An open letter from a Park Desert

It was a warm and sunny weekend in the Midwest. Having moved to Champaign mid-February, I had anticipated being cooped up indoors for awhile. So when thoughtful Global Climate Change gifted us with a high of 70 this Saturday, I jumped at the chance to get outside. A bit of internet research led me to a disappointing conclusion. I had two options for a Saturday Afternoon Adventure here in central Illinois.

One option was to stroll the abundant, cute little city parks. These parks are refreshing, breaking up the urban landscape with freckles of green. But their recreational potential is really limited to (a) exercising your Yorkie or iguana (b) swinging on swings (not complaining) or (c) admiring the lovely sculptures (again, not complaining; I rode a bronze horse the other day, and it was delightful). Not exactly worthy of busting out my binocular harness.

I chose the second option, which was to take a drive to one of the handful of state parks that form an unfortunately girthy halo around Chambana. At just under an hour’s drive, the closest was Moraine View State Park. The pictures I saw online… well… they didn’t thrill me. The park’s website left a lot to be desired, too. The impression I got from the internet would ultimately echo my feelings about the park itself.

Sure, it was a place to roam. I saw a couple interesting birds and some pleasant scenery. But there were no oak savannas, no mighty mighty river, no wet prairies. There were no trails longer than a mile. In fact, there were no trailheads or maps to help us find the three sad trails that did exist; we drove around for quite awhile before finally spotting a decrepit wooden post marked “nature trail.” That description was a bit inflated, to say the least.

Moraine View State Park lake

Bright colors and cheery atmosphere brought to you by Instagram.

Without getting too melancholy, I’ll just say that I felt a pretty profound homesickness yesterday. What’s that phrase that you always hear, regarding divorce? “I’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle…” Some of my fondest memories of my time in Toledo are from weekend jaunts at Oak Openings Preserve or Maumee Bay State Park or Wildwood or some other lush oasis of green. I could hop on my bike or in my car, and within minutes, be lost among towering oaks or cactus-dotted sand dunes.

You’ve heard of Food Deserts, I’m sure. While not quite so grave, there’s another kind of desert that exists in our society: the Park Desert. And after many years in a metropolis blessed with a truly world-class park district, it is truly, deeply saddening to find myself living in one.

So this Letter from a Park Desert is my humble request of the people of the greater Toledo area, and of anyone who lives in a region with similarly amazing parks:

Please, please don’t take your green space for granted.

Especially for those who have lived in Toledo for years, it’s all too easy to grow accustomed to that “certain lifestyle,” to forget (or not even realize at all) that there are places out there without parks like yours. It’s easy for an after-work jog at Swan Creek or a weekend hike at Oak Openings to become so second-nature that you don’t even consider what it would be like to not have places like these.

(If you couldn’t see it coming: I am now going to climb up on my soapbox for a minute.)

Just as it’s easy to take these parks for granted, it’s easy to take their creation, their upkeep, their quality for granted. When I tell people that my new job involves writing copy for exhibits in museums and zoos and the like, the most common response I get is this: “Oh! I never actually thought about how there has to be someone who does that.” It makes sense. Grow accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and you don’t stop to think about how it got to be that way, who made it, for what reasons.

But parks don’t just appear. (Obviously – or I wouldn’t be here bemoaning Park Deserts.) Parks don’t clean themselves up, they don’t mark their own trails, they don’t give potential visitors information to attract them there. Parks don’t select their own rare and interesting wildlife out of a mail-order catalog. Parks don’t have the ability to maintain their own unique and beautiful habitats (thanks largely to our handiwork as humans).

Parks are the work of nature, sure. But they’re also the work of people. Of very learned, very dedicated, very professional people. People who work diligently, tirelessly, and nearly always thanklessly, behind the scenes to make those parks as wonderful as they are. People who have to make important decisions that will result in their parks either flourishing or fading.

So here’s the corollary to my first request that you don’t take your parks for granted:

Trust in the people who make these decisions.

They are in their respective positions for a reason. They did not walk in off the street, I can assure you. They know what they’re doing. And, perhaps more importantly, they care. They care deeply. They want, ultimately, one thing: they want for you to not have to live in a Park Desert.

So if those people believe that the deer herd must be thinned, carefully and safely, to keep your park beautiful and wild and healthy? Trust them.

If they believe that a marketing campaign will improve user experience, solve costly customer service issues, and attract more visitors and residents (and their money) to your city? Trust them.

If they feel that in order to keep one of these learned professionals – these people who care deeply about their parks and the health and happiness of the public – around and dedicated to their agency, they need to offer him or her a higher salary? Trust them.

These are the people who have offered up the incredible banquet of green (and red and orange and indigo and sienna and brilliant yellow and deep brown…) you find spread before you, yours to enjoy. They’ve kept you out of the Park Desert, and they will continue to do so, if you let them – if you trust them, if you support them and the decisions they make. As a new resident of a Park Desert, trust me when I say you’ll be glad you did.

 

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