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Should Parks and Recreation Care about Climate Change?

2012-08-01, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

Climate change will impact parks just when we need them most .

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 being caused.   

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 say.

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. 

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