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Put stimulus money into parks and watch it grow

The federal plan fails to designate funds for metropolitan parks that could be a source of jobs and green projects. That has to change.

March 19, 2009|Larry Agran | Larry Agran is mayor pro tem of Irvine and the chairman of the Orange County Great Park Corp.

President Obama's commitment to protect our environment, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in new green technologies is evident in the details of the $787-billion federal stimulus plan. Billions of dollars are allocated to programs that will clean our air and water, fund renewable- energy generation, subsidize alternative-fuel vehicles and build clean mass transit.

However, one crucial piece of our nation's green infrastructure is largely overlooked in the stimulus plan: metropolitan parks. More than half a billion dollars of stimulus funds are designated for improvements to our national parks, and that is wonderful. But there is no money specifically designated for our metropolitan parks -- an oversight that must be corrected.

Our cities never outgrow their need for such parks, as underscored by the recent announcement that Los Angeles has created a plan for a magnificent Civic Center Park that would stretch from City Hall to the major cultural institutions on Bunker Hill.

Looking back at the creation of Central Park in New York, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Griffith Park in Los Angeles, they share a history that is common to many great metropolitan parks. They were developed in growing urban areas during the latter part of the 19th century. Each was created by visionary civic leaders for the express purpose of providing a "green lung" for their respective cities -- a place where the public could escape from the pressures of city life into an oasis of beautiful trees, peaceful lakes and green meadows.

During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration -- two of the most successful New Deal programs in terms of employment and economic stimulus -- were heavily involved with park development. In California, the CCC was active in the national and state parks. The WPA constructed projects at Golden Gate Park, Griffith Park and Balboa Park in San Diego.

In his 1938 "Report on the Progress of the WPA Program," the legendary Harry Hopkins, one of President Franklin Roosevelt's most trusted advisors, wrote, "The development of parks and other recreational facilities under the WPA program is about as important in terms of either expenditures or employment as is the work on public buildings."

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That legacy, sometimes called Nature's New Deal, is relevant today as the federal government seeks to boost employment and jump-start the economy by funding "shovel ready" public works projects in 2009 and 2010.

In Orange County, we are beginning development of the Orange County Great Park. This project is the centerpiece of the redevelopment of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Spanning more than 1,300 acres, the park will be nearly twice the size of Central Park and includes cutting-edge environmental design features that will set a new standard for sustainable park design, renewable energy, water conservation and habitat restoration.

To fully understand the potential economic impact the Great Park holds for Orange County and Southern California, Economic Research Associates conducted an analysis of the public and private development activity in and around the park for the next 12 years.

The study reports that this year alone, planning, construction and other activity associated with building the Great Park could result in 6,317 jobs in Southern California, increasing to 31,532 jobs in 2020. Much of the preliminary work could be started in the next several months.

These projects include a "solar farm" providing renewable energy to the park and surrounding communities, a natural water treatment system with regional benefits for water quality, and a multi-modal transit system using alternative-fuel vehicles within the park and connecting to Amtrak and Metrolink service at the Irvine Transportation Center.

I am confident that many of the Great Park's "green projects" will end up qualifying for federal stimulus dollars in the areas of transit, transportation, renewable energy production and water-quality improvement. National, state and local government officials throughout the United States should take a close look at metropolitan parks as a logical place to invest federal stimulus dollars.

This strategy helped lead our nation's recovery during the Depression and left an impressive legacy of magnificent public spaces for tens of millions of Americans to enjoy. And it can again.

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