The Real Benefits of River Parkways

It’s no surprise but always gratifying when a major study confirms something we’ve suspected – that living near an urban river parkway improves health. A new review of the research by Dr. Richard Jackson and coauthors concludes that river parkways in cities can improve physical, mental, and community health.

Just reading about the negative health effects of inactivity caused me to get up out of my chair for some much needed stretching. It was hard to stay seated as I read the rest of the report, given the dire health consequences outlined.

The cost of inactivity? $622 per person annually in medical costs.

The construction and maintenance cost per user of a riverfront trail? $235 annually

Another study concluded that “every $1 invested in trails for physical activity led to $2.94 in direct medical benefit.”

And so-called “green exercise,” or simply exercising outdoors, appears to confer additional mental health benefits. Being near water was found to be even more beneficial.

Don’t we all need a little mental health pick-me-up after a long, stressful day at work? I guess I need to swap an hour of reading for an hour of hiking from now on!

There’s too much in this study to summarize all of it in this blog – I highly recommend you set aside an hour to absorb its findings (perhaps while walking on a treadmill). The study provides more support for completing an LA River Greenway and adding trails – walking, biking, equestrian – wherever it makes sense to give people alternate, active means to get to work and encourage movement.

To end this post, here is a photo of the Eisbach, a small man-made river in Munich, Germany. All throughout the day, people line up for a chance to ride this standing wave. Wouldn’t you like to have something like this here in LA?

Eisbach wave on Stadtmulbach, Munich, Germany

What’s in that stream?

A few Sundays ago I was approached by a young girl who wanted to do a science fair project. She thought maybe she could test the water in the creak near her house. She was going to look at the water under a microscope and compare what she saw to tap water. I suggested a few refinements, including expanding her testing beyond critters in the water to some water chemistry, like temperature and pH, and observing the biological and physical environment of the creek.

Jenks Lake Road West stream

In that moment, I saw a future creek monitor. I imagined this energetic girl, who had already had success raising money to purchase and preserve 8 acres of wildlands near her house, as the leader of a cadre of young volunteers, keeping track of the health of the forest and streams above her neighborhood.

Forest stream
San Bernardino Forest stream

I imagined her in a life of volunteerism. I volunteered as a young girl, too, doing good, taking care of my world. And maybe that is why I am an optimist and lifelong volunteer who works to make things better. Volunteering reverses the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that plague us as we grow from youth to adulthood. It gives people a sense that they make their own communities. Volunteers are no longer passive receivers of the “government” but citizens. In this way, we make our communities whole. In this way, we keep our governments honest. In this way, we chose our future.

How does the “San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains National Park” sound?

Could one of the most densely populated areas in the US see national park rangers in its recreation areas someday? For the last six years, the National Park Service has been studying just that question, and today they released the Draft San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Special Resources Study and Environmental Assessment, a long name for a long process. The NPS started this study in 2005 after passage in 2003 of a bill by Representative Hilda Solis (companion bill by Senator Boxer).
Now we have the findings of the study:

First, the natural and cultural resources of the San Gabriel Mountains and Puente-Chino Hills are nationally significant.
Second, the study area is suitable for inclusion in the national park system because it represents natural and cultural resource types that are not already adequately represented in the national park system or protected by another land managing entity.
Third, the NPS determined that a collaborative partnership-based park unit would be a feasible addition to the national park  system. A large traditional national park unit, owned and operated solely by the National Park Service, is not feasible.
And finally, NPS management in partnership with existing agencies and organizations is the best option for  enhancing protection of significant resources, for improving access to  recreational opportunities in the region, and for providing coordinated  interpretation and education about significant resources.

How would this be implemented? The NPS looked at four alternatives and this is the one they liked best (quoting from the report): “Alternative D: San Gabriel Region National Recreation Area (A Partnership Linking Significant Resources and Recreation). In this  alternative, Congress would designate a larger scale national recreation area that would recognize and protect the significant resources associated with the San Gabriel Mountains and Puente-Chino Hills, explore opportunities to protect and enhance interconnected ecosystems, provide important open space connections for recreation, and offer new educational and interpretive opportunities. … The NPS would take a lead role in management of the partnership, particularly in the area of interpretation and education.”

What are the next steps? The NPS is holding a comment period through December 16, 2011 with public meetings around the region. Then it will be up to us – and Congress – as to whether any of the recommendations in the study get implemented.

Loving the Los Angeles River

This summer, a few hardy souls “owned” the LA River by kayaking a 1.5 mile stretch in the Sepulveda Basin. Tickets were available for about six minutes on an early July morning for the trips in August and September. I had the good fortune to go in early September and two of the Council’s staff, Kristy and Derek, paddled on the last weekend, courtesy of the Conservation Corps’ Paddle the LA River program.

Derek has been working for the Council this summer, so I was especially glad he was able to go on one of the last trips this year. Here is his account:

“It was a busy day on the Sepulveda Dam Recreation area. Parking lots were full, soccer fields bellowed with the cheers of family and teammates, and cyclists raced around the numerous bike paths. The atmosphere was the perfect setting as I and a handful of others were about to embark on the last kayak tour of the LA River for the year. With Ranger Tim and his contagious energy, we set off to our launch point under the Balboa Blvd Bridge.  As we climbed into our vessels, aided by members of the LA Conservation Corps, a rush of exhilaration set over the group. We were on the LA River, a privilege few citizens have experienced.

George, leader of Paddle the River, guided the first segment of the trip upstream in order to make sure everyone was comfortable in their kayak or canoe. I, as representative of the Council for Watershed Health, explained the importance of watershed wide approach to improving our rivers.  After this, we soaked in the sights, sounds, and allure of the river for the next 1.5 miles. The banks were lined with willows, castor bean, sycamore, and cattails. A gentle breeze swayed the vegetation as the sun began to break through the clouds. I was on the lookout for birds when I spotted a snowy egret resting a branch. It barely noticed me and posed, but only for a moment as I managed to snap a few shots before it flew off. It was only until I saw a shopping cart poking out of the water that I had a realization: I was in Los Angeles, in an urban setting with the 101 freeway nearby, and I completely forgot. It was amazing how quickly the river can consume your thoughts, even though it is far from revitalized.

As we finished our trip in the shallow waters close to the dam, we all looked back at the river as if to ingrain the river expedition into our memories. Our experience was unforgettable, and left us wondering how long we would remain as the privileged few who have paddled the LA River.”

Some Thoughts About The Great Outdoors, Part II

What speaks to you about the outdoors? If you have a strong connection to nature and wildlife, how do you think that connection happened? In your life today, how do you get your “outdoors fix?” Why do you like to hike in the forest, instead of a on a city street or around the Rose Bowl (not that they are mutually exclusive).

Those are the questions I wish the White House was asking us in their America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. If you want to tell the White House about your connection to the great outdoors, they are accepting comments, although they suggest you tell them about the obstacles to achieving your goals for conservation (challenges), what works, how can the federal government be an effective partner, and what tools and resources would make your efforts more successful.

Stories are powerful, so I urge you to tell the White House stories about your favorite places, earliest memories of being outdoors, and wishes for conservation.

My favorite place is anywhere in the Grand Canyon. I imprinted early on the redwall and red rocks anywhere send me into a peaceful place. Water in the desert is also magical, and I love to just watch for signs of life in the small wet potholes and creeksides. Some of my earliest memories of wildlife, however, are from my backyard, in the days before pesticides had killed every living ant and beetle in the alley behind my house. We tried to capture the ant queen and got stung many times; baby birds fell from trees and usually died, but we did try to raise them up. I was always trying to see – just see – an antlion -but they were too fast. I remember watching a praying mantis eat a ladybug – oh the horror! But that’s how I learned nature is “red in tooth and claw” – from bugs. I didn’t need to go to the large national parks, although we did. I was just a bored kid who went outside enough to get hooked on nature.

Meredith McCarthy of Heal the Bay puts it this way – she says the greatest obstacle to educating children about the Great Outdoors was, in her words, “All Children Left Inside,” also known as “No Child Left Behind.” She said teachers tell her they are stuck inside, teaching to tests, when they know that hands on outdoor activities are great teaching tools.

If the White House is concerned about conservation, they need to ensure kids of today get hooked on nature too, and teaching to the test won’t get us there.

What are your stories?