Category Archives: People

What can parks learn from museums?

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to spend a week camping at Grover Hot Springs, travel by train to the California State Rail Road Museum, and visit the new Exploratorium on the waterfront in San Francisco. My excuse has been summer with my sons.  And a great summer it has been!

Exploring color
Exploring color

Anyone with kids knows it can be a challenge to keep them entertained. They can only take so much looking at nature, or big steam trains, before they have you running screaming for the door. I vaguely remember it as a kid also — I loved the museums in London. The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Geology Museum. And if you could find a button to press and make something move you were mesmerized! But mostly it was traipsing around looking at “exhibits” as your parents read out words from the display panels.

Fortunately museums have moved on and become interactive. The Exploratorium, has taken it to a whole knew level. I managed to spend five hours in it with my six year old son enthralled by the countless exhibits. Learning about constellations. color, sound, termites, waves, fog and so much more.  The Exploratorium has been pioneering this kind of interactive learning for decades.

Digging in the dirt
Digging in the dirt

Contrast that to California State Parks that have changed little for decades. We had a wonderful time at Grover Hot Springs, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place for creative play. But somehow you always feel you are breaking the rules. Wading around in creeks as you dam them up  (is it bad for the fish?), climbing rocks (are we off trail?), painting pine cones (will the paint despoil them?), and we simply daren’t make a tree fort even though there are countless downed sticks.  I know enough about habitat and endangered species to understand why this makes sense, in theory. But there has to be a way to find a better balance.

The California State Railroad Museum has made minor inroads. Hidden away in a corner of the second floor is a play area where kids can build and play with Thomas the Tank Engine model trains. It’s where you will find the smart parents and toddlers catching a break before they head back to the “don’t touch” exhibits downstairs.

I believe its time, way past time, to introduce more interactivity into our state parks. We need places where we encourage kids to dam streams, to dig for worms, to climb trees, to build forts, to pick plants and make collages, and to get thoroughly immersed in the park experience.  The best museums have figured this out. As State Parks considers its futures under the Parks Forward initiative, its time to catch up.


Time to get Mobile… the Park

And I am not talking about cell phones. I am talking about a growing trend among mobile visitor centers.  This goes way beyond capitalizing on the trendiness of mobile everything — think food trucks, espresso carts, etc. It’s really about meeting the changing needs of the park visitor. The mobile center can move around a park based upon where the people are at any particular time of year — and of course, being mobile they can also take the park to the visitor.  I even saw the East Bay Regional Park District’s mobile center taking part in the annual Fourth of July Parade on Alameda Island.

East Bay Park District on the move
East Bay Park District on the move

I can also imagine that its cost and time efficient. A 2001 report from the GAO summarized construction costs for 80 visitor centers underway in National Parks at that time. They ranged from $500,000 to $39 million — averaging at a little over $6 million. That’s a lot of money, leave aside the time it takes to obtain the permits, bid the job, construct the building and commission the exhibits. Its likely that by the time its completed, its already out of date!

Contrast that to a mobile center that can be designed, fabricated and deployed much more rapidly. I don’t have cost estimates, but believe food trucks can start at around $50,000 fully kitted out.  That leaves a lot of change — even from the cheapest traditional visitor center.  I would love to see these become common-place: spending there weekends and summers in the parks, and there weekdays visiting schools, city parks and more.

It’s time parks got out of the mindset of the traditional visitor center and started thinking about creative new ways of delivering services to the people in cost-effective ways. The mobile visitor center is a great start!

Learning in the (skateboard) park

Cruising in the skateboard park
Cruising in the skateboard park

Parks come in all shapes and sizes and I never thought I would be having this much fun in a skateboard park.

I don’t know what possessed me, but there I was with my six year old son strapping on pads while we watched the other guys (and they were all guys) practice tricks on their skateboards.  I had even warned my son that he was on his own on this one as I had been on a board perhaps once, and that was at least three decades ago.  My son on a “trixie” board as he calls it, and me on a longboard (supposedly more stable for us old folks).

Growing up, skateboarders were those punk kids who terrorized the neighborhood and insisted on riding places the signs said they should not. Perhaps that’s still true some places, but somehow the whole sport seems to have matured. Half the people riding in the park were in their twenties (or older) and all were friendly and slightly bemused by the sight of us two. By some strange coincidence a number of the guys were pro’s — yes, they made a (decent) living riding boards. Theotis Beasley even signed my son’s first board. Not sure it was the message I was hoping my son would take away from this — but its a good reminder that excellence comes in many shapes and forms.

After a few valiant attempts to teach everything I had learned from a 3 minute 41 second YouTube video on starting to skateboard, a five year old came over and took charge. A few minutes later and my son was making his first tentative turns. “You know,” he said, “It’s OK for a five year old to teach a six year old because we’re all good at different things.” Pretty profound lesson from the skatepark.

Cleanest restrooms in the country?

Brilliance in the Basics -- a new strategic plan for State Parks
Brilliance in the Basics — a new strategic plan for State Parks

California State Parks has new leadership and they have a plan. It’s called Brilliance in the Basics and one of the five goals jumped out at me. To have the cleanest restrooms in the country. Yes, you heard it right. To have the cleanest restrooms in the country!

This is a big country. There must be hundreds of millions of restrooms. And I am pretty sure there are some pretty fastidious cleaners out there. Despite sequester cuts I am sure President Obama’s commode is well taken care of….

So I am poking gentle fun at this, but I also agree that it’s an important goal. It’s important to take care of the basics before you can strive for excellence. And when it comes to parks, unless you provide a clean restroom many people will be turned away: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in action.

The rest of the plan presents an ambitious set of goals and actions for the coming two years while a more comprehensive independent review of parks is undertaken. I was happy to see Parks committing themselves to partnerships, to resource protection and restoration, to interpretation and education, and to purchasing additional land when this will address pressing park needs.  A lot of the strategic plan calls for developing further plans to prioritize work before actions are taken. I hope they are able to move through the planning phase rapidly and move to implementation as that’s when we’ll start seeing changes on the ground. To paraphrase a military aphorism: a decent plan well executed beats out the perfect plan that never hits the ground.

Ultimately the challenge State Parks will face in the coming two years is they are highly unlikely to get additional public funds and the private donor community is already showing signs of fatigue. To be successful, State Parks will have to look first to how they can deploy existing resources in a more targeted manner. And this will present State Park staff and partners with some tough tradeoffs.

In his forward, Major General Jackson encourages all park staff and volunteers to read and understand the plan. I would take this one step further and encourage the myriad of park partners in the public, private, and non-profit sector to read and support the plan. The State Park system has always been more than just the Department of Parks and Recreation, and in tough times it becomes ever more important to fully embrace the myriad of park partners.

Is this the cleanest restroom in the Country? (Photomato / Flickr)
Is this the cleanest restroom in the Country? (Bodie SHP / Photomato / Flickr)

And if the next park restroom you visit isn’t up to your high standards, I am sure Major General Jackson would appreciate a call…..

Happy Birthday John Muir!

John Muir's Birthplace
John Muir’s Birthplace

Born on the blustery shores of the North Sea in Dunbar, Scotland, John Muir would be 175 years old today. One day in 1849 his father came home one day and announced they were emigrating to the United States….tomorrow — and so America’s beloved naturalist, founder of the Sierra Club and the movement to preserve wilderness started his long journey to California. By all accounts, the young Muir was excited to be off on his first adventure.

Late last year I visited his birthplace located in Dunbar about a half hour east of Edinburgh by train. It was the type of day that Muir later remembered, with sheets of wind blow rain being driven off the north sea. The gulls sheltering from the wind-driven waves in the medieval harbor where he’d played as a boy. His childhood home has been turned into a great museum that describes his many journeys and seeks to instill Muir’s ethic in the visitors. His actual birthplace is in the non-descript stone house and shop next door — his father was a successful merchant. Both are a short walk from the ocean.


On the day I visited the boiler was broken and the museum closed due to the inclement weather and lack of heat. Fortunately a notice on the door said would-be visitors could inquire at the town museum to be let in. Having come thousands of miles from California I did just that and had the place to myself. It’s well worth a visit. Check out

But better still to walk along the walls of the harbor and feel the bracing wind and sea spray that Muir would recall many years and thousands of miles later. His love for wild places began there in Dunbar and having visited on a wild day, I got a glimpse of what transfixed him. Like Muir, I will remember my visit and the power of the north sea for a long time.

John Muir Museum -- his childhood home
John Muir Museum — his childhood home


Dunbar Harbor - shelter from the storm
Dunbar Harbor – shelter from the storm








The humble park bench

It’s spring break this week for my oldest, so at his suggestion we headed out on monday to the California Academy of Sciences. We’ve been before and he just loves the aquarium and the albino crocodile. How can you not? He and his younger brother enjoyed it all from the chameleon that dutifully caught a fly for us right on cue, to the leafy sea dragon that cruises around looking for all the world like its name sake.  The highlight for them was the earthquake exhibit complete with a shaking room. I am not sure they got the message — they seem to think that if an earthquake goes on for long enough you’ll have time to secure your paintings before they fall off the walls. Oh well.

It’s amazing what you can create with $500 million – and with a $30 entrance fee per person on top of that.  But the highlight for me was a little simpler. Around the back they are creating a redwood habitat with new plantings of coast redwood, ferns and shrubs. The center piece is one of the nicest park benches I have seen. Carved from a single log, it has three notches cut for love seats with the displaced wood carefully placed as a foot stool. It shows that smart design doesn’t have to cost the Earth — and in this instance, admission to these park benches is even free!

Park Bench at the Cal Academy of Sciences

The sidewalk as playground

Turns out, walking to school can be a lot of fun and it is also good for you!  There’s a lot been written about the health and psychological benefits of walking to school – lowers obesity, improved learning at school, etc. I think its not just the physical exercise, it can also be an awful lot of fun as my two kids have proved every day for the past few months.

My Kindergartener and his younger brother walk, skip and jump to school every day. Along the way they turn a pretty mundane sidewalk into a wild adventure playground with a different obstacle and challenge at every turn.

They play hop scotcth….

Hop Scotch

….they have running races…on your marks, set, go…

marks set go!

…as they dash for 100 yards down the side walk….

100 yard dash

….to a drain cover that acts as the finish line….”I win!”

school run 010

…they jump to avoid the hot lava….

jump and avoid the hot lava

….they walk along the balance beam…..

school run 005

….leaping the chasm with one bound….

chasm leap!

….climb the fire hydrants……

school run 008

…until finally we arrive at the school gate….

school run 009

…warmed up and ready to learn!

Of course, its even better when its raining as the biggest puddle in the neighborhood is in the middle of the Kindergarten playground. Best place for it, I say!

And then I return home with the youngest one and we search for turkeys. But that is another story for another day.