Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the International Bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

From the Blog

Saving the Field 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.

Never, until now. During the Great Depression state and national parks were valued not only for the nature they preserved but for the jobs they provided and their positive economic impact on nearby private businesses. That was then, this is now. A different political climate, changing economic realities, and the widening gap between rich and poor could, literally, change the landscape.

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. Glave, an African American, in “Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage.” “This wrongheaded notion is so ingrained in our culture that many of us have begun to believe it ourselves.” The symbolism and meaning of outdoor experiences are often very different from those experienced by other groups, she points out. There’s been some work (including Audubon’s excellent Latino Diversity Initiative) on cultural connections to nature. We need to know more.

Natural cultural capacity can also translate into natural political capacity. “Portland was once a lily-white city. With more Hispanic and Asian immigration, we’re changing rapidly,” says Mike Houck, director of Portland, Oregon’s Urban Greenspaces Institute and a member of the city’s park board. His own efforts to connect with minority communities (“minority” is a increasingly inaccurate word) fell short, until he turned to Spanish speaking residents of the neighborhood. They helped translate a local wildlife guide and a local Spanish-language radio station also helped the cause. At a subsequent rally, 450 Hispanic residents showed up and many became engaged in protection of the Columbia Slough watershed. “It all depends on your approach,” says Houck.

In addition, exit polls showed that California parks and open space bond measures during the last decade were overwhelmingly supported by Latino voters, in far higher proportions than non-Hispanic whites.

Today, the officials of many parks are working hard to promote greater diversity among visitors, rangers and other workers. Another focus is on children and youth, especially from minority communities.
Our experience with C&NN’s Natural Leaders program is that inner city youths can become the most profoundly convincing advocates for outdoor experience – when they get a chance to have that experience.

A 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps, as proposed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would help, especially as it connects young people to future jobs. Another way to build a new constituency among all groups is to connect our parks to mental and physical health. “Park prescription” programs that partner pediatricians with state and local park rangers are increasingly popular. “Prescribe parks, not Prozac,” says Coleman, who also hopes to enlist the help of businesses, outdoor recreation groups, and perhaps family nature clubs to keep some of parks now on the chopping block at least partially functional.

In addition, a recent article by The New York Times reports on a growing source of natural cultural capacity within many cities: refugee agriculture.

The article describes one effort, San Diego’s New Roots, which serves 88 growers from 12 countries, including “Congolese women in flowing dresses, Somali Muslims in headscarves, Latino men wearing broad-brimmed hats and Burundian mothers in brightly patterned textiles who walk home balancing boxes of produce on their heads.” This is one of more than 50 community farms dedicated to “an entrepreneurial movement spreading across the country.”

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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The closing of so many state parks is a shame, especially after all the publicity national parks have had with the film and so on. I like the tone of your post though. It is positive and solution-oriented.

Mr. Louv—Thank you. This story and an earlier one in Orion inspired a recent post on our need for nature:

Best, Emily Shoff

Access to natural parks is so important. Being in a city we can start to forget just how amazing outdoors really is and how unnatural city living is.

I couldn’t agree more! In Shanghai, China, the large Century Park is a key meeting place for not just local Chinese but also the expat community of US, UK, European folk who all live in a urban, if slightly green, jungle but desire and need clean air and real deep green. Here, families play and learn alongside each other in clear harmony. Refreshing!

Henricus Peters!/LearnFromNature

Yeah, it is announced by the California State Parks that they plan to close up to 70 of its 278 parks because of budget cuts. Though they may regret closing these parks, the proposed budget reductions can no longer afford to operate all the parks within the system. The goals of developing this closure methodology is to protect the most significant natural and cultural resource and to maintain public access and revenue generation to a greatest extent possible. It would also protect parks so that they remain attractive and usable for potential partners. And this methodology has already been approved.

Interesting article. A pity this is happening as there is so much to be seen/experienced when visiting a park.
  Are the powers-that-be open to the idea of organizations taking-over the parks and becoming caretakers?

I like trees. People living in the cities should have access to parks and get a chance to be with nature. So where are they putting the “budget” previously for parks? What are their priorities?

It is really sad news. Because of the recession nature and the natural world is going to suffer. The cut off is too high. We need a clear and deeper understanding about this issue. As you said here, there are so many ways to improve the condition of our parks and places, getting skilled persons from angies list, and other services would make sure that the work is done in a better manner. Public support is another important thing in this matter. I think things will change slowly because the recession period is totally over and we can clearly see the progress now.

When economy goes well ecology is not the first priority and when recession comes, ecology is one of the first to suffer. In my opinion it can be good to work on it but maybe, sometimes, it can be also good to let nature alone. When I say that I have in head that when human leave a place nature comes back whereas everywhere humain is, nature regress.
I think we can find a road between both…

I work with Hispanics that come in to work for a month or two and then leave.  Quite a few want to know where the local parks are “so we can make bar-b-que.” 

However, they’re also afraid.  Two almost drowned at a lake recently, but no one would call for help because some (not all) in the group were illegal.

The state of our national parks closing is sad to say the least. We have a large family and always used these parks as our vacation - since vacationing at a hotel just wasn’t the best option. I hate seeing so many of these parks suffer.

I think it’s so sad that all of these state parks are disappearing, particularly with the film causing so much hype. I agree that the recession has played a large part in this decision. Lets hope things don’t get any worse!


The question is: How can the Outdoor Ideals of yesteryear be reinterpreted to reach and connect with today’s society - in all its multicultural manifestations?

This, of course, is a rhetorical question - for now - but establishes a perspective from which one can explore myriad permutations and possibilities of answers based on individual experiences.

Back in the day, when my family took a two-week Summer vacation, we would spend the duration tent camping in a Redwood Forest. Or riding horseback along a ridge to get a closer look at Half Dome. Or climbing to a vantage point to gaze in awe into the magical blue waters of Crater Lake.

This was my childhood - and I feel quite blessed for the experiences and memories. And thank goodness my father was a decent photographer, so I have the pictures, as well.

Fast forward to today…

Tapping natural cultural capacity is all fine and good in theory, but for a campaign of this nature (pardon the pun)to be even minimally successful, would require - quite literally - an act of Congress and untold funding.

I don’t mean to sound cynical and I’ll apologize now for stating the obvious, but the world has become a fast-paced, I-don’t-need-a-vacation, doing-more-is-better, make-as-much-money-as-possible and do-it-all-again-tomorrow-so-we-don’t-get-to-far-behind place to live(deep breath).

Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy for nature. At the very least, it shifts priorities and dampens the urge to connect with nature. Leaving instead, to prioritize more primal urges, like survival.

Until a movement emerges that can supplant the daily distractions of our world and gain enough viable backing and support, I will wistfully believe in what is possible, because it has been - and can be again.

I’ll be walking in the woods this Saturday morning - Christmas Eve - with my wife. It is a marvelous way to start the day, end the week and celebrate the Holidays.

For the record… I’m on board.

Wayne Nelson

I agree. But, there needs to be an easier way for people to get out and visit nature. Our national park system is incredible, but I never really knew that until I took two weeks and drove across country. Its amazing how many of parks and overlooks, and roadside stops there are out there available to us….and many of us just don’t get out there to see them. When you live in Philadelphia, it just isn’t something that you think about…taking a little drive to get into nature for an afternoon.

We should conserve our natural resources and save the fields.

I agree with you…. More natures more benefits for us..

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