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Elbel for everyone

| Thursday, January 21, 2016

After living for three years on the Notre Dame-Saint Mary’s campuses with their manicured lawns, my un-adventured eyes hadn’t yet seen the wonders that the true South Bend has to offer. My move off campus senior year engendered appreciation for new kinds of green space as I found it: crabgrass persevering through concrete, my house’s garden and overgrown empty lots.

Then, as director of a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating urban youths’ engagement in the outdoors, my inclination to seek “green” became much more intentional. Mentors from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s took adolescents from the Robinson Community Learning Center and La Casa de Amistad to Juday Creek to help researchers identify kinds of life there that may indicate the creek’s toxicity. My nonprofit’s mission reflects the White House’s youth initiative Every Kid in a Park. The National Park Foundation is providing free passes for 4th graders across the country through the 2015-2016 school year.

That said, it seems odd that the city of South Bend intends to sell 332 acres — a quarter of the city’s parkland — for $747,500. The buyers of Elbel Park Golf Course, who are most certainly developers, will evade paying the additional half-million ($1.29 million in total) by delaying new home construction on that property for five years and purchasing the land as a golf course. The proceeds are intended to “support other parks functions, as outlined in a five-year, $36 million master plan,” the South Bend Tribune reported Wednesday. This “master plan” seems to take little interest in merely preserving the land it intends to maintain.

What the city doesn’t realize about the South Bend Parks and Recreation’s sacrificial lamb is that Elbel is worth far more than what it is selling for (which, by the way, isn’t even enough to run South Bend for a day). The environmental, social and educational value the park has certainly supersedes any — but particularly, its estimated — financial value. The park boasts rolling wetland, state-endangered species and a skyline touched by sycamore, beech, oak, dogwood and ash trees. Before it was taken down, the Elbel Park’s website claimed that the appeal of this 18-hole golf course “designed with the natural beauty of Mud Lake in mind” was that it “blends perfectly with the surrounding landscape of farm land, wooded areas and water.” The un-groomed wetland along the park’s borders are federally owned and protected by the Environmental Protection Agency. The land next to Mud Lake will not receive such preferential treatment without the intervention of South Bend’s citizens.

The rebirth of South Bend that began under the guidance of Mayor Pete Buttigieg will undoubtedly include more initiatives to beautify the region. Before the makeover continues, it is important to revere the assets we already have. A study conducted by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois showed that more green space is correlated to less domestic violence in cities. In a city that struggles with crime, the commodification of such a space seems unfathomable. A study from the University of Sheffield, England found that “psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity.”

The for-profit ownership of Elbel will likely hinder public access and inhibit environmental accountability. While the public maintains access and a say in the park’s future, I urge students to visit Elbel, to make a leap for underclass-kind and venture into South Bend — its urban areas and beyond.

I encourage constituents of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s who live on and off campus to engage. Those who regard public access and ecological responsibility as invaluable can tweet using the hashtags #IValueElbel or #DontPawnOurParksPete. If those reading are interested in dialogue with other residents of South Bend as well as their representatives regarding the privatization of Elbel please attend a Common Council meeting Monday at 3:30 p.m. at 227 West Jefferson Boulevard in South Bend. If you are interested in other events surrounding this issue “like” Elbel for Everyone’s Facebook page.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Rebecca O'Neil

Senior news writer for Saint Mary's College and news editor for The Observer

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