Should Parks and Recreation Care about Climate Change?
One of the more perplexing long term issues facing parks and
recreation is how to deal with the issue of climate change. Clearly, public opinion is changing—a recent
national poll by the Washington Post
and Stanford University showed that global warming is no longer the top
environmental concern for even half the population. Global warming, although still regarded as an
important environmental threat, has fallen to third place in the minds of
Americans behind concerns about air and water pollution.
Are climate change conditions affecting parks and
recreation? Many say yes, right now, and
with much more to come—and we better be taking preventative steps or the
consequences will be profound. Others
say not so fast—even if it is happening, it’s not as big of a problem as some
are making it out to be. The scientific community
is mostly united on the issue—see the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC)—but the opinions of the public, elected officials, and
even the media are far less conclusive.
So what’s the big deal?
How are parks and recreation being affected right now?
Anyone who lived through the extreme heat in the
mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Southwest, and West this summer will tell you that they
are seeing increasing signs of dramatic changes in the weather affecting how
they manage their parks and facilities and how the public recreates in their
parks and programs. Whether climate change is happening due to manmade causes
or from long-term climate cycles, it is happening and it’s happening right now.
In the long run, we will experience more
frequent extreme weather events as a consequence of global warming because the
atmosphere is becoming more loaded with heat-trapping gases, however they are
A quick look at the big picture: High temperature records
are being broken with increasing regularity.
The decade 2000-2010 was the hottest decade since records started being
kept in the late 1800s. The first six
months of 2012 have been the hottest period on record and over 40,000 high
temperature records were set in U.S. cities in July alone. However, it’s not just high temperature
records that are being set with increasing regularity in this decade. It is
also that a proliferation of extended heat waves and droughts are now affecting
very large areas of the United States. The
long cycles of daytime temperatures exceeding 95 or 100 degrees for weeks at a
time, with little cooling at night, exacerbate drought conditions and wildfires
in the West and Southwest. Extreme heat waves, previously experienced about
once every 20 years, could become as frequent as every other year.
As a result of these conditions, there is less resilience in
our natural and man-made infrastructure.
Paradoxically, the trend toward more extreme weather means that there
will be both drought and floods more frequently. Take, for example, how some
major park systems have been affected by drought. As many as 6 million trees died in Houston in
the past year, most on park land, and some estimates say that the total number eventually
could be up to 10 times that many. The
mass tree death has significantly impacted the Houston Department of Parks and
Recreation, busting maintenance budgets, causing ecological damage, and
creating fears for public safety. Other
agencies have suffered damages from extreme weather events, especially the
impacts of extremely heavy rains, flooding, and high winds from storms that
cause large-scale landscape and infrastructure damage.
Additionally, emerging evidence suggests that the urban heat
island effect in high-asphalt, low tree-cover urban communities can raise
temperatures much more than previously thought, perhaps as much as 10 to 20
degrees. But in a larger picture, higher
average annual temperatures as well as localized high heat events are
unquestionably changing the face of outdoor recreation. Changes happening right now range from
shorter winter ski and snow sports seasons to unbearable urban heat conditions
that make outdoor recreation all but impossible in large parts of the
country. Who wants to plan outdoor
summer day camp games when the temperature tops 100 degrees and air quality is
Code Red for multiple days?
How will these kinds of weather and climate conditions
affect the effort of parks and recreation to reduce childhood obesity and to
connect kids to nature and the outdoors?
“Let’s get outside and get in touch with nature, kids!” the day-camp
leader says. “Yeah, right…” the kids
Are there answers?
Are there effective strategies for adaptation? Yes—there are, and parks themselves provide
one of the keys to adapting to climate change.
The natural landscapes we manage and maintain provide the keys to
long-term adaptability and sustainability.
The ecosystem services of parks have been taken for granted, but there
is growing recognition that they provide measurable economic benefits because
they clean the air, cool temperatures, purify water, and perform other
services. We urgently need to quantify
the environmental benefits of clean air, clean water, vegetation, urban forest
cover, undeveloped flood plains for stormwater management, and other ecological
benefits of parks, and calculate their economic value.
Additionally, parks and recreation likely will need to develop
new strategies for public recreation.
Does this mean more morning and evening programs, and more creative and
innovative use of technology? Yes, that
and more. We will need to think about
redesigning parks and facilities, increasing water features for conservation
and recreation while preventing damaging flooding, and keeping park visitors
shaded and cool.
Many elected officials, especially at the city, county, and
municipal level, are not waiting for the scientific proof. They are prudently planning for a future in
which sea levels will be rapidly rising, in which extreme weather events will
destroy power and communications infrastructure, and in which resources to cope
with damages will be greatly reduced.
Mayors and city elected officials are embracing plans to plant more
trees, employ non-structural solutions for stormwater, and promote better air
and water quality. Almost invariably,
these wide-ranging solutions involve parks and recreation. The Mayor of New York tasked the Department
of Parks and Recreation as the lead agency in his campaign to plant a million
trees in New York City. The mayor of
Philadelphia tasked city agencies to take a comprehensive view of how to improve stormwater management using natural drainage systems and natural water storage capacity, much of this "graywater" infrastructure in parks.
Parks as green infrastructure is an idea whose time has come. We can meet the challenges that climate change brings. Is is up to us to adapt to what the future brings--we have no alternative.
Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA's Vice President for Conservation and Parks.