Ask scientists why small parks matter and you’ll hear about microhabitats, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Ask social scientists and you’ll hear about human connections with nature, centers of community concern, and healthy outdoor activities. Ask urban planners and you’ll hear about green oases, community connectivity, and climate change resilience.
But ask a child why small parks matter and the answer is simpler: fun and exploration.
I live a block from 24-acre Burcham Park, a former landfill-turned-“open space” on the eastern edge of East Lansing, Michigan. Less than half of the park is a mown field where my children used to fly kites, flip Frisbees, practice Whiffle ball, and try out their bows-and-arrows. It’s where white-tail deer hang out — to the dismay of nearby homeowners whose gardens and shrubs are preyed upon — where a handful of Canada geese drop by and drop you-know-what, and where the local municipal electric utility company built a solar array. No playground. No athletic fields. No toilets. No hitting golf balls. No unleashed dogs. No other posted rules.
The rest of Burcham Park is unmaintained woods with a zig-zaggy trail where I’ve mini-hiked with out-of-town friends, picked up litter, swatted mosquitos, and cross-country skied when we had enough snow. This is where my now-adult son and his friends built teepee-like forts from fallen branches. It’s where I walked our cairn terrier for 16 years and where she snuffled through fallen leaves and strained at her leash in vain pursuit of squirrels and other small critters.
I enjoy seeing the park’s ragged, overgrown border between mown and unkempt, with scraggly bushes where I can pick a few wild blackberries in late summer. The poet-environmental activist-agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry would enjoy it too. In one of his essays about nature, he described watching a young red-tailed hawk soaring above a spot on his farm where trees bordered two sides of a mowed pasture. The hawk was there because of the conjunction of the pasture as hunting ground and trees for security. “This is the phenomenon of edge or margin that we know to be one of the powerful attractions of a diversified landscape, both to wildlife and to humans,” he wrote of this patch, “small, intimate, nowhere distant from its edges.” Unlike Berry, I’ve never seen a hawk soaring above the landscape margin in Burcham Park, but I’ve seen rabbits scurry into its tangled brush for shelter when people neared. I’ll settle for seeing rabbits there.
After one mini-snow storm, I took an old orange plastic sled out of our backyard playhouse, bundled up our then-preschool grandson and pulled him to the park. There we broke trail along the zig-zaggy path, up its two hills — one small, the other smaller — and propelled ourselves through or over branches downed by the storm. Our sled was the only visible splash of color in a sea of white. My grandson sledded time after time down the smaller hill, repeatedly announcing that it was fun. The slightly larger hill failed to hold his interest because he couldn’t steer the sled straight enough to go fast. But most importantly it was outdoors, a convenient nexus of flora, wildlife, and small adventures.
It is a visible reminder of Berry’s observation that we need not cherish “just the great public wildernesses” but small ones as well. I agree, and for evidence, Burcham Park is my Exhibit 1. If you’re skeptical, just ask a kid.
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