The Incredible Shrinking Park

DANIEL BERGER

August 28, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

It is dismaying to go through Druid Hill Park and see less park each year.

The fencing of the Zoo more than two decades ago preserved much of its natural forest while keeping the people out.

In the 1980s, roadways in the northern part of the park were blocked with unsightly barriers. The reason given was that a jogger had been murdered there years earlier. A large part of the park was found guilty of the crime and removed from society.

An attempt to sell off park land for a television tower failed a few years later when the public protested and others in city government came up with an alternative site that had always been available.

A popular archery range protected by a hill was allowed to grow over, with archery banned. Since a crowded ball field is above the hill, this was not such a bad idea.

I am not complaining here about the destruction of tennis courts to make way for a greenhouse which may never be built. Those things happen. But in Druid Hill and other parks and city-tended greenland, much grass that was mowed is now not mowed. Some of this was delineated by inane signs saying ''Test Area.''

Some of these areas are scraggly, what in an earlier period of environmental consciousness would have been called derelict. Some have become meadows of wildflowers, glorious in season, a wonderful addition To Druid Hill Park and to roadside verges. Fine reporting by The Sun's JoAnna Daemmrich Monday called attention to this trend and sympathetically explained the reasoning of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Running out of money is only part of it. Letting weeds grow tall is billed as a good thing: educationally, aesthetically and environmentally sound. It lets city youngsters see how nature works, lures wildlife to the parks and purifies storm water bound for the Chesapeake as mown grass does not. This is recommended by experts from the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which works with Baltimore parks. It is part of a national trend, with Baltimore out front.

But some things must be said of an adversarial nature:

One is that the city already has a magnificent forest in Leakin Park, which probably ought to be run as a state forest. Many people avoid it as scary, but others love it. The city also has a remarkable nature preserve in Cylburn Arboretum.

Such parks as Druid Hill and Patterson Park have always been city parks, carefully cultivated green spaces for ball games, picnics, romping, promenading, bench-sitting, walking the dog and other societal pleasures. For these, too, there is need. City parks left untended become sinister. Dangerous people lurk behind unpruned bushes, which prudent people avoid. With Lyme disease upon us, conscientious parents warn children away from tall grass for fear of ticks.

The department that keeps people away from wild vegetation is turning more parts of the park into that condition. This is really a policy of shrinking the park and discouraging people from using it -- even if that is not the intention.

If the environmental argument is correct, it is equally sound for everyone's front yard. Think how much cleaner the bay would be if none of us mowed our grass. Unfortunately, letting your yard go is against the law, which is enforceable by vigilant neighbors and property associations. What the city is doing on its own land, it prohibits citizens from doing on theirs.

The best argument for the policy is that the city cannot afford to mow all its grass. One must sympathize with Superintendent of Parks Calvin P. Buikema trying to manage all the parkland with hundreds fewer employees than were formerly deployed.

A city that cannot afford art teachers or intramural athletics in schools may not be able to mow the grass. Nor is all park land sacred. A city of declining population and tax base must trim its facilities and ambitions.

But what was once one of the great urban parks of the nation is going to seed. This is not a triumph of enlightened policy, in my view, but a crying shame.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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