Large Urban Park Volunteers Doing “Life Saving Work’
September 16, 2021
Like many before me, searching to understand the nuanced meaning of “land stewardship” led me to Aldo Leopold’s 1949 classic essay “A Sand County Almanac.”
In it, Leopold says: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
In 1949 Leopold said, ‘the modern dogma is comfort at any cost.” Little did he know about what was to come in the form of SUVs, lunchables and fast fashion. While the culture of convenience continues to reign supreme, many are starting to understand the true costs of this “modern dogma.” As a way to preserve the earth and their own mental health, people are increasingly stepping outside ‘the matrix’ to establish deeper connections with nature.
Park People’s Cornerstone Parks program, Canada’s only national network dedicated to maximizing the impact and influence of Canada’s large urban parks, is championing the efforts of volunteers who devote their time, energy – as well as their hearts and minds – to nurture a greener, brighter future in the face of climate change.
Saving a life or two
What appears to the untrained eye as pulling invasive species is in fact, much much more. In a recent, essay journalist and podcaster, Stephanie Foo shares her experience pulling invasives in a New York City park. The experience, as she describes it, was vital in bringing her back from the brink of profound and debilitating climate anxiety.
She begins her essay by plainly sharing that “a couple of years ago, I had a nervous breakdown over, among other things, our planet’s dark future.”
Foo was able to rebuild her life by building a sense of community that included nature.
As Foo says about her experience pulling invasives as a New York City Super Steward: “When I’m done, I face the tree I freed from the vines and smooth my hand over the scars they left in its bark. I marvel at her branches stretching upwards where they belong, pat her trunk, and say, “You’re welcome.” It’s pretty nice to save a life or two in the morning.”
Photo credit: High Park Nature Centre, May 2017, Volunteers helping to plant a native plant
Indeed, the work undertaken by committed volunteers in Canada’s large urban parks is life-saving work.
Let’s start with facts:
- Over ten years in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, volunteers with Stanley Park Ecology Society have removed 8,000 m3 of invasive plants and replaced them with more than 8,000 individual native trees, shrubs, and grasses.
- In Mount Royal, 250 volunteers with Les amis de la montagne have planted 35,000 trees over 33 years and managed 15,000 m2 of invasive species.
- In High Park, The High Park Nature Centre’s programs have resulted in 80,000 people engaged in park stewardship activities like planting native grasses, wildflowers and sedges or removing invasive plant species.
Here’s where life-saving comes in. These volunteers are bringing life back to water, soil, habitats, and more. Hands-on restoration work in Stanley Park led to an increase in the populations of barn swallows and Pacific Great Blue Herons in the park. This is a very, very good sign. Because Pacific Great Blue Herons are at the top of the food chain, their return to the park is a sign of a healthy, well-functioning ecosystem.
Large Parks – Large Impact
Research on large parks indicates that due to their size and rich biodiversity, large parks do more ecological heavy lifting than their smaller counterparts. In short, while sod and a few key tree species are found in your local park, large parks are literally teeming with life – from earthworms to deer. Their size and biodiversity mean large parks sequester more carbon, reduce the heat island effect and buffer more urban noise than their smaller counterparts.
Photo credit: Les amis de la montagne, Mount Royal Park, Montréal
In some circles, the work of large parks may be called “ecosystem services.” But once you’ve rewritten the relationship between humans and nature as ‘community,” this term no longer feels fitting at all.
In Foo’s essay, she cites Robin Wall Kimmerer’s incredible book, Braiding Sweetgrass, and what it taught her about building a new relationship with the natural world. In the book, Robin Wall Kimmerer brilliantly weaves together her knowledge as a botanist, mother and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation to show us the profound lessons plants can teach us. Long before Leopold, Indigenous ways of knowing framed human’s relationship with nature as one of reciprocity.
Layering Indigenous knowledge derived from Braiding Sweetgrass with her training as a New York City Parks ‘super steward’ has had a profound impact on Foo who says:
“I was astonished to learn how impactful fighting for trees really is. According to this New York City treemap, one London plane tree near me saves 2,500-kilowatt-hours with its shade, intercepts 6,100 gallons of stormwater (keeping our oceans and rivers sewage-free), and removes four pounds of pollutants and a whopping 10,500 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. People who live in areas with more trees experience better mental health and have lower crime rates and higher property values, whereas the areas with the fewest trees have the highest rates of respiratory illness. Protecting trees isn’t altruism. It’s a form of self-care.”
This simple, yet profound articulation of land stewardship as self-care is one of the central reasons why Park People wants to ensure there is an ecologically and socially vibrant Cornerstone park within reach of every urban Canadian. As Leopold reminds us: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
Park People, High Park Nature Centre, Stanley Park Ecology Society and Les amis de la montagne are all-in on Cornerstone Parks. We’re deeply grateful for the dedication of volunteers who are redefining our concept of community.
To step up for your community, connect to the following NGOs leading the charge in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.