Flash floods struck Marionville City Park in southwest Missouri last week, with seven inches of rain falling in just six hours to leave the green space “destroyed,” according to local media reports.
The events marked the latest in a growing number of extreme weather events that are impacting urban parks and green spaces: from devastating wildfires to violent wind storms and mass flooding.
“Climate change is impacting virtually all local, state and national parks to varying degrees,” says Kristine Stratton, president and CEO of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). “Extremes run from too much water in too short a time to drought conditions … and associated worsening air and water quality.”
Yet Stratton says that few resources exist to help park and recreation professionals, who serve nearly every community and manage over 11 million acres of land across the United States, to analyze and identify the impact of these changes and to put in place or tweak mitigation and adaptation strategies.
In an attempt to fill that void, the NRPA and design firm Sasaki partnered to develop Climate.Park.Change, an interactive platform that launched last month to allow park professionals to explore the impacts of climate change by region – such as drought, heatwaves and erosion—and to discover proven, effective strategies to fight them.
“Our urban parks have this incredible opportunity,” says Anna Cawrse, a landscape architect and director of Sasaki’s Denver office. “There’s not a lot of knowledge about how you design, implement and maintain ideas in the park system. But if we can be more proactive with tools like Climate.Park.Change, it could have a huge impact.”
Conceived as a “toolkit for resilient and climate-ready parks,” users can explore the specific climate change issues facing their parks and green spaces through the interactive map, and provides strategies for mitigating climate challenges for parks, such as creating buffer zones and holding prescribed burns to protect against wildfires.
“Climate change can be overwhelming, so we hope this tool can make it accessible and approachable whether you’re working in a park department,” adds Cawrse. “It’s very user-friendly but you can also dig a lot deeper into the data.”
The Climate.Park.Change. toolkit was informed by interviews with current park professionals to better understand both actual and perceived climate change issues. As part of that, Sasaki and NRPA worked with three cities—Salt Lake City, Utah; Denver, Colorado; and Evanston, Wyoming—to identify a current or potential park in the Intermountain West to serve as a case study.
Kristin Riker, director of public lands of Salt Lake City, whose Glendale Water Park was one of the case studies for Climate.Park.Change, believes the tool could help revitalize the area in the long-term.
The 17-acre site, situated along the Jordan River and one of the longest regional trails in the country, once drew crowds from all over the country. But it was closed and abandoned in 2018 and the area now faces some tough environmental problems if it is to be repurposed as a regional park open to the public—for example, the Jordan River is high in salinity and has poor water quality due to pollution.
“The site has some interesting challenges,” says Riker. “We’re experiencing warmer weather, there’s air pollution and there are so many trees in the city that we have to rely on the irrigation system in the area to water them. There’s some significant climate mitigation that will have to happen in replacing the water park.”
But Riker says after using Climate.Park.Change to assess its own systems in place such as operations, maintenance, ecosystem functionality, the lands department plans to incorporate more green space throughout the Jordan River’s drainage area and to reduce the impervious surfaces at the site, minimizing runoff and contamination.
“It’s a really great database of park-specific, climate-related information and idea-sharing opportunities in the park and recreation realm to understand what’s been done, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked,” says Riker.
For now, the pilot toolkit is only focusing on the Intermountain West, but the NRPA and Sasaki are seeking additional funding to expand the resource and apply it to specific threats and strategies relevant to all geographic areas. That would be a considerable challenge given the huge diversity of park geography across the nation—from half an acre in downtowns versus mountain parks of thousands of acres.
“It’s important to note that regions across the country each face unique climate change impacts and are experiencing threats differently,” adds Stratton. “But many of the threats and strategies are relevant to park and recreation systems across the country like heat waves, extreme precipitation, air pollution and water quality.”
Over time, the plan is also for the database to become richer and richer thanks to a function that lets park professionals submit their own strategies and experiences in the critical fight against climate change. The team also hopes to, where possible, increase the granularity of the data from country level down to city level.
“The community will be able to share real-world advice about what’s happening,” says Cawrse. “We hope other park professionals will say ‘you know what else really worked?’ and give their own suggestions. This is something I’m really excited about.”
Peter Yeung is a freelance journalist who writes for The BBC, The Guardian and Bloomberg.