Why parks matter

David Bree (Senior Natural Heritage Leader, Presqu’ile Provincial Park)

Why do Parks Matter?  Unfortunately that is becoming an increasingly pertinent question in an age where screen time outweighs nature time on a regular basis.

Working in a park, I can answer that question in a number of ways.  The most obvious perhaps is that parks provide protection for a great many habitats, which in turn provide space and resources for the animals and plants of the province to function in a normal fashion.  This is in essence the definition of biodiversity, a whole bunch of things living and interconnecting in a complex web.  This is a bit of a catch word these days, but maintaining a high biodiversity in our world has been shown to make for a more robust and healthy environment. And a healthy environment is integral to our survival – it supplies our air, our water and our food, just to name the most obvious and crucial elements of life.  While to me this is a compelling and obvious argument, it has become sterile to many ears that have been bombarded by warnings of environmental doom and gloom all their lives.  After a while people just don’t hear.

I find a more compelling argument comes from our park visitors.  No, I don’t survey them.  I just have to watch them and I have been doing so for 25+ years.  Our visitors show us that there is a very profound human connection to our parks, one that goes beyond the intellectual and strikes deep into our psyche.  It seems very clear that parks matter to them.

For if they did not, why do we see families return year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, to the same park and often to the same campsite?  Our deepest family bonds and memories are forged in parks. And if they did not matter to them, why is it that ordinary people give up 100s or 1000s of hours of their free time to work in our parks for nothing, as volunteers, through Friends groups or on their own?  They want to spend time in parks and make a difference to a place they know is special.

And if parks don’t matter why do people seek out our parks to propose (I did), or get married?  Our greatest joys are shared in parks.  And if they didn’t matter, why is it you can travel to a remote island in the middle of Algonquin Park and find a memorial plaque to a lost loved one? Our greatest sorrows are expressed in parks.  And if parks don’t matter, why is it so many people bequeath their final remains to our shores?

Parks are loadstones for the most intense and meaningful moments and emotions of our lives.  I believe that is because nature provides us with a real, if intangible connection with a deep inner self.  It is something we have evolved with and still matters to us as the human species.  While Ontario Parks doesn’t have a monopoly on nature, it certainly has some of the best landscapes and natural places in the province.  Many of these are places of power that people have known about for a very long time.  Just witness the First Nations images at places like Bon Echo, Petroglyphs, Superior, Wabakimi and others.  These and other natural spaces provide a spiritual connection to and within us that is as real today as it was in the past.

It is these natural connections that psychologists and others are now saying are crucial for our health.  Nature Deficit Disorder in our young people is very real and this connection is vital to their health and well-being as individuals – and ours as a society.  Lack of nature time has been linked to attention disorders and a greater chance of depression among other maladies.

In an increasingly urban world, parks are becoming the easiest, the best and maybe the only conduit to nature available to people.  Ontario Parks has recognized that people are a bit unsure, if not sometimes frightened of nature and how to explore it.  The Learn to Camp program has been developed to help people get comfortable with camping, thus allowing them to get out and explore our parks on an extended basis.  Our education programs within parks are catalysts to help our visitors make their own connections to nature.  And whether it is because of our programs, or on their own, our parks allow people to forge their own connections to nature.  They learn to touch the water and the weeds; they learn to touch the earth.  In the end this will result in healthier individuals, a healthier society and a healthier environment.  That’s Why Parks Matter.