When you grow up in Chicago, the relationship between parks and water is pretty obvious. The green ribbon of Chicago’s lakefront parks provides a spectacular setting for city residents to recreate on Lake Michigan, whether it’s at the beach, on a boat, or on a shoreline bike ride or walk. Here in the Washington, D.C., area, where I live now, water plays a different aesthetic role in setting the scene for the nation’s monuments. And for mental health benefits in this perpetually stressed-out city, we have the massive cataract of the Great Falls of the Potomac River to put our puny troubles into perspective.
Those of us in Gen X and younger generations, no matter where we grew up, have been fortunate enough to only have known our local waters since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Although perhaps most famous for preventing the type and level of industrial pollution that once caused rivers to catch fire, the act’s later amendments concerning “non-point sources” such as stormwater runoff are the ones that most concern parks today. More and more, parks are supplementing the “gray infrastructure” — massive and expensive sewage projects — with “green infrastructure.” In Philadelphia, a unique partnership between the water and park departments provides cost savings, improved parks and better water quality, all of which makes for happier and healthier residents. And using parks as mitigation banks to offset nearby development, as described by NRPA’s Rich Dolesh, has great potential to restore impaired streams and waterways in parks at no cost to the taxpayer.
Citizens rely on parks to conserve and protect their natural resources, including water. These days, water does not come cheap, either fiscally or ecologically, so park and recreation agencies also need to be innovative in conserving water while still providing quality playing fields and golf courses. Whether low or high tech, water conservation provides a leadership opportunity for park and recreation departments in their communities. And, finally, what better way to introduce citizens to their local waters than by creating water trails that also provide a unique recreation experience? Not to mention the tourism economy that such a water trail can also generate.
Water permeates, literally, parks and recreation and all three pillars of conservation, health and wellness, and social equity. With prolonged droughts bringing too little water and superstorms bringing too much, let’s re-examine how parks fit into a community’s natural water system. As amazing as the relationship between parks and water already is, cities are just beginning to realize the potential for so much more.