“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