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Contemplating the Urban Oasis

keywest Harry Truman solved his problem. Seeking escape from the "White Prison" of Washington, D.C., he discovered the Little White House on Key West in 1946 as his oasis from the international post-WWII storms, political gamesmanship and scandal that roiled his first term as Roosevelt's successor.

He never liked the White House and its trappings, and endured more than his fair share of criticism as president while making critical and accountable decisions during years of crisis. "If you want a friend in Washington," Truman was to have said, "get a dog." After his initial foray to Key West in 1946 for doctor-prescribed R&R, he spent 175 days there during his 2nd term, mostly working in the company of aides and dignitaries, with an occasional poker game with the boys and a fishing trip when his wife and daughter visited.

Harry Truman understood the importance of down time. Between today's constant 24/7 pull of the Internet, social media, "breaking" news updates and demands for professional service and work deadlines, I find myself having a greater need for time spent alone, with family or in the company of friends in some type of public open space setting. The trouble is, it's getting harder to take the big two-week vacation, unplug and disconnect in some wonderful or remote setting. And the long, stressful days leading up to and immediately after that big event make it barely worthwhile. Rather, I've come to appreciate much more the snippets of time over a weekend or on a day here, half day there basis relaxing and recharging in some contemplative urban oasis amid dense foliage, rippling streams, walking paths and strong on-shore breezes perfectly made for contemplation.

Valuing Open Space

We often think of cities as great gathering places offering high levels of accessibility for people to interact and innovate by sharing ideas. But in addition to creating walkable, transit-oriented places, an important part of making cities livable is access to public parks and natural spaces. There is a growing body of research showing that public parks and open space reduce stress, improve health and contribute to economic prosperity of neighborhoods and local governments. While factors like distance and level of maintenance matter, a typical example is a recent study conducted in Greenville, SC, which found that small and medium parks have a positive influence on neighboring property values. This, in turn, can result in higher assessments and thus higher property tax revenues for local governments, potentially off-setting the capital and maintenance cost of greenways, parks and the like. It's certainly wise to try to monetize such benefits in this era of fiscal accountability, but let's not overlook the social and personal value of creating places for people to appreciate nature, get away from the constant marketing and the impersonal institutional surroundings of our daily lives. We all need our escapes.

The Morikami Experience

Buddha in repose at Morikami Gardens

A short drive west from I-95 in Delray Beach, FL amid sprawling six-lane roads and gated suburban enclaves, you'll find The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. Dedicated in 1975 and maintained by the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department, the Morikami features 200 acres of scenic vistas, walking trails traversing six distinct sculpted natural gardens, and a fine Japanese café, museum and classrooms. The gardens provide ample places to stroll alongside streams or sit beside waterfalls and flowering tendrils of Firebush, Mexican Petunias and Alamanda.

A stream flows through the Morikami Japanese Gardens in Palm Beach County, FL.

Like many suburban communities, Palm Beach County has been slow to recognize the importance and value of streets as livable places. As with all of Florida's big urban counties, roads are public places ceded primarily to the speed and efficiency of private automobile travel. Residential and even commercial land uses are generally hidden behind dense buffers of vegetation or walled and gated barriers designed to separate the impersonal public realm from private enclaves. Amid the sprawl and "thou shalt not" feeling of restricted public right-of-way and private gated communities, the Morikami and places like it provide a valuable and rewarding respite of communal open space designed to transport people away from the cacophony of traffic and commercial striving.

Innovative Open Space

While the Morikami is a "drive to" garden oasis that is a true regional and even statewide resource, urban open spaces ranging in size from pocket parks of a few hundred square feet to a few hundred acres improve livability and walkability.

The Trust for Public Land has a nice report on "Shoehorn Parks," covering innovative strategies to squeeze green spaces out of crowded cities. My personal favorite is the use of cemeteries, which served as the principal open space in cities before parks as we know them today. Rooftops, school yards, stormwater channels and streets all can function as usable, enjoyable open space.

The Key West Cemetery dates to 1847 with 75,000 people interred on 19 acres in the "dead center" of Old Town.

The Key West Cemetery is an eclectic bit of history on 19 acres in the heart of Old Town built on the island's highest natural point. The cemetery dates to 1847 after a hurricane forced its reconstruction, and it includes markers commemorating the sinking of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in 1898 and graves of numerous other military veterans, as well as sections for Key West's Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Cuban residents. Even on a hot day in mid-summer, a late morning stroll through the cemetery provides a peaceful and fascinating view into the lives of so many different people. These urban places, both big like the Morikami or small like the Key West Cemetery or neighborhood pocket parks, offer a welcome respite from the stress and anxiety of everyday life, making our communities more livable.

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