I grew up in Shawnee Mission Kansas, the KS-side suburbs of Kansas City, MO. There were and still are some great parks, including the 1250-acre Shawnee Mission Park, much of which is in natural grasslands and woodlands. But aside from the parks, the dominant feature of the landscape was individual yards with rooftops and pavement as the next most common cover type. It was right in the sprawl and I saw it sprawl. Back then 103rd was pretty much the end of town, now it’s way past 150th. There are some things they are doing right in Shawnee Mission and Olathe, more about that later.
Thinking back to when I lived there…tucked in the back corners of the sprawl were little pockets of woods and I sought them out. These were typically along some kind of small intermittent stream where the topography would make it a little more expensive to build on. (I recently read that 1/3rd of such streams in cities across the country have been paved over, didn’t see a figure on how many had been channelized.)
These small pockets of trees weren’t big enough for one to ‘wander thru the woods,’ but did offer a nice spot to go that wasn’t quite as human-dominated as the rest of the neighborhood. In today’s jargon what I did there as a kid was to engage in ‘unstructured play.’ At the time I just thought I was playing over in the woods. Usually with friends, sometimes just myself. Thinking back, maybe I was trespassing on private property but it never seemed to be an issue. No fences, no Keep Out signs. Maybe it was a reserved public right-of-way? (A quick check on Google Earth shows that, as I suspected, the economics have made it worth developing those areas. They are paved over for the most part but a few small patches remain. Maybe they are too oddly shaped to develop or too close to other properties. I’d like to think they are kept intentionally but I don’t know.)
They are not formal parks. Most every town has those (again, more about that later). Scattered trees with mowed grass between is great. But is there still a place for pockets of denser trees that don’t get mowed between? Or is that too big of a security/liability issue? Are small neighborhood nature spots important enough to keep out of development? If so, how?
Or am I just sentimental? For the suburbanites, can nature be something close by or will it be something that you have to make a special trip to see?
(I have to add that now I do wander thru the woods, especially if no one remembered the compass or GPS receiver. I asked students a while back if they could tell that I was a kid who liked to scramble thru the woods. They knew that the right answer was ‘whaddaya mean was…’ The ‘kid’ description hasn’t been accurate for a long time and that’s fine by me, but I’d like the scramble-thru-the-woods part to stay accurate)