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The Recreation Imperative

One of the most prominent themes to emerge at the recent National Workshop on Large Landscape Conservation was the need to make cities central to the practice of conservation. Since at least the late 19th century, if not earlier, urban areas have often been posited as the antithesis to nature and natural spaces. Indeed, even those parks created within cities were intended by their middle-class proponents to function as green oases, calm respites from the physical and perceived moral ills of city life.

In the decades following World War II, however, attitudes towards nature began to change. While efforts to protect wild areas certainly gained traction, as evidenced by the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, so too did initiatives geared towards population centers, especially in and around coastal areas threatened by rapid development. Much of this energy centered on the provision of recreation, defined broadly to include everything from walking, driving, swimming and playing sports to hiking, camping and birdwatching. Also significant, the new protected areas created during the 1960’s and 1970’s, like Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (1978), Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (1974), and Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve (1978) recognized the mutual shaping of place by both nature and culture, acknowledging – albeit in fits and starts – that all landscapes, whether in designated wilderness or in downtown Manhattan, are products of the ongoing and intertwined histories of human and non-human life.

Following the release of the influential 1962 report Outdoor Recreation for America, issued by the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, both Congress and the Executive Branch began to take a more sustained interest in and agitated for action on the linked issues of open space, outdoor recreation, park creation and the relative paucity of protected areas of any sort in close vicinity to cities. Numerous scholars have pointed out that initiatives like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) were in conflict with other federal programs, namely highway construction and the (racially-discriminatory) federal home loan program, but that, despite the many contradictions, funding continued to flow to both sets of priorities, though at significantly uneven levels.

One of the key recommendations that came out of both the 1962 ORRRC report as well as subsequent legislation authorizing the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR) was the need for a national recreation plan, which would inventory resources and recommend current and potential directions for land and water use. Slated to be completed before the end of the ’60’s, the effort languished, until the Nixon administration, under Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, renewed calls for its completion. Dubbing his effort “parks to the people,” Hickel sought to promote urban-centric outdoor recreation, advocating for the creation of new national recreation areas among other endeavors.

In 1970, the BOR finally completed its 1,000+ page national study, entitled “The Recreation Imperative.” Cities were at the core of the study, and would have benefited from a massive infusion of cash and technical assistance, including the creation of a new National Park Service urban program. However, the plan’s massive price tag, over $6 billion, caused consternation among officials at the Budget Bureau (predecessor to today’s Office of Management and Budget), who were able to hold up the plan’s progress. The urban focus also did not prove popular with other officials within the Nixon Administration, who succeeded in suppressing the report for several years. Another, heavily-edited report, “Outdoor Recreation: A Legacy for America,” appeared in 1972, significantly it had no cost estimates.

Eventually, it was only as a result of Congressional action that “The Recreation Imperative” entered the public record. In September 1974, the Senate Interior Committee, then under the direction of Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) published the plan as a special committee document. Jackson also circulated the document among public and non-governmental officials and included their reactions to the study in the committee document as well. It is all now available on the web, and is worthwhile reading for those interested in often times convoluted history of federal park-making initiatives in metropolitan areas.


3 Responses

  1. Would be interesting to read correspondence (if it exists) between Nixon White House and DOI regarding this report? Was it the money issue or the urban focus that really caused it to fail.

  2. It is interesting to me that 40 years later, we still don’t have a national plan, a national dataset, or an truly accepted imperative. While the feuding for dollars continues each budget cycle in the federal realm, and each local government has their own budget fight each year for dollars, the research continues to show how important parks, recreation, open spaces and trails are to helping communities thrive, from a social, physical, environmental and financial standpoint. When will the decision makers actually get it?

  3. Teresa,
    Thanks so much for your comment.

    One interesting note is that the justifications offered for parks, recreation, and open spaces have changed dramatically over the past 40 years – something I am beginning to research in more depth.

    In particular, if you look at the debates that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, politicians and supporters often spoke of “intangibles,” that there was something unquantifiable, but nonetheless undeniable, about the ability to go outside, walk in the woods, go fishing, swimming etc.

    Now, however, all projects have to show definite, economic value – i.e. how many jobs will a park create, how much $$ is saved in health care costs by building a trail. While some advocates support this shift, I find it troubling, or at the very least, worth debating in more detail. Do we want conservation to become entirely market driven? This is one of the big shifts I see since The Recreation Imperative first appeared.