Thursday, June 26, 2014

Healthy Parks and Healthy Trails Fuel Healthy Communities

by Brian Schwarz, your Hiking Megalopolis guide

Fairmount Park overlooks Philadelphia from Belmont Plateau
It's well known that Fairmount Park in Philadelphia has struggled throughout its progressive stages of inception to be what it could be. A multitude of interests have an idea of what it should be. Many others love it as it is. But over the years, even as the mix of local interests shifts, and through all the various successions of development and dilapidation, Fairmount thrives. Call it what you will. Rename places as their use and care is inherited from one generation to the next, from one hobby to the next, from one person to the next, and even from one political or social upheaval to the next. Fairmount is the people's park of Philadelphia.

Educating novice hikers on Wissahickon Thru Hike, Philly Mega
I've heard a lot of talk about connecting communities to natural spaces that are directly juxtaposed to those natural spaces. I've also seen a lot of resistance to opening parks to diverse communities. Sometimes it feels like there are two sides to every mouth. While lots of folks are working to increase awareness of natural spaces, still these places are underused by nearby communities; Current users are trepidatious of inviting newbies. Access is created but not promoted. Or if it is promoted, it is done so in a way that inadvertently decreases feelings of inclusion, thereby increasing fear.

As a result, many people back away from going deeper into a park out of fear they didn't even know they had. These potential park users are unable, then, to benefit from the physical and psycho-spiritual aspects of being active in nature. (I know this from experience - just four years ago my fear of the unknown kept me from enjoying my local hiking trails. That's why I'm so committing to helping others find their path into the woods.)

And by the way, I've not just heard this talk here in Philadelphia. I'm a long-time observer of human interactions in open spaces, and I've seen this in places like D.C. and Pittsburgh, Newark, Miami, Los Angeles and Boston - parks and recreation can be a battle zone where political landmines abound. Often times those who can make the most money on a park improvement plan do not have interaction with nature as their primary objective. Sure, they sell the idea of development on access to nature, but too often, fear of going into wild spaces permeates neighborhood culture, especially as population and park usage increases.

Overcoming fear on my fist 10-mile hike, Blue Hills Reservation, Boston Mega
Urban legend and Oprah are to blame. Fear keeps us out of the woods and leads us to tell our children to stay out of the woods. But ironically, maintaining and enjoying the woods by hiking natural areas that exist around cities is as a matter of national security. Our greatest national security threat - the societal obesity epidemic - can be mitigated in communities that value walking and maintaining access to local trails.

Consider this: Successful treatment of many psychological disorders hinges on access to nature as treatment. Getting active in nature while undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy can reduce a patients' reliance on pills - just ask any honest doctor. Those in recovery, ex-offenders and individuals affected by PTSD can find soul-healing solace under a canopy of green. Watching as the sun's flickering rays highlight the significance of something so minute as the multitude of shades of moss on stones or chipmunks wrestling along the trail can do wonders to re-set the tendency to think of oneself as the center of the universe.

Healing time, alone in the desert mountains, LA Mega's Coachella Valley
All's I'm saying is this: There are 100s of reasons not to go into the woods, but to go, you only need just one. Finding that one reason will change your life for good. And once you do find your path - here in Fairmount Park or in that special open space that's located somewhere near where you live - get involved with the local parks community. After all, healthy parks and healthy trails fuel healthy communities!

For more information on hiking in Philadelphia - or if you're interested in parks and hiking and are from any of the 20-some megalopolitan areas of the world - like the "Hiking Megalopolis" page on Facebook to get involved with our growing online community!