Are parks still relevant?

There is an interesting article published in The Economist this month about declining visitation numbers in national parks, particularly among young Americans. The article, “Why go outside when you have an iPhone?,” concludes that today’s youth are more interested in roller coasters and techie entertainment than they are in our natural spaces.

“The National Park Service has all manner of explanations for its stagnating popularity. The simplest is that other forms of entertainment are distracting Americans from its charms. As Jonathan Jarvis, its director, put it in 2011: “There are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passé than in the age of the iPhone.” A spokesman cites the proliferation of middle-class holiday options in recent decades, from time-share accommodation that makes a regular stay at the beach affordable to family-focused developments in spots like central Florida and Las Vegas.”

Read the full article here.

In a world of Facebook, Wi-Fi and endless gadgets, this conclusion makes sense. Couple this with tough economic times and high gas prices, and it is no surprise that fewer families are taking road trips to America’s national parks.

There is something greatly unsettling about this trend. Because truly, it seems like Americans could benefit from parks and natural spaces now more than ever before.

As someone who is an established park lover, “Why go outside when you have an iPhone?” seems like a silly question. I go outside precisely because I have an iPhone … so I can turn it off, escape my screens, and get away from the hustle and bustle of my city, job and never-ending email. I’d venture to guess that many of my fellow park lovers feel the same way. The natural world is an amazing respite from our 21st Century lives.

Yet I only know the benefits because I have already been exposed to them and have experienced them first hand. Not everyone has had these experiences.

As the article goes on to explain, there are entire new generations growing up in America who don’t know what they are missing … because they have never been introduced to the parks, and they have no reason to be. They have no cultural connection, no personal history in the parks, and plenty of distractions to keep their attention elsewhere. America has become more diverse, but parks have not diversified their appeal.

Future-Park-LoversThis is an interesting challenge for an organization like ours. How can we make our natural spaces and parks relevant, accessible and important to ALL Americans? Our California state parks, in particular, offer an amazing array of natural, cultural and historical resources across the entire state. Whether or not Californians know about these places, prefer them as a destination or truly value them in their lives is a question we want to explore further.

Yesterday we held a meeting of the minds to discuss these very concepts. With a room full of diverse experts, we explored relevancy of state parks to the diverse California population, and the things that drive different people to explore and experience the outdoors. We plan to continue this work and hope you will stay engaged with us as we strive to engage more people with California state parks than ever before.

We truly believe that everyone can benefit from connecting with their state parks. If that means introducing parks to new generations of Californians and Americans, then we are up for the challenge.

What’s your response to, “Why go outside when you have an iPhone?”?

– Alexis Stoxen, California State Parks Foundation

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15 thoughts on “Are parks still relevant?

  1. It’s a funny question in a way – why would young people ignore the wild nature humans have lived in for eons and get lost in technologies barely 30 years old? Because they can, I suspect. And, let’s face it, it’s a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, as you note, Alex, younger generations won’t know what they’re missing until and unless they actually experience the outdoors – appreciate how life was for our not so distant forebears, and the toughness, resourcefulness, determination and confidence nature’s challenge can bring out in us.

    I think it’s up to parents and communities to actively introduce young people to the outdoors. Let them get comfortable with and appreciate the physical experience, and then encourage them to keep in touch.

    Considering humans have been designed down to our cells to survive and thrive in nature, that’s an essential step in discovering and knowing who they truly are.

  2. Why use State Parks? To teach Girl Scouts backpacking. Several nearby allow us to hike, camp out, and learn about the area. Fabulous resource!

  3. Interesting debate, but I smell developers behind the trees. It’s a battle to preserve these areas. As more and more the government of the US of A opens up park lands for other uses, I wonder how long it will be before the parks will be bought up? The park keepers opened up the Boundary Waters Area in Minnesota to snowmobilers in recent years. It is a fragile ecosystem, but hey, more people will use the area in winter.
    The better question is the reverse: Why have an iPhone when you can go outside?

  4. My suggestion would be to incorporate Smart Phones into your park signs. Most CA Parks have signs describing a landmark or important sites, that can only give little bits of information. If you used QR Codes, or something else easily accessed on a smart phone, to link to an interesting video or photos that relate to the site would be really interesting and deepen the learning of those visiting the site. For kids, a scavenger hunt using QR Codes and video or webpages again would be interactive and so much fun!

  5. As an educator and park lover I couldn’t agree with you more, Alex. Our parks have been an inspiration to millions. Getting young people connected to the beauty and wonder found in these special places is critical to developing a future citizenry that will continue to protect our resources and value the environment, wildlife and the outdoor recreation.

  6. I feel very sorry for a generation who is constantly “plugged in” to their video games, cell phones, and computers. However, as a member of this young generation I strongly believe in the State Parks and National Parks and I am a frequent visitor of these beautiful one of a kind places. So I use my iPhone along with Instagram to express to others just how important our State Parks are. By photographing each of these uniquely beautiful places and sharing them with others it encourages people to get out and explore these places for themselves.

  7. Parks remain relevant for many California families. Those generations exposed to parks during outings with family, friends, scouting, et al, will take the lead and cultivate that in the next generations. What hampers California State Parks from being more utilized and more enjoyable are the fundamentals today’s users expect that are going unmet. For campers, this includes modern restrooms and hot showers, RV hook ups that are reliable and plentiful, level sites ample in size for popular RV’s, places for the kids to recreate. Putting a playground in a State Park campground just doesn’t happen. Those consumed by the preservationist mindset should not be designing or dictating what park users will get. For $50 per night many campers feel ripped off.
    Take a look at County parks in California, both fees and what they provide. Examples include San Diego county’s Agua Caliente Park and San Luis Obispo county’s El Chorro Park. Better yet look north to Oregon. State parks there are much nicer in every way than what is found in California. Bring on the lack of funding excuses coupled w/ the preservationist’s misplaced convictions. The pursuit of recreation won’t wane, but we will seek out other options where our preferences are met and our dollars spent prudently.

  8. I think this response and The Economist show some important and fundamental misunderstandings about “youth culture” that are the very reason they are failing to adapt to it (them) successfully. I blogged more indepth on the subject on my Tumblr (linked) but the basic thesis is: If you want younger Americans to feel like they share the parks, allow them to “share” the parks (open up connectivity and create programs that cater to their desired experiences of the parks).

    • Thanks for the insights. I think the point where we both agree is that it is really important to start these dialogues and hear from many different perspectives.

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