For Berkeley community member Joe Liesner, getting out of the concrete-covered city of Berkeley and exploring a state park or beach feels wonderful.
He said stepping into urban green space, even if it is surrounded by buildings, captures part of that feeling without leaving the city.
Berkeley’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department does much to maintain the city’s green space, according to Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison. She added that green space helps mitigate climate change and provides a space for people to recreate.
“Seeing nature, seeing animals and seeing other people relaxing around us — it’s so important for the human psyche to relax and not be trapped in the rat race of school and work and society,” Liesner said.
Berkeley City Councilmember Terry Taplin noted that youth of color are particularly impacted by having access to parks.
Taplin said marginalized communities have historically been relegated to parts of town without much green space.
“This is least important for people that have backyards, that can buy a ticket and go to Hawaii when they want to be away from the things that stress them out,” Liesner said. “It’s kind of a question of the haves and have-nots.”
Parks are more than just lawns, and the entire community suffers when they are not protected, according to People’s Park Committee member Lisa Teague. She said it is necessary to address questions around providing equitable access to green spaces.
Teague noted how parks provide essential sanctuary for unhoused people and serve as a place to shelter in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, parks served as open and free places to rest during the day.
“Green spaces are critical not only to the personal well-being and social vitality of communities but also for the biodiversity they provide,” Taplin said. “People think of parks as just spaces where we hang out and take our kids to play, but our urban green spaces are actually really important to maintaining our city biodiversity.”
Harrison said North America has lost almost 3 billion birds since 1970. A lifelong bird-watcher, Taplin added that being able to study diverse species in local parks helped him foster a “love and compassion” for nonhuman life.
Urban green space is also a vital mitigating factor to climate change, according to Teague. She called parks the “lungs of the city” and said the city needs to be maximizing green space.
“It’s important for the earth itself because trees are a carbon sink, and we need ground that is not covered in asphalt to absorb our groundwater,” Harrison said. “This is everything coming home to roost. This is where we really see the climate emergency.”
Currently, Measure L provides for the protection of open space and requires any proposed construction on existing parks be approved by voters, Taplin said.
Harrison is working to add more amenities to Ohlone Park and require tree planting with any construction project. Developing the North Bowling Green and other underdeveloped parks south of the Santa Fe Right of Way is a “big” project for Taplin. He added that he wants to increase park programming.
“We need to invest in programming, especially programming for low-income youth and other marginalized communities, to increase their use of the parks,” Taplin said. “Parks are not for one community or another, they’re for all of us.”
According to Liesner, while using the parks is one way to help preserve them, residents can also write letters to the regents or City Council and tell them how important open spaces are.
Taplin encouraged residents to utilize the green spaces and to take ownership of caring for them.
“Once you have a connection to the land, you want to continue to protect it and help it grow,” Teague said. “You get that sense that part of you, your labor and your heart is in that park.”