“Museumification” of our parks separates children from nature

The Berkeley Meadow

We recently published an article about the Berkeley Meadow, a 72-acre fenced pen for native plants and animals.  In response, one of our readers alerted us to a video cartoon about the Berkeley Meadow which we recommend to you.  “Grandpa Takes the Kids to the Plant Zoo” captures the absurdity of this “restoration” project. 

The sentiments expressed by the children in this video remind us of an article published in 2004 about similar restoration projects in Chicago and San Francisco.  “Urban Park Restoration and the ‘Museumification’ of Nature” was written by Dr. Paul Gobster after he visited the Bay Area as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, collaborating with colleagues in landscape architecture. 

Dr. Gobster is a social scientist with the US Forest Service, stationed in the Chicago area and the editor of a book* about the restoration movement there.  The restorations in Chicago are similar to those in the San Francisco Bay Area because both places were primarily grassland prior to the arrival of Europeans.   Restorations in both areas therefore require the destruction of most trees.  In the Chicago area, many of the trees are native because of the natural succession of grassland to shrubland and finally to forest.  The fires of Native Americans that sustained the grassland were stopped at the time of settlement. 

In “Museumification,” Dr. Gobster expresses his opinion of the restorations in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Chicago:

“…it is my contention that little headway has been made in exploiting the key role urban parks might have in strengthening the ties between nature and culture.  To the contrary, some current attempts at ecological restoration in urban parks may distance people from the experience of nature even further than did earlier naturalistic designs, leading to a form of detached observation not unlike what one might experience in a museum.  Instead of providing a bridge between nature and the city…park restoration can lock nature inside the gates of paradise and leave people on the outside looking in.”

Dr. Gobster is particularly concerned about the impact of “museumification” of parks on children who should be the primary beneficiaries of our parks.  Their earliest experiences with nature may foster a lifelong interest in nature or an alienation from it. 

“The wild and weedy nature that existed in many of these urban park areas prior to restoration provided [a setting for unstructured play]…Now displaced by a more ecologically diverse yet more fragile nature, these kinds of activities are discouraged just as they are in more manicured park settings.  Children are much less likely to attain satisfying nature experiences through passive forms of interaction and thus may be disproportionately affected by such changesThe result of this museumification is that we are creating a significant gap in the spectrum of nature experiences available to urban children precisely at the nearby places where children stand the best chances for getting acquainted with nature.  Thus while striving to achieve authenticity in the restoration of ecosystems we may be sacrificing the authenticity of children’s nature experiences.” 

Children discovering nature. NPS photo

In “Grandpa Takes the Kids to the Plant Zoo,” we see that the kids are uninterested in looking at the plants on the other side of the fence.  They ask Grandpa to take them elsewhere so they can play.  Grandpa must also ask them not to touch the few plants within reach because they have been sprayed with herbicides.  The park is not accessible to the kids because it is behind a fence and it has also been sprayed with herbicides, so it’s not a safe place for them to play.  In the East Bay Regional Park District, for example, herbicide use in its restoration projects (AKA “resource management”) increased 300% in 2009.  Herbicides had not been sprayed in the Serpentine Prairie prior to 2009, when it was fenced for “restoration.”  Now it is sprayed with herbicides, mowed, planted, and is due for periodic prescribed burns to prevent its succession to shrubs and subsequently to oak woodland.  

When we alienate children from nature, we jeopardize the future of our parks.  If parks are not viewed as useful places, they will not enjoy the support needed to sustain them.  And if nature is not viewed as valuable, we undermine the public’s support for preservation of the environment.  As adults debate the merits of native plant restorations, they should keep in mind the needs of children because the future of our public lands is in their hands and children are unable to speak for themselves in the public policy arena. 

* Gobster & Hull, eds., Restoring Nature, Washington DC, Island Press, 2000

The Sierra Club redefines “recreation”

In the current edition of the newsletter of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Club explains why it doesn’t like the revised Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of San Francisco’s General Plan.  The Club has a long list of complaints about the new ROSE, but the one that caught our eye was this particular criticism:

“The draft ROSE talks about the benefits of open space for physical fitness through exercise and recreation, but these one can do on city streets and in gyms.”

–          The Yodeler, June 29, 2011

In the same article, the Sierra Club redefines “recreation” as follows:

“…the draft [ROSE] neglects the values of respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing… The document does not talk about the one thing that only parks can provide, the experience of nature.”  Ibid.

In other words, in the opinion of the Sierra Club, public parks are for the benefit of plants and animals.  The public is welcome to look at the plants and animals, so long as they do not disturb them in doing so.  However, if the public seeks more active forms of recreation, such as playing ball, hiking, or riding a bike, the Club invites them to take to the streets or join a gym.

Having debated park issues with the leadership of the Sierra Club many times and observing their advocacy closely, we are well aware of their rather narrow view of the purpose of parks.  However, we think it is unlikely that most Sierra Club members realize that their organization is actively trying to prevent all traditional forms of recreation in their parks.  We therefore shine a bright light on the role that the Sierra Club plays in turning urban parks into native plant museums.  In “Fortress Conservation:  The loss of recreational access” we described three specific examples of parks in the San Francisco Bay Area in which recreational access has been restricted as the result of advocacy and lawsuits by the Sierra Club and other organizations which share their view.

“Active” vs “Passive” Recreation

We were originally introduced to the Sierra Club’s objectives for our urban parks in the Bay Area with the terms, “active” and “passive” recreation.  The Sierra Club advocates for “passive” recreation, which it defined in its article about the ROSE as “respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing.”

The Berkeley Meadow

We visited a park today which is an example of what the Sierra Club has in mind.  The 72-acre Berkeley Meadow at the foot of University Ave in Berkeley is one of many parks in the Bay Area that reflects the wishes of the Sierra Club.  The Berkeley Meadow is part of the Eastshore State Park that is owned by the State of California, but operated by East Bay Regional Park District.  The Berkeley Meadow was at one time part of the San Francisco Bay, until it was created with landfill and used as a city dump until the 1960s.  The East Bay Regional Park District “restored” the meadow over a period of 5 years at a cost of $6 million.  It is now a huge fenced pen with a fenced trail running diagonally through it.  Bicycles and dogs on leash are both prohibited from using this fenced path.  One wonders what harm could come to the plants and animals that reside on the other side of the fence.  The meadow is predominantly non-native annual grassland, with willows in wetter portions of the meadow and some coyote bush scrub in the grassland.  (see video cartoon about the Berkeley Meadow:  “Grandpa takes the kids to the plant zoo.”)

The Berkeley Meadow

Cesar Chavez Park due west of the Berkeley Meadow provides a multiuse contrast.  Cesar Chavez Park is a Berkeley city park, NOT a park owned by East Bay Regional Park District.  This 90-acre park provides a wide variety of recreational opportunities, including a popular kite-flying area, an off-leash dog park, a restricted “natural area” (predominantly non-native plants), and a fenced area in which burrowing owls nest half of the year.  The unfenced paths are used by bicycles, joggers, people walking, some with dogs on leash.  Cesar Chavez is a successful park, enjoyed by a wide variety of visitors every day.  The Sierra Club made every effort to prevent this multi-use park from accommodating all forms of “active” recreation.

Multiuse recreation at Cesar Chavez Park: a panda flying a kite

Environmentalism has been hijacked by extremists

Let us be perfectly clear about our opinion of “active” vs “passive” recreation.  We do not object to parks such as the Berkeley Meadow in which human access is severely restricted.  What we object to is that the Sierra Club wishes to turn all parks in the Bay Area into native plant and animal reserves in which humans are not welcome, except as passive observers.  This is an example of the extremism that has earned environmentalists the reputation of being unreasonable.

In 2004, the authors of the controversial paper entitled, “Death of Environmentalism” reported that “The number of Americans who agreed that, ‘Most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people,’ leapt from 32 percent in 1996 to 41 percent in 2000.”  Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy, in his recent talk in San Francisco sponsored by the Long Now Foundation (a summary of this talk is available on the Save Sutro website), reported that over half of those surveyed in 2011 now agree that “environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people.”  This loss of support for environmentalism is a great tragedy, for there is much legitimate work to be done by environmental organizations which are now distracted by tangential issues such as creating native plant museums in our urban parks.