Monday, October 15, 2007
The Importance of the Manmade Environment - Blog Action Day
I was going to write about the George W. Bush's administration's record on the environment. I did a quick search and found that there are dozens of websites devoted to showing the heinous record Bush has on the environment. Under Bush, the EPA has weakened many laws pertaining to clean air and water, and of course there is always the threat of drilling for oil in sensitive areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
However, there were so many sites that listed out all of the actions Bush and his government have taken to denigrate the environment that I just felt as if it was too easy - like shooting fish in a barrel. And a lot of the sites were only updated at the time of the most recent elections so finding more recent information would have been more time-consuming. If you want a summary of actions by the Bush Administration that hurt our environment, please see this site.
So, instead of that topic, I'm going to write about the importance of parkland in our country and in our lives. So often when we talk of "the evironment," we think only of the wild natural environment, and not the manmade environment. But parks are an important part of the green areas of our country; both the National Parks, and the local parks.
Many people don't realize the planning that went into the creation of the National Park System. They may believe that great tracts of wild land were just set aside and that was the end of it. However, although it is true that a lot of these parks were wilderness, the idea behind the parks was to open them up for people to enjoy.
According to the National Park Service website,
"The artist George Catlin first articulated the idea of large western national parks in 1832, the same year Congress set aside the Hot Springs Reservation in central Arkansas, now known as Hot Springs National Park. On a trip to the Dakotas Catlin worried about the impact of America's westward expansion on Indian civilization, wildlife and wilderness. They might be preserved, he wrote, "by some great protecting policy of government . . . in a magnificent park . . . A nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!"
Then in 1864, Abraham Lincoln authorized the transfer of the Yosemite Valley to the state of California for "public use, resort and recreation." He appointed Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of Central Park, as chairman of the board of commissioners established to oversee the administration of the land.
Olmsted had a philosophy of leisure based on the need for ordinary citizens to be exposed to the rhythms of the natural world in order to give them perspective in their busy, rapidly urbanizing, lives. For him this meant that parks had to have restaurants and hotels and carriage paths and trails, so that a leisurely appreciation of nature was possible. His thought was to preserve the wilderness as much as possible while still allowing people to enjoy the parks.
However, Yosemite did not officially become a National Park until naturalist John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson, the editor of Century magazine, lobbied for its designation as a park after seeing that flocks of domestic sheep were destroying the natural environment in 1889. As a result, on October 1, 1890, the U.S. Congress set aside more than 1,500 square miles of land to be preserved, which became Yosemite National Park. It included the area surrounding Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were ceded from the state of California's control and included with Yosemite National Park in 1906.
Yellowstone was actually the first official National Park, designated in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant.
Many more areas were set aside as national parks after these two. You can find a full list of them on the National Park Service website.
The Olmsted vision for the national parks was similar to his vision for the urban parks he designed, but on a larger scale.
Along with Calvert Vaux, Olmsted had designed Central Park in 1858. He envisioned the park as a place of respite for people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities. His vision of parkland included wide open spaces, curving pathways, and separation of traffic from footpaths. He objected to including too many types of active recreation or buildings, as his art was done with nature itself.
Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm went on to design many other famous parks and landscapes, including Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the "Emerald Necklace" park system in Boston and the Arnold Arboretum, the grounds of Stanford University, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and more.
The Olmsted firm designed the Essex County Park System, the first county park system in the country. By this point Olmsted was at the end of his career and his sons had taken over the business, still carrying on his philosophy of landscape design. Branch Brook Park was the first park designed for the system, in 1898. A new book on Branch Brook Park has recently been published as part of Images of America series if you would like more information.
This scene is a band concert at Branch Brook Park in 1907 (from the Essex County website).
Today parks are more important than ever, providing green space for children and adults to enjoy during hot summer days, being used for both active and passive recreation. Parks are green oases in the heart of our cities, and even beyond the pleasure they give the residents, they also serve a useful purpose in helping keep the air clean, and providing a pervious surface so water can be absorbed during heavy rains or flooding.
But funding for all of our parks is dwindling, and unless more money is continually allocated to parks, these precious resources deteriorate. Ten years ago our local park was run down, full of litter, with broken benches, deteriorating buildings and graffiti-ridden bridges.
Now, as a result of efforts of our local neighborhood group, in conjunction with new leadership at the county level, the park has returned to its former glory and once again is the jewel in the middle of our semi-urban neighborhood.
But it was only through state grant money that this was able to be accomplished. And government cutbacks continue to threaten the availability of this source of funding. We must remain alert to ensure that the manmade landscapes in our midst continue to be maintained and improved.