on the planet -- the average price per square foot of property comes in around $1455. There are 27,878,400 square feet in a square mile, and NYC's historic Central Park clocks in at 1.317 square miles. Which by my calculations places the park's value at $55,611,971,130. You know, give or take. That's a buttload of cash to be sure. But here's the thing: Central Park will never be plowed over for condos and parking lots and assorted Walmarts.

Why? Because decades ago, long before climate change, air pollution, and overpopulation were tent pole issues, New York rustled up an unprecedented amount of foresight by choosing to legally protect it. Kind of impressive, no?

Sure, it's unlikely we'll see this level of preservation again in the future. But it's heartening to know communities can sometimes get it right. The key is to keep reminding them to do so. So whether you're a mayor, an urban planner, or just someone looking to spruce up your backyard, it's easy to give into so-called 'progress.' But while doing so, why not steer things toward the dutiful kind of progress? It's never a bad idea to make Joni proud.