The Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department is in the process of choosing top priorities for the city’s recreation system. So far, most of the ideas put forth by Parks and Rec are for facilities. According to a recent Journal-World article, these include: an indoor fieldhouse that could be used for soccer, basketball and volleyball; a “wellness center” designed for youth who don’t participate in traditional sports; and a new youth baseball and softball complex. (Also on the table are improvements to Peterson Park near the Hallmark plant and Green Meadows Park near 31st and Kasold.)
I’d like to see Parks and Rec think outside the big box of buildings and complexes. While the proposal to improve existing city parks does this, I have three additional ideas.
First, let’s make our community more pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly, as recent letters to the editor have proposed. Quality sidewalks, bike lanes, and bike paths encourage people to get out of their cars (reducing pollution), be physically active, and be outdoors. It’s hard to argue against the physical and mental health benefits of that. And we might even get to know more of our neighbors as we walk and pedal along. I certainly met more neighbors when I began taking walks with my infant son six years ago.
Second, let’s create more community gardens. Several local neighborhoods have privately sponsored community gardens, but there is room for more. Often, it is the existence of a garden that creates interest. (“If you plant it, they will come.”) The city could provide land (in existing parks or on other vacant land), water and even tool sheds. The city could also plant fruit trees, and community gardeners could donate some of the vegetable and fruit harvest to local food pantries. In future years, perhaps the city could partner with local arts organizations to install art in these gardens, creating places of beauty, bounty, and charity.
Third, let’s create small “pocket parks” on existing public land, ideally in every neighborhood. My vision is of relatively undeveloped natural areas, less manicured than our city playgrounds, where kids can climb trees, write messages in the mud, and create secret hideouts. Probably many of us remember playing in places like this when we were young. As a child, I spent many hours daydreaming, watching the clouds, and talking with my best friend at what I realize now was simply a drainage ditch. (We also explored, I must admit, a little-used railroad track and a small, privately owned wooded area. Oh, the excitement of these unfamiliar, unpaved, and adult-free spaces!)
In “Geography of Childhood,” Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble argue that children need wildness, and heterogeneous habitats. “We need to find ways to let children roam beyond the pavement, to gain access to vegetation and earth that allows them to tunnel, climb, or even fall.” Could we help our children be physically active and reconnect with the natural world — indeed, to be children — by identifying safe places in rights-of-way or on other unused or “unusable” land? After these places are selected, perhaps all that would be required are signs identifying the parks (so that people feel welcome) and, in some places, occasional mowing or poison ivy control.
These proposals are likely to be much less costly than building and maintaining a fieldhouse, a wellness center, or a baseball complex. They encourage children and adults to be outdoors, to be active and to get to know their neighbors. They may reduce our dependence on cars and on food trucked in from hundreds of miles away. All good stuff. But I just like the idea of riding my bike to our neighborhood community garden and spotting my son and his friends in their secret hideout along the way.
— Sandy Beverly is a Lawrence mother of two and an aspiring naturalist and gardener.