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  • What is the Future of Nature in Our Cities?

    How can we support and protect nature in our growing and ever-changing cities?

    This was the question posed at a recent event, “Bridging the Nature-Culture Divide”. The event, which was organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation and the Presidio Trust, took place from January 22-24, 2015, at the Presidio’s newly-opened Officers’ Club.

    The event was both instructive and entertaining. Some speakers highlighted climate change and rapid population growth, which create even more challenges as we try to preserve or support nature in cities. One presenter, Peter Del Tredici from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, provocatively argued that we should stop trying to create neat, orderly urban landscapes or even worry too much about what flora and fauna is “native” or “non-native”. Instead, he recommended embracing “messy ecology” that adapts to our changing world.

    The event encouraged different voices and points of view. While the first half gave voice to experts from landscape design and park management, the second focused on those offering public programs in our parks and urban landscapes. This panel, which I had the pleasure to moderate, demonstrated that people need to be part of the solution to supporting nature in our cities. The Institute’s very own Kristin Wheeler spoke about the need to engage authentically with new audiences and communities, to listen to their needs and values, and to make our parks and other landscapes serve and welcome them. Sarah Schultz, a leading educator and curator from the museum world, spoke of the role art can play in engaging with the public in new ways. Jessica Chen and Guilder Ramirez from the Crissy Field Center told the audience how the Center has fostered a sense of empowerment and engagement with nature for young people from every neighborhood in San Francisco.

    For me, the message I left the conference with was clear: if we want our city parks and cultural landscapes to thrive, we must make them as welcoming and valuable as possible to as many people as possible.


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  • New Year’s Resolution: Make a Change

    This past New Year’s Eve, as the clock struck 12am, I found myself straying from the usual resolution of re-activating my gym membership and instead set a goal of beginning a meaningful career. Once I was brought on at the Institute at the Golden Gate as Project Coordinator for the Climate Education and Urban Programs in January of this year, I felt that my goal of affecting positive change through my career could begin.

    It’s not that I hadn’t had significant jobs before but, as some millennials can attest, I found myself going in few different directions after college. Through a series of events, I eventually came into the environmental policy space, with a keen interest in climate change. Throughout my graduate studies at the University of Southern California, I strove to strengthen that interest with research on everything ranging from AB 32-California’s Global Warming Solutions Act to looking into the history of environmental policy in the U.S., starting from one of the first cases on the rights of nature in Christopher Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?” Although my degree in Public Administration and Policy was general, I gravitated towards this policy tract, getting an extra kick when I could analyze the effectiveness of environmental policies, such as San Francisco’s plastic bag ban.

    While attaining my Master’s, I worked with the City of Los Angeles, Department of Recreation and Parks on a year-long grant during which I gained an immense appreciation for the role of parks in urban landscapes. After much research, I found that parks held significance beyond the fact that they were the main backdrop of my childhood growing up in San Francisco as well as an infinite resource to my adolescent curiosity. They also have well-documented mental and physical health benefits, act as integral community spaces, and create economic revenue in the cities they are located in. Like nearly every other natural resource, they are threatened by climate change. This is just one of the salient environmental issues that the Institute at the Golden Gate hopes to address and I feel fortunate that I can take part in some of this work.

    Conservation, expansion, and maintenance of green, open space seems like an easy strategy to help mitigate some of the effects of climate change; however, as the principle of Occam’s Razor points out, oftentimes the “simple” answer is the right one. 

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  • Events and Convening's and Conferences, Oh my!

    Now that the holiday season has come to a close the Institute is gearing up for another joyous season: conference season. The San Francisco Bay Area will play host to multiple park themed convening's over the next four months. Representatives from the Institute will be in the audience or on stage at the following events and conferences and we wanted to take this opportunity to invite you to join us!

    The Economic Benefits of SF's Parks hosted by SPUR

    • We are looking forward to hearing more from our friends at the Trust for Public Land, San Francisco Parks Alliance, and San Francisco Recreation and Park as they discuss the recent findings on just how critical parks are to the economic health of our beloved city.

    Bridging the Nature Culture Divide III: Saving Nature in a Humanized World hosted by The Cultural Landscape Foundation

    • Our close partners from the Presidio Trust and Golden Gate National Recreation Area will be joining us and others from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy in a conversation on management and new engagement opportunities in the diverse park lands in our backyard.

    Transforming California's State Parks: A Blueprint for a Sustainable Future a Commonwealth Club event

    • Interested in what's next for the 280-unit park system? The Parks Forward Commission will be highlighting excerpts from their recent report that lays out a sustainable path for the California State Parks.

    Science for Parks, Parks for Science hosted at UC Berkeley in partnership with the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society

    • It's fitting that scientists and naturalists will be gathering in Berkeley to discuss the next century of the National Park Service, as the city was host to historic meetings that helped shape it to truly be America's Best Idea. Director Jon Jarvis will be joined by Secretary Sally Jewell and many other noted leaders to help make sure science is core in the next century of the park system.

    The 2015 George Wright Society Conference on Parks, Protected Areas, and Cultural Sites

    • The biennial conference will bring together experts in the fields of park management, outreach, health, climate, and many other critical areas that help shape the future of our parks and protected areas. We look forward to contributing to the sessions highlighting the Healthy Parks, Healthy People movement.

    Greater & Greener, an international urban parks conference presented by City Parks Alliance

    • The conference will celebrate innovative parks, vibrant cities and will bring people together through mobile workshops, exciting field trips, and dynamic sessions over the course of four days. Not only will we help shine a light on the importance of health partnerships we will get to show participants what it looks like on the ground during a mobile session in the East Bay.

    If you've ever thought of paying the San Francisco Bay Area a visit, this may be the perfect time. If you find yourself at any of the above events be sure and say hi to us. Stay tuned for a report back and highlights from these convening's in the coming months. It's clear that "For City Parks, 2014 Was the Year That Was (Great!)" and it's certainly looking like 2015 may be even greater!

    See you in the parks (and conference center),


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  • The Best of the Best from 2014

    What memories will stay with you from 2014?

    Here at the Institute, there are several moments and milestones that stand out for me as we pushed forward with our mission to make parks and public lands part of the solution to major societal challenges.

    Health Successes

    In our health work, I vividly recall a day in late October when we helped host a training on park prescriptions for 180 professionals from San Francisco’s Department of Public Health. This training was the first of its kind and should lead to nature and outdoor activity becoming a major part of people’s lives. Looking around the room, I was inspired and energized by the passion and commitment of these healthcare professionals.

    Another memorable moment happened in Charlotte, North Carolina, when the Institute co-hosted a second national park prescriptions meeting. I so enjoyed meeting with doctors, rangers and other parks and healthcare champions from around the country who are leading the charge on park prescriptions nationwide. It’s an honor for the Institute to be supporting this growing coalition.

     (Participants in the second National Park Prescriptions Convening, 2014)

    Fostering New Leaders

    A third moment that will stay with me from 2014 is when two young professionals, Ruth Pimentel and Hector Zaragoza, joined our Institute team. Hector and Ruth were the first cohort of a new Institute initiative, the Fellowship for Emerging Leaders. Designed to support and foster new young talented professionals in the parks and conservation world, it was a pleasure to have Ruth and Hector join our team for nine months in 2014. We wish them every success as they start on the next stage of their careers.

    Making a Global Connection

    A final vivid memory from 2014 for me is my time spent in Sydney, Australia, at the World Parks Congress. The opportunity to meet with 6000 dedicated parks and public lands professionals and decision makers comes around only once a decade. I was thrilled to present our work on the unique role parks can and should be playing in educating and empowering the public on climate change, including our new Climate Literacy Collaborative in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was an honor to be on stage with such luminaries as National Park Service director Jon Jarvis, and a thrill to speak at a session on the critical role of our urban parks and protected areas. But more important than the Institute’s moments in the spotlight was the chance to hear from other experts around the world, to share in their trials and challenges, and to learn from their successes.

    Looking Ahead

    Our work at the Institute is rarely dull. In fact, it’s a privilege to be part of a team dedicated to making our treasured parks and public spaces part of the answer to the huge problems that face us today – our healthcare and education crises, rapid urban development, climate change. The opportunity to make a difference is one that’s hard to pass up.

    Looking ahead to 2015, we’ll bring more news through our blogs, website and social media on our plans, successes, hot-off-the-press news, and even our trials and tribulations (hopefully we won't have too many of these!).

    Thank you for supporting us on our journey.

    Chris Spence

    Director, Institute at the Golden Gate

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  • Reflecting on the gift of nature this holiday season

    Fort Baker after the rain

    The past few weeks’ torrential downpours have awakened Fort Baker. The parade grounds, thoroughly parched from the summer and fall, had conspired overnight to bloom into lush green carpeting. Despite the constantly foggy, bleary, and downright soggy days that we’ve gone without seeing the sun, the verdancy of Fort Baker and the Marin Headlands peeking through the Institute’s windows remind us of the urgent necessity of rain in this severe drought.

    Although we are still in a persistent drought, the past two weeks has given the state 94 billion gallons--by all means, a holiday miracle. As the Institute powers down to spend the next few days with our families and communities, we wanted share our stories of the miraculous gift of nature. Nature—whether it is the rain ushering in a green Fort Baker, a dandelion clock holding steady in the cracks of a driveway, or the brisk scent of eucalyptus trees wafting through the Presidio—is the foundation of the Institute’s work and we strive to protect nature, both professionally through our policy work, and personally through honoring the memories that we have of connecting with nature.

    Noticing, appreciating, and caring for nature in any and all of its forms can start at any stage in life, in any circumstance, and in any place. Although everyone continuously moves through nature in the day-to-day, we wanted to recall our memories and share our stories of the first time that nature inspired awe in us. When did being in nature bring us feelings of community, acceptance, understanding, and joy?

    These memories are still salient to us, these many years later. The gift of nature is perhaps double-acting: first, we have the initial sense of awe while in the moment, then we recall the memories of being in nature with a similar awe that transcends time.

    As you spend this holiday season with your loved ones, consider giving them the gift of nature that they can look back on with as much clarity, wonder, and awe.

    Lori Bruton

    I didn’t realize it back then, but looking back now, I think my “awe moment,” or I should say moments, in nature were taking annual camping trips with my family and a large group of our family friends. No one bothered bringing any electronics, the only entertainment we needed was each other, and maybe a book for the car ride to and from the campsite. I remember doing skits and playing charades by the campfire, roasting marshmallows, waking up to the light of day and smelling pancakes and hot chocolate, and riding bikes with all the kids around the entire campground. It was fun for adults and kids alike because there was endless entertainment exploring the area, going on hikes, or swimming in a nearby river or lake. These are my favorite memories of being outside because we were closer to nature and closer to each other. My family is still good friends with all of the families we went camping with back then and I hope that when I have my own family I can start a similar tradition.

    Kristin Wheeler

    On a Tuesday in October my parents woke me and my siblings up before dawn and we loaded into the car without any explanation.  I awoke a couple of hours later, still in my pajamas, rubbing my eyes I couldn’t believe I was staring out at Bridalveil Fall, watching the light bounce off of Half Dome, and counting the trees along the valley floor tinged with signs of autumn. This wasn’t my first time and certainly not my last time in Yosemite National Park, but it has been the most memorable. The overwhelming beauty of Yosemite is awe inspiring, but why my parents took us to this place, on this day, felt even more awe inspiring. It instilled in me the essential role that nature plays in healing and connecting us to one another, especially during some of the most difficult times in life. My parents helped me find my sense of place in this world and for that I will forever be grateful.

    Donna Leong

    More of a preface than an excuse: I grew up in the suburbs of LA. In high school, a friend described to me the vast, star-studded skies over the Sonoran Desert she saw on a camping trip (“like someone took a piece of black construction paper and just pricked as many holes as possible with a tack and held it to light”). I saw approximately three stars on smog-less LA nights and this description of the desert sky was anything but believable. I filed that analogy away for years before I finally got to experience it for myself.

    In college, I roadtripped to Arches National Park in Utah with friends. After a strenuous walk to the Delicate Arch at sunset, we trudged towards the car; sunlight vanished exceedingly fast and the rocks changed colors rapidly with the coming dusk. I happened to look up and saw the millions of stars that my friend had described to me all those years back. I never believed that I would ever be able to see something so Nat Geo with my own eyes—the stars really did twinkle and sit in cloudy clusters. This memory and analogy have sustained me for a very long time and have made me appreciate nature and love the American Southwest.


    Chris Spence

    I grew up in a small town in northern England and our house was next to a canal. One summer day when I was 9 or 10, my friends and I took our bikes and followed the canal path further than ever before. First, we headed south. As the miles passed, pleasant middle-class homes gave way to an old city of run-down terraced houses, broken windows, shuttered factories and post-industrial decay. 

    Eventually, we turned around and cycled back, passing my house and pedaling north past open fields, streams and finally, purple and green moorlands. The contrast of urban decline so close to the stunning Yorkshire moors struck me hard. Imagine Detroit right next door to Muir Woods! I knew even then how much happier I felt among the trees and fields than in the city's crumbling foundries and empty sweatshops. I believe this experience was the start of my lifelong passion for environmental stewardship and sustainable development.


    Honoré Pedigo

    My high school had this amazing yearly science trip to Death Valley for Juniors and Seniors in good academic standing. It was a weeklong trip – leaving at 4am on a Sunday morning and returning Friday afternoon. We had old army canvas tents that leaked (I know because it rained one year I went and we were laid in puddles each night) and cooked our meals by campfire. Each day our teacher and the other chaperones would split us up into groups and we would go off to learn about the mineral deposits at Artist’s Palette, the geographical history of Golden Canyon, plant ecology at varying altitudes, desert oases such as Darwin Falls, and more. My first year, I remember staying up late chatting with friends in sleeping bags on a tarp (it did not rain that year) and staring up at the stars; the following year, as a returner, I was allowed to search out native American cliff paintings with some interested chaperones. While I was fortunate to go on camping trips with my family from an early age, this was the first time I stopped to really think “This is amazing. Death Valley is beautiful and mysterious, and needs to be shared and explored.”


    Catherine Carlton
    In 2009, I had just finished serving two years in the Peace Corps. Coming home to Marin and trying to find a job in the depths of the recession, I was going through a large life transition. I had many questions about my future and few answers. I suspected that I wanted to work in the environmental movement, but I had experience working in public health as well – maybe I would have more success finding a job in that field?

    One day, during this time period, my dad and I were hiking around Bon Tempe Lake in the Marin Municipal Water District lands. I remember pausing as we came around a bend in the lake, the hills were golden with the fall grass, water birds were skimming along the lake, Mount Tam rose up behind the small valley. I was so awe struck with the beauty and so moved by the majesty of the nature that was in our backyard. It was in that moment that I realized that working to conserve and improve our relationship with the environment was the only field for me.





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  • The issue of climate change presents unique and oftentimes difficult challenges to those of us working to combat it. Given the controversy and scale of climate change, it’s easy to see that effectively teaching about the topic would present its own set of barriers and challenges. But what exactly are those challenges and barriers in our region? And what are the greatest needs facing environmental educators grappling with climate change in the Bay Area?

    Over the past six months, the Institute has conducted over 75 interviews with environmental educators representing 44 different organizations within the Bay Area to try and answer these questions. The purpose of these interviews was to paint a picture of the current landscape of climate change education in the region, identify common needs and challenges, and explore opportunities to support informal educators in tackling this topic.

    In this effort, we are excited to announce the release of our newest report: Bay Area Climate Change Education Needs Assessment Report.

    This report shows that environmental educators in the region are deeply committed to climate education. Seventy-eight percent of assessment participants reported that they are either currently implementing or are in the process of developing some form of climate programming. However it is interesting to note that these programs ranged from entire outreach initiatives based on climate change to one docent-led hike per year or lecture on the topic.

    At the same time, environmental educators are facing a number of similar challenges to implementing effective, high-impact climate literacy programs. This assessment found that the primary needs and challenges could be broken into the following categories:

    While these challenges may seem daunting, Bay Area educators are also committed to working as a group to address and overcome these barriers. We plan for this report to spark conversation, analysis, and action around how we can work as a community to support each other in addressing this crucial topic. We ask that you read this report with an eye to identifying opportunities and solution, and that you share it with your network of educators, engaging your colleagues in the discussion.

    In this, the Institute is helping to lead this charge and playing a support and coordinator role in the formation of a Bay Area Climate Literacy Collaborative. To join or learn more about this collaborative, please contact us or sign up for our mailing list.

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  • Urban

    Final Fellowship Reflections

    The Institute’s first session of fellowships is coming to an end. Hector and I can’t believe how fast time has flown since we started in May. In our time with the team, we:

    • saw the Institute through a couple of rounds of hiring... and through the upheaval of replacing all the carpets
    • studied and practiced elements of project design, research, facilitation, public speaking, and communication strategy
    • spent time meeting staff and conducting research at parks as big as Yosemite and as small as Heron’s Head
    • attended Bay Area Open Space Council gatherings with hundreds of others in our field
    • spoke to and collaborated with kids in park programs, rangers, outreach specialists, big-picture theorists, horticulturists, donors, doctors, advisors, scientists, designers, publicists, and more
    • appreciated the Institute team’s choice not to use the term Emerging Leaders Fellowship as an excuse to call us each an “ELF”

    Hector’s work directly supported our Health program by designing curriculum and administering evaluations for  the Crissy Field Center as it began integrating health and wellness into its middle school program, and interviewing members of our health collaborative across the Bay Area. His efforts helped apply our park knowledge to improving health outcomes in specific, local communities.

    My work focused on research that honed in on a couple of specific topics relevant to urban parks, helping the Urban program develop expertise on how the most successful parks are engaging a more diverse audience as well as creating an army of stewards through life-changing internships. The road maps and guidelines I developed as a result of this research will help park leaders countrywide tackle these growing challenges.

    Hector and I have both been amazed at the talent and generosity of our colleagues at the Institute and throughout the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. We’ve also been inspired and encouraged by staff at so many of our partner parks and non-profits. Here’s to joining with you in our future careers using public lands for the greater good! We’ll see you in the parks.

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  • Less than two weeks ago, close to 5,000 leaders from around the world came together in Sydney, Australia, for the IUCN World Parks Congress – the once-in-a-decade global forum on protected areas. Together, we tackled challenges such as climate change and illegal poaching, shared successes of healthcare partnerships to improve wellbeing, and heard from the next generation for stories of inspiration and hope. It was an honor to not only attend, but to share the stage with remarkable leaders from Finland, Australia, Singapore, and beyond to discuss how parks around the world are seeking solutions for a better world.

    During the opening ceremony, leaders from across the globe took the stage to share what they bring to the table and express their hopes for a healthier, more sustainable future. We reflected on the last Congress that took place in Durban, South Africa a little over ten years ago, where keynote speaker Nelson Mandela pointed out that our youth may be the key to a better future, but that it will take each and every one of us to teach and empower current and future generations to steward the magnificent places that we are privileged to call home. Mandela’s words rang true at this year’s Congress, but I found examples of leadership and empowerment in unlikely places. The inspiration and examples of action that struck me most came not from the keynote speakers or high up government officials, but from community organizers, Indigenous leaders, and youth. Perhaps this is what Mandela wished for all along.

    Given the state of our planet I see no reason why we shouldn't be filling every international stage with stories from the “doers" – those that choose to take the information we already know and turn it into action. I found the most inspiration and hope from the one on one conversations struck up while sharing a bench in the shade between sessions. It was in these deeper more personal moments that I felt the most connected to the global community. Sharing the challenges of partnerships with a community leader from Gabon and swapping ideas on how to engage low-mobility park users with friends in Australia – these are the stories I wish to hear, these are the actions that deserve the attention of our leaders, and these are the people that know enough to act and are bold enough to act now.

    To read more about the actions and achievements coming out of all corners of the globe, I encourage you to read the Promise of Sydney. This document includes commitments, goals, and achievements that leaders and organizations from around the world will strive to make before we get back together in the next decade. While the details and testimonials are still coming together, what we do know is that our global community promises to INVIGORATE, INSPIRE, and INVEST in every way that we can to create a healthier and more sustainable future for all.

    I personally promise to look for inspiration at all levels and more importantly continue to act so that future generations inherit a better planet than the one we have now. In ten years’ time when park and protected area professionals come together again I have hope that those on stage will be Indigenous leaders, youth, community organizers, and the “doers” of the world. If this comes to fruition I believe we will have made Mandela and our global community proud.

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  • “Yo Cuento” I matter.

    Diversity, what is that? One of the main topics of conversation in the environmental movement is that of diversity. Here in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, we are home to an incredibly diverse population, both culturally and ethnically. Therefore the question remains how parks can actively engage all of these different communities.

    Last Thursday I had the chance to attend an event put on by Latino Outdoors called “Yo Cuento.” The title of the event can be interpreted in various ways – I count (as in numbers), I tell a story, or I matter. The founder of the organization, Jose Gonzalez, brought people together to explore the role of culture as it pertains to an individual’s interpretation of the outdoors.

    In essence, different cultures interpret nature in different ways. The park world should therefore step outside of its park mentality and be willing to go into unexplored and perhaps uncomfortable places to reach the non-traditional park user in an engaging and meaningful way. One of the main points of conversation revolved around viewing our ignorance, biases, and preconceived notions of others as a valuable trait rather than a hindrance. In other words, if we are open and honest about our ignorance then we set ourselves up for open dialogue and this honesty can be refreshing. We can do this by framing our data-driven messages with a dose of storytelling.

    Ask yourself this, what is the Latino Story? For some it means illegal immigration or Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Here is another question – have you heard of the Monarch Butterfly? If so, how are the two related if at all. Well, it represents both an endangered butterfly, and a symbol to migrant workers. Jose showed two maps – one represented the migration patterns of the butterfly and the other for migrant farm workers in the US. The two could almost be superimposed. This story gives personal meaning to both an environmental concern and a human concern with a much more powerful impact than a more traditional and scientific approach to the conservation of an endangered species.

    This led him to talk about the academic research that supports the notion of culturally-dependent interpretations of nature. He showed the following adaptation by Charles Thomas of the original Edwin Nichols model:

    He used this table to point out the subtleties of the different cultural interpretations of the outdoors. However, this is not a definitive tool but rather something to help us be open to differing perspectives.  According to the table, some groups may be more interested in the scientific approach to nature while others may be more interested in how we can relate to each other in the outdoors as a group. Essentially, we should be using storytelling as entry points to topics of diversity and inclusion. We have to step into the discomfort that may come with changing our programs or services into something that may not fit our vision of what they “should” be.  

    One of the major questions revolving this topic is that of safety. How do you make people feel safe? One of the best strategies is to be willing to be vulnerable yourself by making explicit the existence of preconceived notions that are created based on biases formed from lived experiences. Once people realize that you are being honest with yourself and others, then it can lead to shared growth. To test, he showed us a picture of a Latino family outdoors as an example. It was a family of 3. They were wearing normal clothes and not the typical outdoor gear that is promoted by places like REI or the traditional Sierra Club member. He then asked the group if they thought that the people in the picture fit into the perceived notion of what gear you need to enjoy the outdoors. When compared to an ad put out by the Sierra Club depicting a lone person fully geared to go backpacking there were even bigger distinctions noticed. The message is essentially the same but it probably appeals to different audiences.

    So, he then asked direct-service providers in the audience (mostly National Park Service rangers) to ask themselves, “What am I doing to create opportunities that people then choose to be a part of?”

    What can you do? You can spark growth by learning different ways in which you can frame your story. This can manifest itself in doing outreach in non-traditional outlets for job postings, framing the program language so that it appeals and engages non-traditional audiences and finally, exploring what levels of discomfort you are willing to put yourself in to grow as an organization, as a professional, and as a modern conservationist.

    “The Philosophical Aspects of Cultural Difference” Adapted by Charles Thomas from original work done by Edwin J. Nichols, Ph.D. 

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  • Hi, My Name Is...

    Hi, my name is Lori, and I’m the new Administrative Coordinator at the Institute at the Golden Gate. The responsibilities of my new role include being the first point of contact for the public, assisting with office organization and upkeep, and heading up the Institute’s social media communications. That’s a high-level overview of what I do on a day-to-day basis, but what I am most excited about working here is being a part of something that affects change on a national, and in some cases international, scale. I am proud to be a part of something that is so positive and empowering. I’ve only been working here for three weeks but the program managers and partners of the Institute have inspired me on a daily basis.

    Another reason I am so grateful to be here is the national parks have a special place in my heart. Growing up, my family and I would road trip every other summer to a different national park. We visited Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, Arches and so many more in the western United States. I did not realize then how grateful I would be for these family trips. My coworkers and I were discussing the Healthy Parks, Healthy People movement the other day and how so many people have emotional ties to parks and the outdoors due to the memories they hold - I am one of those people. So many of my favorite memories are from time spent outdoors, such as picnicking in Golden Gate Park with my family, hiking in a national park, riding bikes with my sisters, and playing soccer with my friends. Based on personal experience, I can attest to the mental health benefits of the outdoors. Now that I work at Fort Baker, all I have to do is take a step outside and look at the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge and all of my worries and stress disappear, at least for that moment.

    As I learn more and more about the benefits of parks I am more and more determined to spread the word about what the Institute does. That’s where the social media comes in. Before working here, I had never heard of the numerous health benefits provided by parks, or recognized how urban parks can be used to engage and benefit traditionally underserved communities, or thought about the important role that parks have to play in educating the public on climate change, but as soon as I did I knew it was something I had to help get the word out about. For all of you who follow us on social media, I’m sure you’ve noticed my frequent use of the hashtags #getoutside, #hphp, and #ParkRx. The concepts of being outdoors, unplugging, appreciating parks, and taking advantage of what they have to offer should be something everyone is aware of and acts on as much as possible. Even if the only way for you to get outside is to walk to the grocery store instead of driving, you should do it. I’ll admit I’m guilty of laziness every once in a while, but even I can’t argue with the happiness this beautiful November weather brings.

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  • San Francisco is a city of innovation. With a world class public health system and an equally impressive park system, it’s fitting that the two would work together to improve the health and well-being of its residents. Since 2012 the Institute has partnered with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks to bring the idea of Park Prescriptions to reality – and now to scale.

    Despite having close to 6,000 acres of parkland within the city limits current San Franciscans, like most Americans, are now far more sedentary and disconnected from the land than previous generations. We are feeling the burden not only in our bodies but in our pocket books and communities. There is a rigorous body of evidence to prove that access to and time spent in nature improves our physical and mental well-being. But don’t just take the leading scientists and researcher’s word for it – take a stroll through a forest, swap out your treadmill for a local park, or simply take a step outside and breathe in deeply.

    Last week San Francisco was once again put on the map for innovation. A joint training of 200 park and health professionals helped launch and cement Park Prescriptions as more than just a good idea. The groundbreaking training included welcome speeches from the leaders of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks, and the Department of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health.

    The role of the Institute was to help support, convene, and facilitate the day. A job that is often filled with spreadsheets, late night copy runs, and making a lot of last minute changes seem effortless. We’ve taken on this role to make it easier for our partners and champions to do what it is they are great at – to educate, inspire, and empower park and health professionals to work together, learn together, and ultimately make San Francisco a better place to call home.

    It didn’t take long for me to forget about those late night copy runs and fifteen page spreadsheets when our leaders in parks and health took to the podium. I expected many words of congratulations and praise to be said throughout the day but what I didn’t expect was to hear such personal and authentic stories. Each speaker and trainer shared their connection to the outdoors; to the role nature had played in healing themselves and their loved ones and how those experiences have deepened their commitment to this movement.

    The passion running through that room of public health providers and park professionals last week made all of the hard work worth it. I’m more confident than ever that we not only know enough to act now but that we will act now. Improving the health of our most vulnerable populations, strengthening ties in the community, and lowering healthcare costs doesn’t require a medical breakthrough. It’s time we all tap into those positive outdoor memories, roll up our sleeves and get to work together. San Francisco may be the first city to take Park Prescriptions to scale but I guarantee it won’t be the last.

    Special thanks to Dr. Nooshin Razani, UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland; Dr. Curtis Chan, San Francisco Department of Public Health; Howard Levitt, Golden Gate National Recreation Area; and Jim Wheeler, San Francisco Recreation and Parks for their continued leadership and bringing this dream to reality.

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  • Taking Park Prescriptions Nationwide

    Here at the Institute at the Golden Gate, we believe the time is ripe to help bring Park Prescriptions to scale. There are dozens of organizations testing the concept in parks and health clinics around the country, and the early results are encouraging. Imagine what would happen if every healthcare professional began to prescribe nature and every park agency was able to welcome these high health need patients. With so many people suffering from physical and mental illnesses, we have the potential to improve tens of thousands of lives across the United States each year.

    To support the national movement, the Institute launched an initiative back in 2012 to connect experts in the fields of parks and health engaging in Park Prescriptions. In partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Recreation and Park Association, we convene a national coalition of over 35 experts and practitioners.

    Two weeks ago, the partners co-hosted the 2nd National Convening on Park Prescriptions in Charlotte, North Carolina. The workshop brought together leaders from around the country drawn from both the parks and health fields. During this full day workshop the group created strategies for on-the-ground advancement of the movement in order to support any park or health agency in starting their own program. Together, we set goals for communications, program resources, and data and research, and mapped the year to come.

    One personal epiphany at the meeting was hearing from several doctors in the room about how Park Prescriptions can be used not only to treat people with illnesses ranging from ADHD to diabetes, but also as a "preventive" health treatment that can help healthy people stay that way. It is extremely rare for any health intervention to be both a treatment and prevention. I left the meeting inspired to do my utmost to help bring this growing movement to a whole new level across the nation.

    In the coming months, we'll have more news as we start to deliver on the goals set by the coalition partners earlier this month.

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  • Building Climate Literacy in the Bay Area

    Nearly one year ago, the Institute hosted a multidisciplinary conference that explored cutting edge research and best practice around climate change education and communication. Parks: The New Climate Classroom provided a wide-ranging, high-level discussion on how practitioners can engage new audiences and move people to take action on climate change.

    Since then, the Institute has been exploring how we can take these lessons and use them to support and elevate place-based, informal climate change education in the Bay Area.

    Our first stop on this journey was assessing the current landscape of informal climate change education in the Bay Area. What climate education programs currently exist? What are the challenges? What are the needs? And is there a role for us to support environmental educators in developing and delivering these programs?

    To find the answer to these questions, we embarked on a formal needs assessment. From June to September, the Institute interviewed over 70 Bay Area environmental educators from over 40 different organizations. These included park and other government agencies, museums, aquariums, place-based and sustainability-focused education organizations, and more.

    While we are still analyzing the results, one outcome was clear: Bay Area environmental educators are passionate about increasing the quantity, quality, and impact of their climate change programs. There is a strong sense of urgency and broad agreement on the importance of addressing this issue. At the same time, many educators are struggling with challenges unique to climate change. How do we discuss climate change in a way that empowers rather than overwhelms our audience? How do we talk about climate change in a way that is age appropriate? How do we inspire our learners to take action and how do we measure those impacts?

    To help environmental educators tackle these and other challenges, the Institute is facilitating the formation of a Bay Area collaborative whose ultimate vision is to build climate literacy and action throughout the Bay Area.

    Bay Area environmental educators meeting at the EcoCenter at Heron's Head Park to discuss their work on climate change

    While we are in the very early stages of our collaborative formation, the Institute has found the level of interest and passion for this initiative to be inspiring. Over the coming months, we will be working with these environmental education organizations to develop a common agenda, collaborative structure, working groups, and shared outcomes.

    It is a very exciting time for this group and we can’t wait to see how it all develops. Watch this space for the results of our needs assessment, due to be completed next month, as well as regular updates on the progress of the Bay Area climate literacy collaborative!

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  • Urban

    Park Programs Designed for Community Needs

    The Institute has been analyzing fabulous, unexpected outreach strategies at work in national parks near big cities. In particular, we have been trying to identify just what makes youth programs at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the Golden Gate National Parks so ridiculously effective at engaging young people from a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Both parks are employing small but mighty program strategies to go after audiences that aren’t traditionally major park users, and we’ll share those key tools in our diversity report by the end of the year.

    In the meantime, however, we’re also finding an underlying philosophical approach that is not intuitive: quit focusing on the park. When park program managers let go of their own program ideas and begin with the goal of serving a specific community, everything shifts—especially outreach strategy. This shift feels risky because it asks park staff to look away from the task of protecting natural and cultural resources, and to focus instead on helping people. Though preservation is important, it can easily become an all-consuming task that fails to take potential park users’ needs into account. Positioning the park as a dynamic solution to social ills, on the other hand, transforms it from delicately preserved museum piece to beloved tool. Parks with program managers who think this way are likely to be used more, with all the attendant risks, but they are also much more likely to be cherished and safeguarded by the growing number of people who use them.

    At Crissy Field Center (CFC), this philosophy is hard at work in decisions about how to allocate staff time. With their people-first perspective, staff members regularly work outside the park, attending community convener meetings in under-resourced neighborhoods around San Francisco. This investment in understanding potential park audience experiences and challenges shapes CFC programs, instead of vice versa. And since the park has its finger on the pulse of what young, under-resourced San Franciscans actually want and need, its programs have a place in the social justice world of this city. It’s a different kind of outreach, but it seems to be working.

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  • Every day, more than 750,000 people visit America’s National Parks. Many come for the wide array of recreational opportunities: walking, running, biking, hiking, birding, climbing, enjoying a picnic with family or friends – the list is almost endless.

    Many visitors also come to our parks eager to learn: about the place, plants, animals and people who have called it home. With 95% of our learning opportunities happening outside a formal classroom, there are many different ways for people to learn something new and interesting in our parks.

    The National Park Service has a long history as an educator and interpreter of America’s stories. In hundreds of parks across the country, rangers, partner organizations and volunteers help audiences enjoy transformative learning experiences. What more inspiring places could there be to soak up knowledge?

    As the world transforms with new challenges and technologies, how can our parks adapt to serve people's changing interests and needs?

    Earlier this year, the National Park Service published a new report, Achieving Relevance in Our Second Century. The report sets out a strategy for how parks can be relevant and of value to our changing population in terms of interpretation, education, and volunteerism. It establishes ambitious goals for how parks can be more relevant and inclusive of all Americans, and can take on the mantle of leadership in informal education.

    The plan also raises the thorny question of funding and resources. How we can achieve our ambitious and lofty goals in a time of budget constraints?

    The Institute at the Golden Gate is proud to support this vision and parks’ efforts to turn an inspiring vision into a practical reality. We believe in the power of parks to help inform, educate, and empower all Americans. Imagine if every young person could visit a park and leave feeling inspired and motivated about our country’s history or its current challenges?

    In the coming months, we’ll have more news and announcements on how we’re supporting these important efforts. 

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  • 2nd National Convening on Park Prescriptions

    On October 13th, the Institute will be co-hosting the 2nd Annual National Convening on Park Prescriptions with the National Parks and Recreation Association in Charlotte, NC. We have invited the nation’s Park Prescription champions to share their on-the-ground stories of program implementation. Our Park Prescription friends have programs that are unique to their regions, but we realized at the 1st national convening that there are operational hurdles that every program will need to overcome in order to create a sustainable program. At this event, this group of park managers, program managers, clinicians, and professors will come together to learn from each other. 

    Check back for a follow-up on how Park Prescriptions is moving forward!

    Park Prescriptions are just one of the ways that our coalition partners are keeping people and parks healthy for future generations. 

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  • Great Ideas Come in Great Spaces

    Think your nonprofit can’t afford lodging and meeting space in one of California’s top luxury hotels in the heart of a national park? Think again.

    The Institute proudly partners with Cavallo Point Lodge to welcome nonprofits and government overnight groups for environmental or park focused meetings November through April of each year.

    Just minutes from San Francisco with eco-friendly indoor facilities and a delectable food options including a Michelin-starred restaurant, Cavallo Point Lodge is the perfect setting for your next meeting.  Call today to arrange an in-person walk-through or discuss details for your meeting. Visit our Convene page for more information.

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  • Reconnecting Youth to Health and Wellness

    Eating wholesome food and engaging in regular physical activity are not things that you start or finish, they are a state of being—a lifestyle. Due to the rising concern over our youth obesity rates we decided to take an in-depth look at how our communities and our lifestyles in the San Francisco Bay Area are affected. But, what does it mean to be in a state of wellbeing? What does it mean to be healthy?

    These are the questions that I set out to explore in partnership with the Crissy Field Center. This summer marked the 10th anniversary of the Urban Trailblazers (UTB) program, so there was an extra rush of energy to make this one special. We decided to shed the spotlight on this paid, 7-week summer program, which exposed local middle school youth to a variety of fun and health-related activities.

    In collaboration with the Crissy Field Center, we incorporated themes of Health and Wellness into the summer experience to cover topics like healthy, sustainable food and physical and mental health. Some of the highlights included: overnight trips to Yosemite, Alcatraz, and the Presidio, as well as trips to Slide Ranch, a sustainable farm in Marin, and the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park. These experiences were meant to kindle an inward look into how each of us relate to our food, our environment, and each other.

    In order to find out what our youth already knew about health and wellness we conducted a pre-program survey. This helped us learn how to approach these topics so that students would feel engaged and empowered. I also spent a lot of time with the youth, directly observing their activities throughout the summer and conducting one-on-one interviews with a randomly-selected group of students.

    In order to measure the impact of the program, we are currently conducting a post-program survey that will showcase what the students learned and the tools they gained that will help them explore these topics on their own.

    Much of the thought behind our work was exemplified in an article published in last month’s issue of Parks and Recreation, Park Prescriptions in Practice, which stated that increased physical activity and time spent in nature has a variety of health benefits ranging from an improved sense of social cohesion, reduced stress, to an improved quality of sleep. This, combined with a healthy and wholesome diet, paves the way to ensure we are at our best.

    This summer experience taught me a few things about our youth: they are concerned about our environment, including the drought that is currently hitting California; they want to make friends and work together to address topics that are relevant to their communities, like litter and homelessness; they want to initiate new programs that increase the bonds of neighbors in their communities; and they are concerned about what they are putting into their bodies and how things are grown. Therefore, we have the opportunity to unleash this potential and interest from the next generation of environmentalists and let it flourish. We owe it to our youth to seize the moment and empower them. This could be as simple as inviting a friend for a walk, preparing a meal for a sibling or friend with produce from the local farmer’s market, or helping out at your local gardens, homeless shelter or food banks. Action, no matter how small, is taking this positive movement forward.

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  • Urban

    Race and the Great Outdoors

    Here at the Institute, we’ve been reading UC Berkeley professor Carolyn Finney’s new book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. In it, Finney explores how the environment and nature became racialized concepts in the United States, partly by delving into the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws. She also challenges media representations of how Americans of color connect to open space and adds complexity to the (prevailingly white) cultural narratives that we use to define and claim outdoor experiences for ourselves and others. The so-called “white spaces” of American national parklands are past due for some change.

    Dr. Finney’s work is exciting not just because Black Faces, White Spaces is beautifully written and thought-provoking, but because it’s part of a larger discussion about making parks more relevant to a broader diversity of people. Initiatives in the National Park Service, private industry, and environmental non-profits are all beginning efforts to see public lands in new ways so we can use them more inclusively. For example, check out the line-up of the new Diverse Environmental Leaders (DEL) National Speakers Bureau, intended to “provide knowledgeable, articulate and experienced experts of color to build broad community support for the protection of our public lands through relevancy, diversity and inclusion.” (DEL website) "Every member has individually done some seriously inspiring environmental work, so we can expect this newly-launched group to have a major impact.

    The Institute’s Urban program has some related efforts of its own. This year, we’re researching and analyzing outreach strategies at the Crissy Field Center here in the Golden Gate National Parks and the SAMO Youth program in Santa Monica National Recreation Area. These powerful projects have shaped themselves around the needs of youth in nearby, underserved communities—multi-ethnic ones in San Francisco and chiefly Latino ones in Los Angeles. As a result, they not only provide job training, safe places to be after school, and financial help in the form of a stipend, they create enduring bonds between communities of color and national parkland. We’re excited to share their programmatic successes and the learning experiences they’ve had along the way.

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  • Physical Activity Through Fun

    When we got to East Bay Regional Park District’s (EBRPD) Crab Cove, it was hot, and we were late. Naturalists were teaching participants how to use compasses—real compasses—and real maps, hand-drawn on paper, with lines showing magnetic and true north. They did not come with Siri’s reassuring voice. I felt a little panicked thinking that this was not entertaining enough for the patients who had taken their day off to come into nature with us. My own children sat down and announced they were not participating.

    UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland (CHO) Primary Care Center has partnered with EBRPD to take our patients into nature by offering a monthly shuttle from our clinic to a local park. Doctors and their families, as well as EBRPD staff, join patients and their families on these monthly outings.

    Our goal is to increase opportunities for physical activity while having fun. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states children should enjoy 60 minutes of physical activity a day, at least 5 days a week, and most of it should be aerobic. That means we should be getting aerobic activity—such as brisk walking—everyday; and three times a week, this should be a vigorous activity, such as running. Adults need 75 minutes of jogging or running every week and muscle-strengthening activities two or more days a week.

    This may sound hard to achieve. Yet, research shows that simply being outside leads to increased physical activity. Children are two to three times more physically active outdoors than indoors. For every hour children are outside, they spend about 27 minutes of it in activity. Exercise in natural setting has added emotional and mental health benefits: for example, improved attention span, as well as improved feelings of serenity, energy, happiness.

    Children tend to engage in “active play” outdoors when they

    have access to a variety of landscapes—“hardscapes” such as asphalt as well as natural landscapes. Play in outdoor settings with natural elements, such as a hiking trail or boulder-size rocks, has been shown to have added benefits of improved motor strength, balance, and coordination for children. A variety of landscapes may engage a wider variety of personalities or temperaments of children in physical activity. More imaginative children may be more engaged in natural settings.

    As I felt my own mental resistance to figuring out the compass, I worried that this activity was not active enough to achieve our goal—I was wrong.  

    Once we learned how to use compasses, the families were split into groups and came up with their own team names: Team Confused, Team Larry, Team Gooze, and Team Marbin. Most groups ran off in the wrong direction. Team Marbin, led by CHO’s own Dr. Jyothi Marbin and her husband Seth, realized everyone else’s error and stealthily headed in the other way. By the time others realized, the Marbins were way ahead of the rest.

    And then it was on!

    As we followed our compasses towards the site where the last flag appeared to be, each team running to catch up with the Marbins, we saw that the Marbins (now joined by members of team Gooze) had veered just slightly to the right of the correct path. Team Confused quietly ran in the direction of the flag while trying not to be seen. They saw it at the same time as the Marbins, and although members of the Marbins and Gooze ran as quickly as they could to the flag, Team Confused touched it first. Team Larry arrived seconds after.

    In the end, Marbins, Confused, and Gooze happily shared the glory.

    A quiet calm came over the well-exercised children and adults as we walked back to the Crab Cove visitor’s center to watch some fish-feeding. That is, until doctors and patients, children and adults, burst into a fierce game of banana tag.

    I can’t tell you exactly how many minutes of physical activity we got that day. But I can tell you that no family was going to be left behind. And, my total pedometer steps in that 2 hour excursion: 6,000.

    With that, I hope to see you in the parks!

    Nooshin Razani, MD MPH. Nooshin is a pediatrician and Nature Champion trained by the National Environmental Education Foundation to prescribe nature for health. She is currently Senior Health Fellow at the Institute at the Golden Gate.

    with Kelley Meade, MD. Dr. Meade is a pediatrician and Associate Director of the Primary Care Clinic at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. The shuttle project is part of her healthcare leadership fellowship at the Center For Health Professions sponsored by the California Healthcare Foundation.

    Photos by Nooshin Razani and Mona Koh of EBRPD.

    Many thanks to East Bay Regional Parks Foundation for sponsoring the outings, and to the Institute at the Golden Gate for donating water bottles and pedometers.


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