Finding patches of wilderness in the city

The Audubon Society embarks on a 20-year plan to open nature preserves for inner-city residents

An aerial view tells the whole story. From the concrete desert of urban rooftops that constitutes the nation's largest county, an oasis of lush hills leaps out in dramatic contrast.

Red-tailed hawks swirl from above, while snakes slink and gophers tunnel below. Streams gurgle and ponds reflect the sky. Enjoying all 300 acres with whoops of delight are inner-city children of all ages, many of whom have never seen a beach, camped in the woods, or skipped along a mountaintop.

Many of their parents once hunted and fished in the wilds of Mexico or Central America but - for reasons of personal safety and survival - now live a life of self-imposed urban exile in their chosen city of emigration.

The National Audubon Society, famous for its preserves far into the wilderness, is reversing a 100-year-old tradition with a plan to open patches of wilderness like this in urban communities. In addition to this preserve just northeast of downtown Los Angeles skyscrapers - and soon-to-be opened parks in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Little Rock, Ark. - the conservation group plans to create 1,000 such oases by 2020.

The idea behind it is twofold. One is to recognize the long-changed demographic shift of Americans from rural to urban areas. The other is to preserve a unique sense of place and build an ethos of stewardship among the urban poor at an early age. "How can we expect this country's coming generations to care about a Yellowstone, or Arctic refuge, or rain forests if they can't connect to something natural in the world where they are?" asks John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society.

On any given day here at Ernest E. Debs Park, a little-known refuge along a highway corridor between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena, it's easy to see the rationale behind the move. Schoolchildren skip down a path from the park's high hill, which provides both a view of the surrounding city and vistas of meadows, ponds, and trees. The obvious question, "Whaddya like most about a park like this?" brings a concatenation of responses: "Frogs!" says a girl in pigtails and bobby socks. "Snakes!" says a boy with Harry Potter glasses and knickers. "Climbing!" says another girl.

Woodpeckers amid the black walnut

State Audubon officials began looking for a site about five years ago and with the help of local activists found the city-owned Debs Park, a rustic, 282-acre site full of black walnut trees and unusual birds like the Nuttall's Woodpecker. City councilmen, members of Congress, and corporate sponsors helped seal the deal.

Besides local schoolchildren - some 50,000 live within a two-mile radius - Audubon is also trying to entice families, from grandparents to tots. It is creating exhibits with audio clips that will help visitors identify birds and animals by their calls. Organizers offer backpacks that contain journals, scavenger-hunt lists, and watercolor paints.

Instead of lecturing visitors about the wealth of natural beauty, or leading them around nature trails with signs identifying flowers and trees, officials want to let people discover what excites them on their own. "We find that when we prompt them with tools to ask their own questions and follow their own interests, people are far more inquisitive and appreciative," says naturalist Jeff Chapman.

The approach reflects another philosophical change surfacing in the environmental movement - "biophilia." Instead of being "educated" about ecology, the theory goes, people should be allowed to respond emotionally to it, which will foster a desire for preservation. "One thing we're finding is the deep value of being outside in nature with no agenda except rich contact with the world through smell, touch, sight, and sound," says John Harris of the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H. "Nature provides a different kind of balance to the stimulation of being inside with movies, TV, and video games."

It also provides a sense of community particular to this section of Los Angeles. "This place is grounded in the cultural and ethical history of this site and the cultures that have been here through the ages," says Doug Campbell, designer of the Debs Park Center. "The architecture borrows from traditional Spanish and Mexican cultures but also ancient principles of orientation to the sun, wind, and topography."

Still, moving into neighborhoods like this one near East Los Angeles, which has a large Hispanic population, isn't easy. Local conservationists have to overcome language barriers just to explain that Audubon isn't a German freeway.

"This organization is having to reach out beyond our own cultural comfort level and build new alliances with ethnic communities," says Melanie Ingalls of California Audubon.

Finally, a place to hunt frogs

Yet the new experiment seems to be garnering adherents, as evidenced by nearly 2,000 entrants a week. Under an aluminum sky on a recent Saturday, area resident Rich Nambu and friends scurry down a path with Nambu's three daughters. "I grew up in Palos Verdes, where we could always hunt frogs and fish," says Mr. Nambu. "But since we moved into this neighborhood [Alhambra], I was afraid that my own family would never have the same experience. Until now."

Park director Elsa Lopez, a former activist with Mothers of East Los Angeles, grew up in the nearby high crime area of Boyle Heights. She came to the park as a child while her richer friends went to the beach or Catalina Island. "The only river these kids know is a concrete river, so when they see rocks and fishes and streams they are overjoyed," she says. "Some kids say their only backyard is another apartment building and that this will be their new place to experience a natural world they've never known."

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