Parks and Technology: A Match Made in California
For too long a myth has persisted that nature and technology don’t mix well. It’s easy to understand why. Nature is the place we go to escape technology. Today, we’re plagued by “nature deficit disorder” and technology is blamed for commanding too much of our attention.
We all need to get out in nature more, especially kids. All kinds of studies show that getting outdoors is good for us on many different levels. It makes us healthier, less stressed out, and smarter.
But we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that technology is part of the problem. This idea risks keeping innovation out of parks and open spaces, on the misguided grounds that technology somehow interferes with our enjoyment of nature, so we shouldn’t need or want it outdoors. For a lot of people — particularly the young, diverse generation that will be the future of parks and conservation in California — technology is the primary way they connect with the world, even if it’s in the service of getting out into nature to connect with friends and family or to disconnect.
Fortunately, these old-fashioned ideas about the incompatibility of nature and technology are changing fast. Integrating new technology at every level is high on the list of tasks for a “transformation team” created by the Department of Parks and Recreation that is implementing recommendations from the Parks Forward Commission, set up by Governor Jerry Brown to bring our parks into the 21st century.
Technology is a crucial ingredient of two other goals high on the list for securing a sustainable future for parks in California: access and equity.
Technology can deepen our experiences inside parks by helping us understand the landscape and the people who have shaped it.
Contrary to the old myth, technology is not just something to leave behind. It can help make parks and nature more accessible for everyone. You can choose to leave it at home, of course, or turn it off anytime you’re in a park or on a trail. But technology can help you get outdoors, quickly and safely, for an experience geared precisely to your desires. Technology can be a matchmaker between people and nature.
In California, we have an incredible wealth of information about parks and trails available online. Much of it can be found on websites maintained by park agencies and by park lovers, who share detailed information that can help you on your way and give you a great idea of what you’ll find when you’re out there.
At Stamen Design, we created a web app, CaliParks.org, which brings together information for about 11,826 local, regional, state, and national parks, and other publicly accessible natural areas in the state. We’ve got maps, directions, and activities that you can enjoy in these parks, and a special ingredient: a social media feed displaying photographs posted to Instagram, updated every day. So you can see what people are doing and sharing in each park.
The cool thing about Instagram photos is that they show all kinds of diverse Californians enjoying, dare I say, loving parks and nature. We know from research that some Californians don’t go to parks because they don’t think they will see people like themselves. People want to see people like themselves in public spaces to feel welcome. CaliParks.org shows that they will, and that’s an invitation to all Californians to get out and enjoy our parks.
Google has also been steadily mapping eye-level, 360-degree views of trails in many parks using a backpack-mounted camera they call Google Trekker. So you can now check out many trails before you set out to walk or hike them.
Technology can also deepen our experiences inside parks. Colleagues of mine at UCLA have created an app for the Los Angeles State Historic Park that allows visitors to explore the landscape and history while they stroll through the park. It’s a way of finding more than we can see with our own eyes, peeling back the layers, enriching our understanding of this central place’s changing role and the diverse people who have shaped it in the heart of a great city.
Like docents in a museum, an app can serve as an interpretive guide providing significant educational value to park visitors. Technology can also be programmed to deliver content in a variety of ways that are culturally appropriate and in languages that ensure all communities have the opportunity to enjoy these public spaces in a manner that resonates with them. Technology can truly meet people where they are and bring them deeper into parks.
There are lots of websites and apps focused on parks. And you can be sure that more are on the way. As parks agencies share more of their information freely as open data, technologists like us will be scouting for opportunities to create innovative technologies that connect all Californians with parks and nature. We’ll also be looking at the data to make sure that all Californians really are benefiting from our parks and innovations.
For us it’s a passion. We love getting outdoors, too.
California is a hotspot for technology. And technology is increasingly woven into all aspects of our lives. We live parts of our lives outdoors, in parks, on the trail. Technology helps us get out there, see things we’ve never seen before, and share our experiences. And when we want to, we can still turn it off and soak up just being there.
This essay was originally published at KCET Departures.