Post-Parks Conference Thoughts

I’ve taken more notes than I’ve been able to blog just yet, and the conference is already over. I came to the conference to see what opportunities there might be for a former researcher for a major park advocacy group to stroll back into the world of park professionals after cutting his teeth working on everything but parks for the past two and a half years. I left with a stack of business cards I need to follow up on and a list of topics I need to research more about. That’s pretty standard for a good conference. There’s a fleeting moment for riding the crest of post-conference momentum. I’m feeling more resolved and recommitted to the intention and decision that motivated me to become a planner in the first place back in 2002, and I have some specific avenues I want to develop in order to become a more capable advocate for parks and sustainable, healthy cities. In all, I’m re-oriented in my career and this is a good thing.

I want to thank Linda Everhart and Helen Goodman for helping me to volunteer work and attend the conference. Linda’s son Ian, recently returned to the States from Honduras, had pretty much everything under control from the technical side, so besides session monitoring, my job was pretty easy. I mostly backed him up at critical moments. (Looking forward to seeing Ian at work registering Ohio voters in the next couple of weeks.)

Back in Cincinnati, electricity is restored but the cable feeding our house Internet access is still down. So I’m writing this from Sitwells, my favorite coffeehouse in Clifton near the University of Cincinnati, rather than from my usual hermitage in the wilds of North Avondale. This will put a cramp in my blogging up my notes from the rest of the conference but I hope to complete this by the end of the week. Here’s just a brief rundown of what I’ll be writing about:

The No Child Left Inside Act, and the movement that links childhood recreation, nature education, parks, and open space conservation. One of the exciting themes I found at this conference was the search for a driving issue that promotes better park funding and resonates across a broad and bipartisan constituency of voters, interest groups, and politicians. That issue seems to have been discovered by linking parks with the desire to give children the freedom to explore their childhood outside, and a genuine fear rooted in nostalgia, that too many kids are absolutely disconnected from nature. (Unfortunately I didn’t hear enough talk linking this issue with Smart Growth and land use, since the pervasive sprawl of low-density housing subdivisions has forced children to constantly rely on their parent’s cars, and thus their parents, to meet friends and visit places.) Have you read Rosa Park’s article at the LA Times on “the erosion of free, unstructured outdoor play”? This issue connects with the parenting movement to nurture more independent minded children unshackled from media conditioned fear of their absuction by strangers. Back in April of this year Mark Frauenfelder and Cory Doctorow began posting about this parents movement. See Mark’s post on Lenore Skenazy’s article on her letting her 9 year old ride the subway alone here and Cory’s post on Free Range Kids here. Luis Acosta, Richard Dolesh, and Richard Louv all remarked on this topic. I’m excited to be seeing the dots connected.

On the Economic Value of Parks. The search for better ways to communicate both the tangible and intangible values of urban parks continues. Besides the critical importance of nature awareness in benefiting the process of childhood maturation, park professionals and advocates are still struggling to realize a common set of instructions for calculating the economic benefits of parks. We need absolutely need a more academically oriented conference that brings together consultants and academic park researchers to begin nailing down some industry standards and doing some peer review on this topic. In general I want to see more rigour attached to this question since park departments are already looking for someone to provide this analysis. Luis Acosta proposed the idea of a “Green Line” akin to the Poverty Line, to determine the minimal amount of greenspace needed to live healthfully. How can this be studied by psychologists? It seems more practical to first nail down the Green Line in terms of the seven economic benefits already proposed by Peter Harnik in his work at the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence. The issue of economic values for parks is regularly published on in academic journals. Since academic journals are not easily accessible (or their indexes easily searchable) by non-academic professionals, I believe there is a dire need to bridge the practitioner-academic divide here.

On the trailblazing park work being done in NYC. I had the fortune of monitoring the session moderated by Peter Harnik entitle “When the Rubber Meets the Green: Cars in Parks.” Harnik gave an overview of worst and best practices across the country, shining a light on his exceptional and broad grasp of the diverse solutions park architects and transportation planners have wrestled with when visioning the best use of available open space. Barry Bessler of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission provided the specific example of the road closures along the Schuylkill River Park greenway. Lastly, Andy Wiley-Schwartz, fomerly of Project for Public Spaces, gave an amazing presentation on the new work initiated by NYC’s Department of Transportation in reclaiming the open commons and asphalt of city streets into plazas and parks. Wiley-Schwartz’s work frankly blew my mind. Looking forward to researching and writing more on this. He’s only been there a little over a year and so many good things to show for it.

Besides these topics I also want to write about my experience in Pittsburgh, on my bicycle adventure along the Ohio River last Sunday. I also enjoyed a dérive of downtown Pittsburgh Monday night with Bernard Luyiga, a city councilman from Kampala, Uganda. He was at the conference in order to learn more about parks and preserving public space. With Google Earth, Luyiga showed me acres of public park land in Kampala that had been appropriated for private development by government officials in league with developers.

I’ve taken bunches of pics so I have to upload them first now available here.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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