Saturday, November 14, 2009

Green Metropolis by David Owen

David Owen and Nature & Parks

David Owen has what seems to me to be contradictory views on nature. On p. 192, he discusses the growing trend toward "videophilia" - Americans, particularly children, stay home and watch movies rather than leave their homes and exert themselves in the natural world. This is connected to the growing rise of obesity (which is at 42% even in Manhattan, the island that Owen views as the model for the rest of the world). At the same time, Owen also advocates:

"A sensitive person's first reaction to the mounting evidence that Americans. especially young Americans, may be losing interest in directly experiencing the natural world is likely to be of regret and loss, or even despair. But is it necessarily a bad thing, globally speaking? It seems perverse to say so, but sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular outdoor recreational activities, including most of the ones that the most committed environmentalists tend to favor for themselves. In the end, it may not be a bad thing for the earth or the human race if increasing numbers of Americans would rather watch our shrunken wildernesses on TV" (p. 199-200).

It is this quote that drove me out of the hour into a two-hour trek in the park across the street from me. What Owen appears to not consider is this mentality will lead to the destruction of the parks. If you can just watch them on TV or experience them in a virtual environment, then why keep the actual park? Sell off the land and build condos on it, flood it with a dam, strip mine the mountains into plains. Shoot all the animals in canned hunts.

I recently went to a community board meeting where someone present at the meeting complained that raccoons were getting into her garbage and couldn't the board put down poison to kill all the raccoons in the neighborhood. I see raccoons all the time - in the spring, I see raccoon babies with their mom. I also see possums, chipmunks, and smell skunks. It would never occur to me to kill these animals; watching their families enriches my life and those of my neighbors. We simply keep the garbage safely contained until garbage day to minimize problems. Since we have less of a disconnect with wild animals, we are able to see the value of their lives and to work to preserve them.

Owen also seems to prefer sanitized parks. In his comment on Central Park, he notes:

"Central Park covers 843 acres. Those acres would work far better, and function less as a barrier to the overall human flow, if they had been situated somewhere other than in the center of the city, or were penetrated by many more artificial attractions (concession stands, restaurants, sports facilties, museums, playgrounds, theaters) designed to generate and sustain an unbroken chain of lively interaction all the way across the park" (p. 169-170).

My reaction to this passage was, once again, to go for a walk in my park. I live next to Forest Park. Forest Park, along with Central Park and Propect Park, were all three designed by Frederick Olmstead. Olmstead's park designs usually include a wild area (in Central Park this is called The Ramble) that recreates the original forest. In Forest Park, this area is an oak wood crossed by dirt paths. When you enter this oak wood, you enter the Queens of four hundred years ago, before Henry Hudson sailed to Manhattan. All you can see are trees with birds flitting around and chipmunks and squirrels scurrying at your feet. You can smell the rich loam of the forest floor. Invariably I (and whoever is with me) get lost for an hour or so before I locate a trail marking that leads me to the perimeter of the forest and one of the perimeter paths that border the street. My visits are sometimes mildly frightening as I have no sense of direction, but always refreshing.

The beauty of Central Park is that it allows Manhattanites to have a similar experience. Anyone who lives in Manhattan can easily visit a concession stand or museum or theater - they trip over them on the street. Entering a bird-filled forest where for an hour you can get away from people only to re-emerge into Manhattan is an enormous luxury for people who spend their lives in extremely small apartments. Owen, a suburbanite, doesn't want a park - he wants an open-air mall in the middle of the city. I doubt that most city-dwellers will agree with him.

In my next post, I will discuss the pros and cons of sprawl.

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