What happens when a park is forgotten?

With all the current discussion about budget cuts and sequestration in our National and State parks I have been wondering what the future may hold. I came across an example this weekend that offers a worrying glimpse of one possible future.

Ivy Choked Paths at Hinkel Park
Ivy Choked Paths at Hinkel Park

In 1919 John Hinkel, a successful businessman, donated 7 acres to the City of Berkeley to be used as a public park. As part of the gift he erected a rustic-style clubhouse and outdoor rock fireplace and arranged for a noted landscape architect from U.C. Berkeley to design the park, stipulating that he make use of native planting and have no artificial plantings. In its first year alone 3,000 people applied for a permit to use the stone fireplace. Indeed the fireplace became so popular it became a model for use in other city parks. The park was well used for decades. As recently as 1991, people would flock to the stone amphitheater that was home to the Berkeley Shakespeare festival.

Rustic Club House at Hinkel Park
Rustic Club House at Hinkel Park

But what of the park today? The native oaks are there. But all else has changed. The clubhouse is fenced off and at risk of collapsing. The amphitheater is in desperate need of restoration and little used. And the native plantings have been totally choked with ivy. The whole place gives off an air of decay and even on a sunny Sunday afternoon didn’t feel a safe place to be.

Hinkel’s dream and his philanthropic gift to the people of the city of Berkeley has faded to the point that it risks being lost forever. And all this in about one life time! It now stands as a stark reminder of what can happen if we neglect our parks and stop investing in their future. It doesn’t take much: you cut back on maintenance, stop pulling the weeds, then you have to close the buildings and wonder why people stop coming so you pull back a little further. And before you know it its too late and the hole you are in seems insurmountable and people start to forget what used to be there.

Of course, the reverse is also true if you can keep the people coming and engaged the parks will continue to thrive. Hinkel park stands as a stark warning of a path to avoid even as budgets get lean.

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