If you live in one of Missouri's rural counties, you probably never think about green space. After all, nature surrounds you. You see fields and forests out your windows, dodge wild animals on drives to the market or school, have skunks living beneath your outbuilding and are frustrated by rabbits nibbling your broccoli and raccoons stripping your corn.
Try to imagine a world where nature is not so close at hand. Think of not hearing songbirds or seeing deer, of not having peaceful places to walk or of having to look at billboards and sales flyers to track the changing seasons. When you don't possess it, green space becomes a pretty valuable commodity.
Nearly half of Missouri's residents live in places where green space doesn't occur naturally. That's an odd way of saying that high population densities usually result in development that shunts nature aside, replacing woods with asphalt, confining streams to concrete runways and filling open fields with buildings that block the sun and the view of the horizon.
Such development exacts a terrific toll on animals. The few species, such as deer, squirrels and raccoons, that are able to eke out a living in the alleys and backyards of the city usually overpopulate and cause problems. Those that can't adapt move beyond the developed areas, where they have to compete with animals already living there. Some may survive; most of them probably do not.
A lack of green space can be hard on people, too. Something in our spirit seems to require at least some contact with nature. Even in this modern world, we still would rather walk on grass or dirt than concrete, are attracted to the antics of birds and squirrels and are soothed by gurgling rivers. Without some contact with nature, we feel caged and somehow incomplete.
City dwellers rank parks and green space high on their list of quality-of-life ingredients. The most talented workers--those who can choose among job offers--concentrate in urban areas where they can keep in touch with the outdoors. Cities that include plenty of open space in their design attract businesses smart enough to know that nearby natural oases prove a "perk" that attracts and holds the best employees.
In a recent survey, owners of small companies named recreation/parks/open space the most important factor in choosing new locations for their businesses, and people listed proximity to parks and trails among the top considerations when choosing a place to live.
Proof of the value of parks, greenways and trails can be found in the amount that people use them. Green space offers city residents a place to gather, to refresh, to exercise, to play. These areas fill up on evenings, weekends and lunch hours.
Conversion to green space doesn't "waste" otherwise valuable property. Most studies show that parks and greenways increase nearby property values enough to offset any added valuation that might have come from wedging apartment buildings or shopping areas into those areas. In fact, including green space has been proven to be essential to the successful economic and social revitalization of downtown areas and neighborhoods.
The Conservation Department has worked diligently to provide city residents with more green space. Missouri's large metropolitan areas include conservation nature centers and conservation areas, where people can learn about nature or simply enjoy it. We also work closely with communities throughout the state to provide fishing and other outdoor recreation at urban lakes.
Making sure you have enough green space is also your responsibility. Speak up for greenbelts and open space at local government meetings. Don't let development occur without being challenged to leave niches for people and wildlife. Rally for parks, ponds and gardens.
Insist on green space as your right and your requirement. Let city officials and planning and zoning boards know how much you value it.
Tom Cwynar, Editor