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  • Rethinking Protected Areas in a Changing World
  • Eric Bardenhagen (bio)
Rethinking Protected Areas in a Changing World The George Wright Society Conference on Parks, Protected Areas, and Cultural Sites New Orleans, Louisiana March 14–18 2011

Every other year the George Wright Society (GWS) conference brings together a diverse cross-section of administrators, scientists, and practitioners to discuss the future of parks, protected areas, natural resources, and cultural sites. While predominantly a gathering that highlights the work of the National Park Service (NPS) and the US Geological Survey, the conference also draws landscape and planning professionals from Canada and Mexico, and tribal representatives from throughout North America. Though not on the radar of many Landscape Journal readers, the conference has much to offer those interested in landscape architecture and landscape planning. The 1,138 participants enjoyed four plenary sessions, 217 concurrent sessions representing over 900 individual presentations, and a four-day poster session. The GWS conference is not typically organized around a prescribed set of topics or tracks, but broad themes could be drawn from this year’s plenary session schedule.

Brian Fagan, Professor Emeritus of anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of The Great Warming, presented a compelling argument for all to embrace the lessons of history to better understand how we can react to climate change. Fagan wove a strong story, not of catastrophic societal collapses, but of the gradual movements of ancient societies in response to changes in their environment. In each case, water was the driver of change and the mover of ancient societies, and these lessons can inform how we adapt to a changing climate.

Inuit member Dalee Sambo Dorough moderated a panel discussion that focused on meaningful communications between tribal and non-tribal governments as a means of forwarding effective stewardship of parks and protected areas. The panel offered insights and examples of shared decision-making that went far beyond simply meeting the legal requirements for involvement, and could be a model for the successful management of unique landscapes.

Douglas Meffert, Professor of River and Coastal Studies at Tulane University, and Charles Allen, director of the City of New Orleans Office of Coastal Restoration and Environmental Affairs, teamed up to discuss the importance of planning for community resilience through the lessons learned from the physical and social effects from both Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They highlighted the challenges of decreased social connections to urban/natural networks and the need to create communities that can survive with the cycles of water that will always be a part of our lives. Their call for planning and design that embraces natural and social systems hits to the core of what we as landscape architects and landscape planners provide.

Finally, GWS President Brent Mitchell moderated a panel discussion titled On the Edge of Oblivion? Making Sure Parks Matter in Tomorrow’s North America. Central to the discussion was the thought that parks and protected areas, once seen as universally appreciated, may only be meeting the needs of a narrow demographic. The current trend of an increasingly diverse North American population moving away from cultural pursuits, connections to the land, and outdoor recreation was discussed as a wake-up call to re-focus discussion on the role of parks in our societies.

The number of practicing landscape architects in attendance was small, but that does not indicate that their work was inappropriate to the theme of this conference. On the contrary, the general themes described above and the numerous presentations that ended with a call for holistic approaches to park and protected area (the natural and cultural landscape) management, all point to the roles that landscape architects can play. Landscape architects presenting included Kevin McArdle on strategic approaches to scenic vista management [End Page 323] in Yosemite National Park. Vista management was shown to be an important consideration, along with ecological and resource management in a more holistic effort to preserve visitor experiences. To construct these analysis layers, vista inventories used a resource assessment that captured 18 visual characteristics.

Several concurrent sessions focused on cultural landscapes within the NPS. Landscape architect Brenda Williams organized a session that highlighted vernacular...


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