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As in prior columns, I often borrow inspiration from great thinkers — predecessors who have blazed paths and made an impact in our communities.
I can’t think of a more profound, yet simple, quote on the topic of the environment better than the words of American essayist Wendell Berry: “The Earth is what we all have in common.”
The soil we till and harvest; the rivers, lakes and seas we commonly use; and the air we all breathe are what bind us together.
The mission of our organization is rooted in enhancing the quality of life for all people. Our great parks bring communities and neighborhoods together, as we serve as the hubs for health and well-being for millions across America. In addition to fostering wellness and health on the community level, our country’s parks play a vital part in maintaining thriving ecosystems. Parks across the country support the conservation, protection and stewardship of all our natural resources.
As a park professional committed to access and equity of resources for every resident, I believe strongly that nature — clean, fresh and open spaces in our parks — helps build better citizens, better families, better students and, on the whole, a better community.
In Miami, the Park Conservation Corps, a group of dedicated volunteers and park patrons, have made preservation of natural areas a top priority in their community. This group of Miami-Dade park champions participate in volunteer projects that enhance the heritage of parks and natural areas. The group also learns best practices in landscaping, tree planting, master gardening and coastal stewardship, among other key conservation efforts.
In Chicago, we boast 1,950 acres of natural area. Now, I realize that nearly 2,000 acres may not sound like much to some park systems. But when you consider that only 20 years ago we counted merely 100 acres of natural area, I think we can all agree that Chicago is moving in the right direction.
Still, we live by the depth and variety of our program offerings. Therefore, in addition to adding acreage, we are helping to reconnect children with nature in our city. Our Nature Play Spaces provide valuable outdoor space for kids to have positive, hands-on experiences in nature. Each space is a collaborative community effort, unique to the ecology of the park site and the needs of each neighborhood.
The global pandemic has tested how we offer park programs, and even altered how we interact with each other. Yet, the pandemic has provided the opportunity to refocus on other important elements and work of parks — such as nature and conservation. There are hundreds more organizations and patrons, like the Conservation Corps, committed to the care and improvement of our natural resources. And, there are thousands of spaces across America that could be reimagined as potential hubs for connecting with nature, as we’ve done with Nature Play Spaces.
This challenging moment in history gives us a chance to rethink our communal and personal relationships with nature. It begs us to re-engage with our responsibilities as park professionals — our responsibility to not only serve our patrons, but also the environment.
NRPA’s organizational mission calls for us to serve as catalysts of positive change for equity, climate-readiness and overall well-being. Let’s embrace that call and serve as protectors of our greatest shared asset.
Michael P. Kelly
Chair, NRPA Board of Directors