I first got an inkling of how different people view nature a few years back, when I was running a small neighborhood non-profit.  We had a community garden that we ran on land owned by another non-profit, and teens in our program managed it as a job.  In addition, we had a number of volunteers who worked in the garden.  It is fairly accurate to say that most of our volunteers were European Americans between the ages of 21 and 35, mostly female.  Our youth employees were between the ages of 14 and 19, African American with some Latin American and Asian American youth, and mostly boys.

One day, as I was working on a task with one of the volunteers, she began talking about how much she loved the garden and what a great training opportunity it was for the kids.  As we were talking, two Latino men in their 20s walked by and yelled some encouragements over the fence at the kids.

Point of interest: people yelled at us a lot in the garden.  If we were behind the chain link fence, people would yell at us like red-headed step-children.  We could literally be standing 2 ft. apart on either side of the fence and people would be yelling at us like we were at the other end of the block — more so if they were complementing kids; maybe they thought it meant more if they “turned it up to 11.”  After a while the kids actually spoke more quietly to each other, sort of as an antidote.  Go figure.

Anyway, I took the yelled compliment in stride, with a smile.  I turned to the volunteer and she had this exasperated look on her face.  When asked why, she said it was such a shame we couldn’t get any of those guys to volunteer.  Couldn’t they see what a contribution they could make?   Now these two men were covered in mud to their waists, carrying hardhats and tools.  They had obviously spent a whole day doing hard physical labor.  But our volunteer couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t want to put in another hour or so working for free in the garden.  Didn’t they understand this was a ‘good thing to do?’

Clearly, she had a very different idea of what the garden was for than the two men walking by.  For her, the garden was a place for healthy exertion and ‘work-as-play.’  For the two men, it was a nice place to visit, but a lot like their 9-to-5.  Their views were so different that she heard them complimenting kids for a stewarship project and beautifying the neighborhood when it was more likely they were congratulating the youth on developing job skills and getting paid at an honest job.

The problem can be seen through a variety of lenses; one of them is how different people with different experiences construct and commodify “nature.”  The question is relevant in the discussion on shrinking cities because we are discussing, in declining cities throughout the Rust Belt, clearing hundreds, if not thousands, of derilect structures and implementing urban greening strategies.

These plans are informed by the experiences and biases of everyone involved.  The conflict arises from the cultures at play in these decision processes.  Populations of moderate and low-income residents from diverse backgrounds, in depopulating communities; and college-educated managers and consultants from upper-income homogeneous environments.  Whose conseption of “nature” gets reflected in the final scheme?  Do people stay in communities that don’t validate their experience of “nature?”

In the book Uncommon Ground, William Cronon essay on definitions of nature makes the point that the European nature concept is built around the idea that man and nature are separate and that Wilderness or Landscape are perfected places, separate from our day-to-day lives.  Even earlier, Denis Cosgrove wrote in Social Formation and the Landscape that “landscape” itself is primarily an idea, and one that arose in Europe with advent of an affluent class that did not spend their days working the land.  Land is only “landscape” if you have time to stand around and look at it, which was probably not the case for serfs and field hands.

The landscape and wilderness ideas are the basis for much of our current management practices and debate about the environment.  As an example, compare the village green and the neighborhood park.  The green was a domesticated landscape that hosted commerce, ritual and recreation.  The park is typically held apart from any sort of economic activity as a pure — alusion intended — recreational space.  This separation of recreation and commerce is ingrained in recreational management education and zoning laws.  This despite the fact that parks and recreation departments are almost always under-funded and forced to cut services and maintenance.

So why can’t park space generate revenue?  Some would say that making recreational space “free” promotes access by people at all levels.  But there are multiple ways to generate revenue in recreational space that don’t involve charging visitors.  Spaces as diverse as the National Mall and Disney World encourge some commerce on their grounds to provide minimal services to their guests.

So how does this connect to shrinking cities?  Large sections of these cities are slated to become parkland of some sort.  If commerce and recreation can’t be reconciled, decision-makers will be take big parts of poor communities essentially bar commerce from them forever — or at least ’til a single entity with mad cash shows up and buys the land.  I contend that, in economically struggling communities, we need to give residents as much room to make ends meet as possible, including room in parks.

It an open question whether many of these schemes will be implemented in whole or part.  Certainly, provision and programming of open spaces are one element among many.  But in the documents as diverse as the AIA report for Detroit and the EcoCity Plan for Alexandria, “nature” is a key element.  For the sake of the residents in cities such as Detriot, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, we can only hope that all parties can agree what “nature” needs to mean in these difficult circumstances.

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