Leapfrogging to a sense-of-place inventory

Nov. 09, 2013 @ 12:32 PM

In 1987, shortly before I was recruited to jump start the community’s marketing arm, Durham conducted its first inventory of natural assets focused on natural areas and rare plant species.

This was prescient because Durham is the fourth largest city in North Carolina shoehorned into the 17th smallest county by the same name.  Over the next decade it was the fastest growing in the state.

An inventory was completed on wildlife habitats, corridors and rare animal populations in 1995.  In 1999 the two inventories were deepened, broadened and combined into the “Durham County Inventory of Important Natural Areas, Plants and Wildlife.”

It seems desperately in need of an update because analysts in a collaboration between RENCI and UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute computed that between 1976 and 2005, Durham converted 2.5 acres a day into development including impervious surface, a pace eight times faster than population growth.

The researchers also modeled that Durham will develop another 3.91 acres a day between 2006 and 2040, increasing the human footprint in this 299-square-mile land area by another 46 percent and outpacing the surrounding 16-county Triangle area.

Natural asset inventories are development tools and they assist communities and developers who care about communities in making informed decisions about the natural aspect of why people are drawn to live there.

To see how the natural asset data is useful, anyone can visit the website of the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program (NHP) where it is stitched together statewide or searchable by county or by a radius from a specific address.

In Durham, urban forestry falls under General Services and under separate ordinances from those governing trees and vegetation as part of community planning.  To its credit, Durham City-County Planning maintains a through 194-page “Landscape Manual for Durham, North Carolina.”

The manual is a resource to guide residents, developers, commercial locations and ostensibly other Durham city and county agencies on appropriate trees, plants and horticultural practices for this community including detailed lists of native vs. non-native species.

Durham urban forestry and landscape officials are an odd fit in some ways for city’s General Services Department which, try as it may, is tradition-bound to focus on building and maintaining public facilities.

Even a long overdue inventory of its facilities is reportedly neglecting to also evaluate the status of surrounding grounds and green infrastructure, which includes overall appearance and curb appeal, signaling a low priority to residents who overwhelmingly view it otherwise.

If anyone can successfully integrate these areas, it is the extremely capable director Joel Reitzer, but overall appearance touches so many parts of both the city and county strategic plans it begs a much more overarching approach.

For some time now, Durham urban foresters have voiced the need for an urban forest inventory.  By that they don’t mean a best-practice inventory of urban forest on both public and private land but just the trees along public right-of-ways, in parks and around public facilities.

However, according to the 2010 report “Sustaining America’s Urban Trees and Forests”  “the term urban forest refers to all publicly and privately owned trees within an urban area -- including individual trees along streets and in backyards, as well as stands of remnant forest.”

When and if a more holistic approach ever evolves for Durham resource, experts will find a fascinating and useful tree inventory, broken down specifies by species in the 1999 Durham County inventory of natural areas and corridors.

Lending a sense of urgency should be the fact that tree canopy in Durham’s urban tier (basically the area where it is feasible to run sewer and water) has shrunk to just percent.

To me this hints that urban forests should have been inventoried back in the 1990s along with Durham’s other natural assets.  The fact that there is still debate over a narrow vs. holistic interpretation shows how much this element of green infrastructure has been shorted.

Hopefully, part of the solution will be found in a new multi-agency initiative called “Trees Across Durham” spearheaded by the joint City-County Office of Sustainability.  Duke University is participating with an eye to carbon offsets to meet its own goals.

When Durham does get back on top of its natural assets and green infrastructure, it could become a leader as it is in so many areas by expanding such an inventory to also include scenic assets such as viewsheds and other valuable attributes threatened by blight.

Sense of place must be nurtured and protected as much from generic development as from blight.  It involves gardening natural assets as well as built assets and cultural assets.

Maybe an overarching approach then would be a “sense-of-place inventory” that identifies not only areas for preservation but aspects at risk.

The one advantage of coming from behind is that you get to take a leap forward.

Reyn Bowman is the retired CEO of the Durham Convention and Vistors Bureau and a 40-year veteran of community-destination marketing.  This originally appeared on his blog, http://www.bullcitymutterings.com/.