28 September 2009

Questions Regarding Symphony Woods

The Columbia Association has put a lot of effort in promoting their plans for Symphony Woods. Through a series of public events, a website, local press, editorials and blog commentaries (here, here, and here) the Cy Paumier design has created a buzz around town. And what’s not to love; bringing sunshine into the park, an interactive fountain for the kids (and kids at heart), a place to have a coffee – maybe a sandwich (day or night). What I have heard, both at a public meeting and among friends and neighbors has been that the design is “nice.” Not amazing, not innovative, but a full-throated “it’s ok.”

What concerns me about the design is not so much the elements presented, but the unanswered questions the design creates.

The first question regarding Symphony Woods is the question of use. Given that Symphony Woods is underutilized, what is the appropriate amount of human activity? The Columbia Association/Cy Paumier plan does not currently address this question. This is not to say that this question has not been asked about parklands and forests. The United States Forest Service has been asking this question since 1936. As recommended reading, the United States Forest Service puts forth the book Parks and Carrying Capacity – Commons Without Tragedy. This book is authored by Robert E. Manning (published 2007) and retails for $35.

Closer to home, the Maryland State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employs the concept of carrying capacity in managing Deep Creek Lake. In their assessment of Deep Creek Lake, DNR defined carrying capacity as follows:

Carrying capacity relates to the ability of the lake or buffer strip to support various uses by people. There are two types of carrying capacity. Social carrying capacity relates to a level of use beyond which the recreational user's expectation of a quality experience is not realized. Physical carrying capacity relates to the level of use which the resource can sustain, beyond which irreversible biological or physical damage occurs to the point that the resource is no longer suitable or attractive for recreational or other uses. The optimum carrying capacity is the level of use that does not exceed an area's physical or social carrying capacity.

Given this rich, and heretofore ignored, field of study, the question regarding Symphony Woods becomes, “What is the optimum carrying capacity of Symphony Woods?” The data related to answering this question is scarce.

Currently, Symphony Woods can be characterized as a wooded parcel, generally in poor condition, which requires continuous maintenance to retain its artificial structure. In the area where the park is planned, the (current) preferred groundcover is grass. The establishment of underbrush and understory tree canopy is actively discouraged; thereby preventing a healthy forest environment.

The only data point known regarding overuse is related to the Wine in the Woods festival. If thousands of people in the woods, over several days, is detrimental to the trees, how many people can visit the park daily without damaging the trees? This question is a subset of the carrying capacity question and has not been answered in any manner by the Columbia Association or the Symphony Woods Park design team.

If there is little data on the environmental carrying capacity of Symphony Woods, there is less data related to social carrying capacity. Social carrying capacity is also more complex, in that if a park drops below a minimum number of people, new visitors may have anxiety entering an empty, or nearly empty park. The effect is that visitors may be discouraged to use the park because, of all things, lack of use. At the opposite end of the spectrum would be a park populated to the point that visitors perceive it as overcrowded and are discouraged from entering.

The social carrying capacity is critical because the proposed design elements are targeted toward increasing the social carrying capacity in Symphony Woods; however, the magnitude of the effects are either not known or not well communicated. John Slater, a member of Cy Paumier’s design team has called the design elements “magnets” that will attract people. The obvious question is, “How strong are those magnets?” How does “magnetic field strength” translate into carrying capacity? If the trees are cleared, the grass planted, the fountain, cafĂ©, and parking lot constructed; will there be enough people attracted to the park to sustain it as a gathering place?

I bring these questions to the table because they speak to the basis of the park design. If the Columbia Association wants to increase usage in Symphony Woods, and the Cy Paumier design brings in a dozen people a day, could that be construed as exceeding expectations? For an improvement of general open space in Columbia, Cy’s plan may be exactly the type of planning needed. Given the location of Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia, it is a very important piece of real estate. For me, the criteria for success would be as follows: At some future date, after the park is constructed I call a friend of mine and we are trying to find a place to get our families together. A place where the adults can hang out and the kids can play. If my friend says to me (or vice-versa) “Why don’t we meet over in Symphony Woods Park? Then the place is a success.

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