The Fates of Parks in Modern America: Five Trends That Will Shape Our Future
Following is the text of the Crawford Lecture, delivered by the author at NRPA's 2002 National Congress & Exposition, in Tampa, Fla.
As the 21st century begins, the issues surrounding parks and open space in the U.S. shift largely from allocation (how many acres and where) to stewardship (how to conserve and preserve those acres). Stewardship of land, whether it be farmland, parks, reservations, military bases, urban open space, suburban yards or wilderness, doesn't take place in isolation from the wider context of American society. To us Americans, land matters. We know it offers security, wealth, meaning and power. Whether it be sheep ranchers and farmers in the 1840s gunfighting over Idaho rangeland, Bloods and Crips in the 1980s street fighting over Los Angeles turf, or the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Defense Council court fighting in the 1990s over wildlife habitat, land is a source of pride and passion in American culture.
And to understand the future of parks in America--from the tiny community garden in Baltimore to the county parks of Idaho to the state parks of Florida and the vast national wilderness of Alaska--requires us to understand the relationship between land matters and broader American society. For the fates of parks in modern America are inextricably entwined with our history, culture, economy, politics and faith. How this broader, social context will influence land stewardship, and the consequences for park managers at all levels, is the subject of this Crawford Lecture.
Changes in the Land
Across the American landscape, there has been a singular transformation, begun after the Great Depression in the 1930s, that continues into the 21st century. The transformation, of course, is the shrinking of our rural landscape and the expansion of our urban landscape. Two pieces of evidence are illustrative.
From 1982-1997, U.S. cropland declined from 421 million acres to 408 million acres, a decline of 3 percent. Pastureland declined from 134 million acres to 120 million acres, a decline of 12 percent, while developed land increased from 75 million acres to 105 million acres, an increase of 40 percent.
At the same time, many of our nation's cities have physically grown--some at astounding rates. The 2000 Census shows that the average size of our top 100 cities is 168 square miles, three times their average size of 1950. Annexation is both a land-use trend and political strategy. For example, Jacksonville, Fla., is 758 square miles, 25 times its 1950 size. In 1950, Phoenix, Ariz., was the 99th most populated city and in an area of only 17 square miles; in 2000, Phoenix was seventh in population and covered 475 square miles. We meet here at the Tampa Convention Center on land that is part of this transformation. More than any single trend, it's this transformation of the American landscape that will provide challenges to the managers of our nation's parks.
My comments are organized around a set of key social and demographic trends. These trends create conditions that have significant influence upon the policy and management alternatives for using public lands, including parks at the local, county, state and federal levels. Five trends are important:
* Demographic change.
* Shifting public values.
* A transformation in American politics.
* The expansion of public involvement.
* New authority claims by the scientific community.
I'd like to discuss the implications of these trends to land stewardship, along with a series of predictions as to the fates of parks in modern America.
The first key trend is the dramatic demographic change that's occurring, particularly in the American West. In the past 50 years, the population of the western U.S. has grown from 10 million to more than 50 million people; its proportion of the total U.S. population has tripled. …