Go to a national park and you may see brown bears, blue herons, or Redwood trees. But you’re less likely to see any people of color. According to a survey conducted by the National Park Service in 2011, approximately 80 percent of park visitors are white as are park staff, even as projections show whites will be in the minority in the U.S. in 30 years. As the National Park Service counts down to its centennial, I struggle with the lack of diversity in national parks, particularly our urban sanctuaries.
As the son of Chinese immigrants growing up in a predominantly African-American Chicago neighborhood in the late 1960s, my interests were never focused on the outdoors. Even with a strict Chinese upbringing — think Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother — I drifted into illegal behaviors, establishing street “cred” that made folks avoid me.
I was barely still in high school when a teacher recommended volunteering with the Student Conservation Association (SCA). I was just 15 and still had a lot of thug in me. But what I learned while building trails at North Cascades National Park that summer was there were white kids who didn’t care about my color or my past, as long as I pulled my weight. I also learned that talking smack wasn’t keeping me warm.
Kicked out of Chicago public school and placed in a Quaker boarding school, I started to study in earnest. Today, I’m a landscape architect running an award-winning firm. My discipline offers a rare chance to meld my urban experiences with a love of the outdoors.
But the fact is that 90 percent of urban kids will never see a national park. There’s no opportunity, no incentive, and certainly no money to choose a national park over LeBron James. So I design parks and nature play spaces in marginal neighborhoods to expose kids to something else besides a gun. I also sit on the board of directors of SCA, the same organization that first introduced me to the great outdoors and has since pioneered urban conservation programs for disenfranchised youth.
When given the opportunity to make something special in their neighborhoods, these kids work long hours, carry heavy loads, and learn about building trails, restoring habitats, and repairing playgrounds. They take responsibility, develop confidence, and gain new skills. The US Conference of Mayors has named SCA’s urban conservation initiative one of America’s top green jobs programs for youth.
And at the college level, SCA and the National Park Service engage students from all communities in the joint SCA-NPS Academy, an apprenticeship program that provides participants with hands-on training in a wide range of fields in national parks across the country. The program is designed to build entry-level job candidates and a more inclusive workforce for the National Park Service as it enters its second century.
By expanding opportunities to improve their own communities, we can guide more under-served youth into new fields and potential professional pathways and better ensure the stewardship of our increasingly fragile environment. I didn’t pass up the prospect and now I spend my time encouraging urban youth to feel the same sense of responsibility.
Ernest C. Wong, FASLA, is the principal and president of Chicago-based site design group, ltd, which has won numerous national and international design awards. Wong is also on the board of directors of the Student Conservation Association.