Sometimes topics for these blogs are a bit more impulsive. I don't think I was planning on writing about parks and urban natural areas, but as I was on a run this week, I noticed that my local park had a sign up advertising some improvements to the area coming soon. I started to wonder: how do decisions like this get made and how did we get to the park as we know it today?
Maybe not the most exciting introduction to a topic, but a part of modern human society is our urban lifestyle. How we, as a community, try to incorporate nature into these spaces is important to our understanding of and connection with nature. Honestly, it's a prime topic for this series!
Let's dive in!
First and foremost, a park is a means to bring nature to people. It's not necessarily the "pristine" nature (which isn't an ideal philosophy, check out our Un-Pristine Nature post for more) that a lot of people have in mind, but more of a breathing space for humans to experience some nature amid modern life. A nature lite, if you will. These spaces are typically kept with short grasses to deter insects and pests while simultaneously allowing for relaxing picnic-esque areas to visit. Oftentimes, the flora chosen for these spaces isn't purely functional, but chosen for aesthetic and shade.
This is why many parks we're familiar with look like grassland or open woodland. The openness of the area is considered appealing by the widest set of humans who would visit. Not everyone likes hanging out in murky swamps or dark, bug-filled forests. There are times and places for those areas, but these parks' primary function isn't as a planetary ecological service, but as a human one. Any park that provides more than that goes above and beyond its goals.
Now, this is going to get a bit into the history of parks from a United States perspective, so some of the context may not be broadly applicable to the world at large, but concepts may be.
Once the United States had been pretty completely settled, rapid commercial and industrial development became a concern to a number of people. The land had, frankly, a ton of beautiful landscape that many felt required protecting from our human growth. This need led to the formation of the National Parks Service, which began setting aside parts of the United States as national parks.
These national parks served a slightly different purpose than other reserves, where the land may be managed by humans, but is left mostly alone to do its own thing. National parks, on the other hand, are intended to give off the same vibe, but allow people in to witness them. These places, considered "crown jewels" among the landscape of the United States, were massive boosts in morale for people lucky enough to be living near those areas.
Most of these national parks, however, are situated around the mountains in the United States. For those not in the U.S., that's not most of the country. The western parts of the country had these marvelous escapes to nature, but the central and eastern U.S. didn't have as much in terms of protected national reserves. Be it a sort of co-evolution or happenstance scenario, the eastern-most parts of the United States experienced the most urban growth, the most rapid commercial development, and the least available natural reprieves from that urban lifestyle (prior to the west coast becoming a technology hub, at least).
This nature accessibility issue became a big point of contention for people living in urban areas from the 1930s into the 1960s. A desire to "bring the beauty of the national parks" to the urban middle class rose to a climax, resulting in a bit of a boom in what is now considered the urban park.
Believe it or not, the thing that brought parks into fruition wasn't so much waiting for bills or legislation to pass. The biggest advocate for parks in the United States has always been the people. Generally, the most successful urban park plans are a result of people not wanting unfettered commercial development to continue. While they may wish for the land to be left alone entirely, advocating for urban open space was one way of denying industry takeover of a community they cared about.
In the 1960s, there was a slightly different socio-economic struggle going on. Where there were now established urban parks, the middle to upper-middle class did not want to expand access to "their" parks to minority groups. Meanwhile, minority groups didn't like that these spaces were advertised as municipal or public areas, where clearly access was gated by means of lack of transit or other urban planning. As local governments did not want to rock the boat, there was a painfully small amount of incremental change happening during these times to make parks more accessible to all people, not just white communities.
And now, we find ourselves in a time where these spaces are more important than ever. Humanity has doubled down on its commercial, industrial footprint, forcing more people into lifestyles devoid of interactions with nature. In a time of climate crisis where any change we can make to deter our systemic anthropogenic culture is integral. And to cap it off, amidst a global pandemic that will impact how humans are able to interact and socialize over the coming years, where parks may offer the open space humanity will desperately need to safely get outside and stay connected. Today, a desire for urban open areas is as high as ever.
While researching this topic, I happened across a campaign jointly run by mayors across the United States that are vowing to make the changes necessary to provide high-quality, open, green spaces within a "10-minute walk" to all cities by the year 2050. While seeing this made me think the goal is needed sooner, seeing this kind off commitment to space where humans and nature can connect in a modern world is a welcome one. You can check out the initiative and those involved at 10minutewalk.org/.
All of this shows that, while parks may not be nature existing for nature's sake, not geared toward the functions that nature typically fulfills, they still provide a crossroads for humans to meet it. Maybe, over time, these places are used more than simply for relaxation, recreation, or a reprieve, but as hubs for education and knowledge regarding our world. There may be a lot more we can ask from parks, but they're certainly a step in a positive direction.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
* History of Urban Parks in the United States
Foresta, R., 2013. America's National Parks And Their Keepers. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, pp.169-222.
* 10-Minute Walk Website
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