Parks for Life

By LaPage, Will | Parks & Recreation, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Parks for Life


LaPage, Will, Parks & Recreation


An emotion-based park ethic for everyone.

Science does not create public parks. Science can tell us that parks are good for us, good for our environment, our economy, and good for many of the creatures with whom we share the planet. Science can provide us with some useful clues for managing parks to maximize some of these benefits. Hut if we wait for science to create parks, it will he too late. Emotion creates parks. And, because parks are always at risk, emotion is a powerful tool tor protecting existing ones. Parks are continually threatened by competing land interests, by neglect, by mismanagement, by under-funding, by occasional over-use, by massive under-appreciation, and by being taken for granted by the community.

We repeatedly, and mistakenly, have seen park establishment as an end, rather than as a beginning; a demonstration, a model of what could be; a small step toward the land ethic that Aldo Leopold argued tor more than half a century ago.

Parks are one of the most popular concepts ever to be adopted and promoted by any society. The rallying cry "Parks are for People" tells only part of that story. The list of benefits provided by parks vastly exceeds that which appears in their annual reports. Healthy, progressive societies have a holistic view of their parks-a view that is fostered by an ethic connecting parks with all aspects of life, health, education, jobs, inspiration, peace and justice. Because parks are the embodiment of a love for land, a park ethic can be built on this emotional foundation.

For nearly 50 years, we have watched the heady growth of science in park management decisions. Hut in the sterile realm of objective science, park growth has stagnated, park budgets remain embarrassingly inadequate, and park conditions have often plummeted. Even bad science can drive out good emotion. The time has come for the ultimate park partnership to step forward and help reinvent the park movement-the unbeatable team of objective science and subjective emotion.

That parks are massively underappreciated, despite their worldwide adoption, is evident in the limited ways we report their benefits. Preserved acres, open space and attendance, are but small parts of parks' total contribution to life on the planet.

New legislation with a broader mandate is not the answer, however. Park professionals know that parks must be fully engaged with society, but they remain singularly preoccupied with recreation, and the engagement remains stalled at the flirtation stage. Do we not understand that our parks can be casualties of the widening gap in income, wealth and power? Until we do, we are unlikely to develop a social justice role for parks.

Realizing that feelings of oppression and disenfranchisement can be reduced through corporate underwriting of programs, exposing the masses of urhan residents to their parks can be a first step. Knowing that parks can provide meaningful employment, retraining, and rehabilitation, can be another step. Applying the ecosystem model to social system understanding and community health may be the essential step. Solving the problem of homelessness in the parks could be a convincing step.

We fail to recognize the fragility of parks as economic engines in the highly competitive tourism economy wherever we ignore the need for limited development zones around parks. The park as a jewel is less likely to be sustainable if its setting is severely compromised. Sustainability of that engine demands a strong and viable partnership between the setting and the jewel. Parks that draw crowds, while ignoring the impact of those crowds beyond their borders, are not engaged, and they are irresponsible. Gateway communities are park entrances, and the entrance sets the tone for what goes on inside. …

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