July 24, 2008

Speaking Sustainably

By Anonymous

NRPA's National Summit on Environmental Stewardship provides a perfect convergence of public parks, environmental sustainability, and community advocacy. For three days in May, nearly 400 participants-leaders in public parks and recreation, conservationists, land stewards, citizen advocates, and others- gathered in Portland, Ore., for NRPA's multi-day National Summit on Environmental Stewardship. More than an event, it was an effort aimed at staking a claim for public parks and recreation in building environmental stewardship and advancing community leadership in sustainable practices.

Set against the perfect backdrop-Portland is a city that essentially caters to walkers and bicyclists-participants learned about stewardship opportunities from experts across the country, witnessed keynote addresses from some of the brightest minds in environmental sustainability, and toured a city renowned for its livability.

From Sustainable South Bronx's Miquela Craytor, who spoke about revitalizing neighborhoods through "green" job growth and citizen empowerment, to Jim Desmond, director of Portland's Metro Parks and Greenspaces Department, who addressed the importance of partnerships and relationships in creating sustainable regional landscapes, session presenters focused on the three pillars of stewardship as defined by the summit: people, parks, and public land.

"People need to feel empowered to be a part of environmental change and restoration," said Craytor. "They need to understand what they can do to be a part of change-how to restore landscapes, how to remove invasive species, how to do water testing."

Bigger than sprawl, bigger than climate change, crowd favorite Gina McCarthy, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, told summit participants that the biggest problem we face today is the disconnect between children and nature.

"Parks are critical to the well-being of society today," said McCarthy, "and kids aren't getting there anymore. What have we done? Half of the kids today between the ages of 9 and 12 never hike, fish, or play at the beach. Never."

But less an indictment than a spotlight on how communities are enhancing livability, the summit celebrated the achievements that public park and recreation agencies are making in leading local environmental and sustainability efforts.

Consider the following:

* The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by participating in the Cool Counties Initiative, a voluntary program aimed at shrinking the causes of global warming. The authority's efforts at one of its golf courses, for example, saved enough energy to heat and cool 103 homes for a year.

* The Chicago Park District's arsenal of nature-based programs include Helping Us Grow, or HUG, community gardening, which provides garden space in local parks where residents can test their green thumbs and learn about planting and reaping, and the Junior Earth Team, a career-development program for teens that fosters a connection with the natural environment and encourages young people to consider environmental careers.

"This summit," said NRPA interim CEO Katie Grove, "is a beginning, an introduction to how intimately involved public parks and recreation is to contributing to reconnecting people with nature and solving problems around conservation, sustainability, and the environment. These are big issues. I believe that our members and other stakeholder groups are up to the challenge."

NRPA Chair Lois Finkelman addresses summit attendees.

A Keynote Triple Play

NRPA's National Summit on Environmental Stewardship provided three electric keynote speakers: author Richard Louv, environmentalist Larry Selzer, and state parks advocate Gina McCarthy. While each was unique in his or her own message, all shared a common theme regarding the crucial need surrounding the reintroduction of our nation's youth to the outdoors.

Below, a sampling of what delegates heard from each speaker:

Richard Louv

Author, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From NatureDeficit Disorder

"Parks need to be seen as preventive medicine. And we need to move to support organizations that help parents and kids feel safe outdoors."

Larry Selzer

CEO and President, The Conservation Fund

"The virtual is replacing the real. Perhaps it is time to seek a little more balance. We need to [consider creating] a children's bill of rights. This is a compelling vision of America. It needs to become mine and yours."

Gina McCarthy

Commissioner, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection

"Bigger than sprawl, bigger than climate change, the biggest problem we face today is the disconnect between children and nature. The enemy is those who never go outside. Is a kid who has never climbed a tree going to care if a forest is cut down?"

Toward a Stewardship Ethic

When delegates gathered for a working lunch on the final day of the summit, their goal was to participate in a formative discussion that will lead to the creation of a National Stewardship Ethic for Parks and Recreation. This call to action will encourage park and recreation leaders, advocates, and other stakeholders to embrace sustainability and preservation leadership as crucial to advancing the value of our mission.

Attendees were asked two questions:

1. Do the philosophies and principles in the draft National Stewardship Ethic best capture the responsibility of parks and recreation and best position NRPA to contribute to the support of parks and recreation to advance this ethic?

2. What guiding stewardship practices should NRPA articulate and endorse as part of a National Stewardship Ethic?

Responses from table to table ran the gamut from ideas for engaging kids in nature through technology to working collaboratively with state and local governments to encourage regional planning solutions.

The final day's working lunch addressed the creation of a National Stewardship Ethic.

On Tour

Participants took advantage of a sunny, warm day in Portland to enjoy a number of Summit Educational Tours developed by the local host committee. From a tour of the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, a 170-acre refuge on the east bank of Portland's Willamette River, to a sternwheeler cruise around Ross Island and Portland Harbor, delegates had an upfront look at the city's laudable efforts to improve fish and wildlife habitat, restore wetlands, and promote sustainable transportation.

Copyright National Recreation and Park Association Jul 2008

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