Reinvention of parks

Introduction

The red flag has been raised when it comes to the newspaper trade (watch the NY Times shrink before your eyes), on Wall Street, in corporate law firms, the automobile industry and in the plight of state and local government budgets with all the public programs they support. We are approaching huge changes in our economy and the way we live.
Some of the change has to do with scale. Over decades single family homes grew from 800 Sq. Ft. to 1,600 Sq. Ft., to 2,400 Sq. Ft. to the McMansions of recent decades. Sedans were replaced by SUVs. The population of traditional cities spread themselves over territory 8 times as large as the city space during in the 1950s. Yes, we will be downsizing on a lot of things, but that is the easy thing.
What really will be interesting and challenging are those aspects of our lives that will be completely reinvented like, I suggest, parks, senior living, mobility, urban living, education, environmental protection, medicine, energy, how we get news and what we eat to begin the list. Not only will the automobile be downsized, again that is easy, but, for example, new transit systems and other means of mobility will become the norm (back to the future). The automobile, for example, may not be individually owned, but rather be cooperatively owed and used as needed.
Despite these daunting prospects, we are like the deer caught in the headlight when it comes to understanding and taking control of the reinvention that will take place and in many cases is actually happening around us with little real awareness on our part. Many people and institutions are simply holding on to what they have always been accustomed to and this is not helpful. Too few are seriously thinking and contributing to the changes and reinvention that is happening. Apparently many believe this too will pass situation or simply right sizing will make things better. They should look again.
Beginning with this Eye column we are going to take a look at how certain key features of our lives need to be reinvented and how that should be done. In many cases reinvention has been quietly happening for years, mostly with little public and leadership awareness. Some of this reinvention comes from creative thinking and other aspects are a result of nature abhorring a vacuum.
Future of State Parks as We Know Them
Most people take state parks for granted. I was told a former Commissioner of the Office of New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation went to a cocktail party in New York City soon after her appointment and proudly told others at the party that she was “the state parks commissioner”. The response was ho, hum and what else is new. Protecting open space in the Hamptons and Columbia counties is interesting, but state parks?- they are yesterday’s news. Yet, state parks for much of the 20th century were very important in preserving natural wonders and should emerge in the 21st century in a different form as green and cultural infrastructure. Take notice!
State parks as we know them are unlikely to survive into the future.
Traditional parks have been public estates, separate and apart from surrounding land. Many state parks should and will continue as public preserves (see, the state forest preserve and Albany Pine Barrens Preserve as examples) set aside for their natural beauty and unique natural and cultural features. Otherwise, as park historian Galen Cranz wrote about urban parks in the “open space” era, state parks will become more entwined with the whole landscape. Gone will be the golf courses, swimming pools and other costly active recreational facilities as a major concern of a state park system.
The park of the “green” and “sustainable” future (identified, designed and protected, but not wholly owned by the public) is already here, for example, as greenways, heritage areas, agricultural and forest landscapes with scenic values and all sorts of trails for recreation.
This is both the result of emerging environmental objectives and financial realities. If you don’t believe me consider what Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing in California. Schwarzenegger proposed eliminating $70 million in parks spending through June 30, 2010. That could mean closing up to 220 state parks. An additional $143.4 million would be saved in the following fiscal year by keeping the parks closed.

In response, Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines said the state cannot afford to subsidize state parks when lawmakers are being asked to make severe cuts in even more vital areas. “Parks are just not going to be a priority over public safety and education, as much as we hate to see them close,” Villines said.

California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman declared: “We are often a harbinger of things to come elsewhere, for better or for worse. What will happen here with our state park system deserves close monitoring by World Commission on Protected Area members throughout North America and abroad. How much public support do we really have?”

A Little Background

In the early 20th century when State Parks came on the scene in New York City there were two opposite advocacy points of view on the development of State Parks. The booster types called for State Parks to be developed every 20 miles along Route 20 which crossed New York State. Do some landscaping including, if possible creating a swimming hole and add picnic and other recreation facilities and you will have a State Park. These parks were to be recreational amenities to encourage development across the State.

The other advocacy interest simply believed you can’t have a State Park until you find it. These scenic preservationists believed State Parks should be created to bring scenic lands like the Letchworth Gorge (the Grand Canyon of the east) and Niagara Falls under State protection.

For the most part, the scenic preservationists prevailed and many of our state parks are special places though often with conventional recreational facilities like golf courses, swimming pools, sandy ocean and lake beaches and other play spaces mostly for the auto dependent middle class (with exceptions like Roberto Clemente State Park and the state park on the sewage treatment facility on the Hudson River at 145th Street).

In the 1980s a state park administrator told me that his agency should drop concerns about conservation and concentrate solely on recreation. That never came to be but now we have reached the opposite situation, it being time for states to drop most of their role as providers of recreation and to concentrate solely on preservation of scenic, natural and cultural places of significance and doing this actively in the context of stewardship of our natural infrastructure: the air, water, soil, plants, animals, and microbes that working together in ecosystems providing critical environmental services necessary for humans to survive and our cultural heritage or ongoing narrative of human attainments over time.

Why the change or reinvention?

Financial realities like those being faced in California, a growing environmental crisis, expanding population and need to bring human habitats more in harmony with nature and quality of life are all driving the need to reinvent our notion of parks from being separate and apart with a large recreational component to having a whole landscape approach to protecting and managing our natural and cultural infrastructure.

New York State’s state park program has a backlog of $650 million in traditional infrastructure needs while it is losing over a 100 positions. Carrying the backlog of deferred maintenance of a costly park infrastructure as staffing for ongoing operation shrinks is a strong wakeup call that state park facilities as we have known them including golf courses and swimming pools are not sustainable.

Signs of change

TNC: The Nature Conservancy is a premier national and international conservation organization dedicated to the protection of plant and animal species. Originally it narrowly focused on the immediate habitat of unique species. In recent years TNC realized that a narrow approach was not adequate and intervening in whole landscapes was necessary. Under the rubrics of Landscape by Design and Conservation by Design, TNC develops a systematic approach to preserving healthy ecosystems that support people and host the diversity of life on Earth. Instead of owning golf courses, state park programs need to follow the direction of TNC and become a whole landscape approach.

Open space movement. Open space protection has been a primary effort in recent decades. Land trusts established to acquire open space easements, development rights and purchase significant natural and cultural resources have sprung up across the country. They are complemented by tax policies, community preservation acts funding open space programs through dedicated revenue sources, cluster zoning and state and federal programs supporting protection of opens space including protection of agricultural land for agricultural use.

Heritage Areas and cultural landscape. The notion of the cultural value of the entire landscape was the basis for the Council of Europe designating the entire area of Europe as a cultural landscape. Human attainments over the centuries (don’t forget the Native Americans were in North America for centuries before the Europeans came) are associated with the land and deserve attention, in some cases preservation and many cases interpretation. In the 1970s heritage areas (first called urban cultural parks) emerged as an integrated approach for the goals of conservation, education, recreation and sustainable development. Yes, feature traditionally associated with urban and state parks can be found and utilized throughout urban settings and regional landscapes. New York State’s first in the nation state system of heritage areas was enacted in 1982 and more than 20 heritage areas have been designated by the state legislature. Congress has established 40 national heritage areas some encompassing large portions of States. New York’s Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor stretches 540 miles across the State and links to the Hudson River National Heritage Area. Heritage areas are one of the key models for the next generation of state parks-one encompassing entire urban setting and regional landscapes.

Greenways. Linkage or connecting the dots is an important conservation approach. Greenways have primarily been established to protect and manage river corridors, but they have other forms. New York State’s greenways beginning with the Hudson River Green way in the early 1990s encompasses an ambitious agenda for goals in a region stretching from Saratoga and Washington counties in the north to the Battery in New York City. It boundaries are county wide so its focus ranges from developing traditional trails to Greenway planning based on fostering regional planning for regions within his boundaries. Like heritage areas (and the HR Greenway manages the Hudson River National Heritage Area), the Hudson River Greenway connections the dots including the roles played by traditional state park programs. The only difference is that its mission extends to an entire and vast landscape.

Trails. In 1987 President Reagan’s President’s Commission on American Outdoor recommended that all Americans be able to go out their front doors and within 15 minutes be on trails that wind through their cities or towns and bring them back without retracing steps. Today, public programs like the Healthy Heart program of the NYS Department of Health supports trail development in rural and urban communities. Many types of trails from wilderness trails in the Adirondack Park to Scenic By-ways are becoming the health, recreation and mobility infrastructure in New York.

Natural infrastructure (see Saratoga counties natural infrastructure plan), healthy watersheds and ecosystem based management (see Art. 14 of the Environmental Conservation Law). Complementing heritage areas, greenways and trails is a new generation of state and local planning focused on integrating the needs of natural and cultural resources with the needs of human communities. This is but another driver of the transition of traditional parks from public estates into an approach that encompasses the entire landscape of states and the nation.

Conclusion. Look for state park programs to be reinvented from being the custodians and managers of public country clubs to being a leader in managing the entire landscape for its ecological and human values. The Conservation Foundation in its report entitled National Parks for a Generation identified the phenomenon as a move beyond the feature to the entire setting. Like California and, in fact, the nation, New York State can no longer financially afford the traditional state and national park model and, at the same time, can no longer afford to not connect the dots and make the linkages so that our entire landscapes are ecologically healthy, economically sustainable and humanly enriching. (Don’t worry about our natural and cultural wonders, they will be maintained as preserves.) Change in parks has been approaching for decades. The current crisis can provide the impetus for the leap forward.

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