On Wednesday I went to Triangle Tomorrow’s conference, “A Green Future for Economic Development: The Dollars and Sense of Open Space.” There were some excellent speakers, including Chick Flink from Greenways, Inc. and Ed McMahon from ULI.

The speakers focused on the economic benefits of open space, and made a compelling case for investing in green space even during a recession. Several different speakers pointed out that the investment in parks and greenways usually pays off, as the the revenues from increased property values and the new business development they spur nearby far exceed the cost.

A topic that came up a few times was particularly apt in these times of political polarization and small budgets: how do you respond to critics, in particular those who argue that they should not have to pay for a public space that they themselves do not intend to use?

One speaker suggested pointing to what John Crompton calls the “proximity effect;” benefits like increased property values accrue to everyone who lives near a greenway, whether they use the space or not. Randy Voller, the mayor of Pittsboro, NC, suggested de-emphasizing politics – he says that in his experience, most people, whether Democrats or Republicans, see the value in preserving open space. Several speakers pointed out the broad support for green space; striking evidence was that during the last election most ballot initiatives for investment in open space succeeded, even as people voted to cut other spending. McMahon advised talking about the ends rather than the means; people are more compelled by the idea of preserving rural lands than they are by zoning.

An anecdote from McMahon struck a chord with me, and the lessons are applicable to dealing with naysayers in many situations. He described a sign he saw outside of a small town; I’m probably misquoting, but is said something like “Welcome to X, home of 6000 happy citizens and three old grumps.” His point was that there are certain people who will object to every suggestion they hear, and sometimes the only solution is to just ignore the grumps. In particular, he warned against trying to convince ideologues – they have already made up their minds, and they don’t represent the views of most people.