SAVING THE FIELDS OF DREAMS: Building 'Natural Cultural Capacity' to Enrich Our Parks and Cities
Despite some signs of progress, the impact of recession on public access to the natural world is a reality, and it could get worse.
Take California, for instance. In coming months, as many as 70 parks, many of them in or near urban areas will close, according to California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman. This, she says, is the only way to absorb a $33 million parks budget cut over the next two years. “California has never closed its parks in its history, through two world wars and the Great Depression," Coleman said two weeks ago, in her keynote speech at the annual C&NN Grassroots Gathering.
In July, the Pew Research Center reported the "median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. From 2005 to 2009, Hispanic household wealth fell by 66 percent; African American wealth by 53 percent, Asian wealth by 54 percent. During the same period, the median wealth of white households fell by 16 percent.
“These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago,” according to the authors.
A month after the Pew report was released, the results of a survey by the Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming showed that despite efforts by the National Park Service to engage underserved populations, many blacks and Hispanics remain uninvolved in National Parks. The survey found that non-Hispanic whites comprised 78 percent of park visitors in 2008-2009, compared to Hispanics and African-Americans who accounted for only 9 and 7 percent of visitors, respectively, well below their actual proportions of the U.S. population.
Positive signs do exist, including the uptick in attendance at some national parks in the last year, which is often attributed to the recession. Nearby nature is cheaper than a European vacation. But public support for parks and open spaces, at least as reflected by government budgets, seems stalled or falling.
To turn that trend around, we’ll need more folks in the parks and at the conference table; we’ll need to tap our country's “natural cultural capacity.”
I introduced that term in “The Nature Principle” to describe the strengths and capacities of how different cultures connect with nature. Cheryl Charles, C&NN’s president and CEO offers a more fulsome definition: "Natural cultural capacity is wisdom that is rooted in connections with the natural world uniquely associated with ethnic and cultural traditions. These traditions might be historic, or created anew in contemporary times; in any case, they are tied to cultural experience."
Here’s one example. National and state park officials describe, with appreciation, how Hispanic families tend to use parks for family picnics and reunions — social activities now seemingly rare among non-Hispanic whites. Why not encourage that? Some park officials are doing just that.
African Americans also bring their own heritage to the outdoors. “Stereotypes persist that African Americans are physically and spiritually detached from the environment,” writes Dianne D.
Refugee agriculture is, as described by the Times, a new twist on an old phenomenon:
"American agriculture has historically been forged by newcomers, like the Scandinavians who helped settle the Great Plains; today’s growers are more likely to be rural subsistence farmers from Africa and Asia, resettled in and around cities from New York [to] San Diego."
We need a deeper understanding of all of these trends, in wilderness areas, urban parks and neighborhoods. C&NN would like to propose a national conference on the economic, social and cultural barriers to nature (all natural environments, not only parks) as well as the opportunities presented by natural cultural capacity. Building on work already done in this field, we’d like to learn how immigrant groups connect with nature. What wealth do they – or could they – bring to the American outdoor experience? What would encourage their use of parks?
Tapping natural cultural capacity won’t immediately bring back lost jobs or reopen parks, but it would help enrich the broader culture and create a new social and political constituency, with high purpose. Our parks, wildlife refuges, and other natural spaces are where Americans from all backgrounds and economic groups come together. They remain, at least for now, our fields of democratic dreams.
Some of this essay was adapted from “The Nature Principle.”
Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network
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