Urban Parks Transcend National Politics

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The benefits of public green spaces within, or accessible to, urban areas are much greater than are often immediately understood. Here’s how cities stand to gain from increasing access to parks.

The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. (Getty Images)
The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. (ferrantraite/Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Jaime B. Matyas.

As the nation seeks to unite after a contentious presidential election, areas of shared commitment should be prized and pursued. One of those areas is the increasingly important role of public lands in or near urban areas. President Donald Trump previously donated land in the New York City metropolitan area for a state park, and Hillary Clinton had called for the revitalization of more than 3,000 city parks within 10 years. Their actions highlight the value of public land and its growing importance in proximity to urban areas, and they could form the foundation for productive community engagement.

The benefits of public green spaces within, or accessible to, urban areas are much greater than are often immediately understood. They include, of course, the spiritual renewal that comes from experiencing the beauty of natural habitats, the joy of recreation, and the opportunity for relief from the daily stresses of life – but other benefits are even more profound.

Public parks have an extraordinary capacity to reveal individual passions for discovery and open up career opportunities. Monique Dailey, Youth Programs Manager for the Washington, D.C. Area at the Student Conservation Association (SCA), was 10 years old before she saw her first “real park” and says that she didn’t realize at the time that “it would be my salvation from the drugs and violence that were ravaging my community.” She became a Junior Ranger in the National Park Service, then a volunteer at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, and finally an SCA crew member in Rock Creek Park before volunteering on a national crew at Salmon Challis National Forest in Idaho and interning for a summer. When it came time to apply for college, she had 750 volunteer service hours with SCA and a glowing recommendation to the Admissions Director.

AmaRece Davis had a similar experience in Homewood, one of Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods. When two of his older brothers went to prison for murder, he saw himself “heading down that same dark path.” Then he got a break. He started working with the SCA, building trails, clearing brush and planting trees around Pittsburgh. That enabled him to join an SCA crew at Sequoia National Park in California, surrounded by giant sequoia trees.

“I sat at the base of one of these giants on my 18th birthday,” he writes, “and thought about all of my friends and relatives who had never been out of Pittsburgh and of others who hadn’t even survived to be 18. I came home a different person. I had found something larger than myself, figuratively and literally. I never used to care about litter, for example, and based on all the trash on the streets where I lived, neither did anyone else. When I got back from the West, I immediately organized a recycling program at Westinghouse High School and became known as Recycling Rece.” He has gone on to attend community college and complete several SCA internships, and recently became a Pittsburgh city park ranger.

The conservation of parks also provides skills that can enhance job and career opportunities. Research conducted by the renowned Search Institute revealed that SCA participants develop such valuable traits as “expressing ideas, engaging others to reach a goal, responsibility for the greater good, sense of purpose, openness to challenge, perseverance, awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and more.” These skills all enhance one’s ability to succeed in life and in careers. That’s why it’s so important that urban residents as well as rural ones reap the benefits of America’s public lands.

At present, visitors to our national parks are, in the words of former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, “older and whiter.” And a 2015 report by the Outdoor Foundation revealed that 73 percent of outdoor participants generally are Caucasian. But public parks can benefit all Americans – and a broadly diverse population can relate effectively to parks, which leads to more public support. Some methods that are valuable in broadening outreach in urban areas include the following:

  • Overnight Camp-Outs, which have been conducted by The White House and many governors in association with Great Outdoors Month with much success
  • Day Camps, which can provide single-day or week-long environmental education programs that introduce youth to nature-in-the-neighborhood as well as ways to be more ecologically friendly
  • Afterschool Programs, which can provide environmental education for younger children while engaging older youth in assisting with the program and with park restoration

When public parks and their conservation contribute so much to people and their communities, they are worthy of broader engagement and support – especially when so many young people need the work experience and career-enhancing opportunities that the conservation of parks can provide. In September, the unemployment rate for teenage youth (16 to 19 years old) was 15.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, our national parks alone have a maintenance backlog of nearly $12 Billion.

Enhancing our nation’s parks and ensuring that their upkeep benefits everyone can become a point of community and national unification.

jaime_matyas_125x150About the author: Jaime B. Matyas is the president and CEO of the Student Conservation Association, the national leader in youth service and stewardship.