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Wildness in the Metropolitan Area: A Dream in Search of a Plan

On Jun 12, 2022

“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.”

~Jack London, The Call of the Wild

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Wilderness has the potential to connect city dwellers with something more than the trappings of the urban environment. Residents can escape the cacophony of the urban world for a moment of peace in a different setting which Los Angeles has in abundance. From Griffith Park to the Santa Monica Mountains, from the Ballona Wetlands to the Verdugo Mountains, we are graced with land that can remain (or be remade) natural and wild.

But how, those in power may ask, can a park in the middle of a megalopolis be wild? Isn’t “Urban Wilderness” an oxymoron? Who defines the term and how does the concept translate to actual spaces in the city? With sufficient time and effort, answers are available. The benefits of establishing and preserving natural settings cry out for, and deserve, that time and effort.

To find the wild, most people look outward to the fringes, those remote and desolate spaces often hours and days away from home, as demonstrated in the 2006 study, “Defining Wilderness With Pictures: An Exploratory Study” by professors at Western Illinois University. In contrast, cities bring people together to live side by side and interact constantly; it is people and their everyday needs that drive the wild away from daily life. Metropolitan living has roads and restaurants and food carts and music and shopping and cars… lots and lots of cars. Still, we can – and should – preserve and maintain a piece of wilderness amid the bustle.

Internationally, the German organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Action Germany (DUH)) is working to incorporate the wild into built environments. They actively juxtapose “Wilderness” with a stand-alone concept of “Urban Wilderness,” as described in the chart. This effort provides urban areas with the flexibility to carve out a wild space from an urban setting on any scale.

In the United States, the concept of urban wilderness is an almost entirely localized phenomenon that has variable definitions and approaches to preservation and issues of access.

For example, Knoxville, Tennessee takes an activity-first approach in its urban wilderness program. Constructed to protect the natural environment, Knoxville provides a host of outdoor activities to visitors, from biking to swimming, hiking to climbing. Educational components – boardwalks with artwork about animal tracks, etc. – provide guests with information as they
explore this natural area.

Likewise, Broward County, Florida integrates the call for urban wilderness into its municipal code. Creating an oversight board to work with the local parks department, the County mandates a continually updated inventory of wild spaces so they can be, according to its code, “managed in such a way as to protect and enhance their basic natural quality for public enjoyment and utilization as reminders of the natural conditions that preceded modern civilization.”

Bringing Urban Wilderness Home

What does this mean for Griffith Park and what guidance does it offer for the Park and its caretakers?

Ultimately, “Urban Wilderness” is defined by our ambitions. At the purist level, the Park would be kept sacrosanct and untouched other than by the wildlife that inhabit the Park; anyone who wanted to enter would only do so on foot and would have to pass guards at the entrance. At the capitalist level, the Park would be a haven for sales and paid sports activities with snack bars and souvenir stands in every canyon, assuming the stands can be viewed beyond the zip lines and gondolas.

We urge citizens and policymakers to work together to find the best balance between these extremes, building from a deep understanding of the need for nature within the metropolitan area.

A pure wilderness solution is out since a metropolitan area of more than 10 million people cannot surround thousands of untouched acres. Nor is a metropolitan area without green space a viable solution; people need open areas for mental health as much as physical health.

Understanding the possibilities, continual efforts need to find an optimal balance. Here is where the DUH chart provides a valuable guide; it evaluates how we can protect Griffith Park and its urban wilderness value. This approach helps us bring rigor and discipline to the complexities of protecting the wilderness of Griffith Park.

Size: The DUH chart notes Urban Wildernesses tend to be small. That is not, of course, the case with Griffith Park with its 4,310 acres, nearly seven square miles. Size in this case works to our advantage. Vast area allows the best of both worlds! Visitor amenities and paid activities are possible in contained spaces near roads and entrances, permitting the landscape and wildlife necessary for a robust ecosystem throughout the rest of the Park boundaries.

Fragmentation: Topography splits the Park naturally, not human borders. Once again, the innate characteristics of the land dictate how it can be creatively designated to protect the wild. Flat land allows for ball
parks and accessible picnic areas, while mountains and canyons allow wildlife privacy and on-trail hikers the freedom to find seclusion.

Intensity of Maintenance: Griffith Park finds itself in yet another unique position demanding that best efforts be used to ensure it is fully protected. Surrounded by homes, the Park must be carefully maintained if for no other reason than fire safety. But that brush clearance does not preclude wild spaces. With care to protect its borders, the interior of the Park can exist in a nearly untouched state, allowing both visitors and animals that call it home to experience the land in its wild state.

Natural Processes: With fire safety paramount, natural processes must be controlled at the borders to protect the city in which the wilderness sits. Disturbing natural habitats of course requires informed land management to mitigate the impact of unintended consequences.

Relevance for Biodiversity: The Park’s native chaparral eco-system can be fostered to help the natural biota survive and thrive. Careful reintroduction of lost species and diligent work can restore natural food chains.

Biotope Connectivity: Genetic studies can reveal wildlife population risks due to loss of habitat connectivity. Long-term studies of mountain lions in Southern California have documented the lowest genetic variation of any mountain lion population, except the Florida panther subspecies. According to data from a FoGP-sponsored study, Western gray squirrels in Griffith Park are impacted by genetic factors of endangerment and extinction. This genetic status is the result of isolation, lack of genetic richness, and high relatedness within the three remaining subpopulations.

Relevance for Environmental Education: Griffith Park is a star, as is only fitting for the hills above Hollywood. Accessible from much of the city, there is no better place to teach the importance of protecting wild spaces. From Crystal Springs to the Observatory, from the Greek Theatre to Travel Town, established learning centers are already in place. Expanding curricula to further stress the Park’s value as an ecological haven will help our communities grow with health and intention.

Habitat Type: The Park shows what the hills throughout the region looked like hundreds of years ago. With no pylons or pillars holding up mansions, the habitat is preserved for everyone to enjoy.

Human Impact: The Park is undeniably not an untouched wilderness, but it has so many elements of the wild remaining that can be protected. Existing roads and buildings can be maintained to provide amenities to visitors without the need to further invade into the remaining wilderness.

Griffith Park cannot become the place where developers, of whatever type, dream of added acreage, and City officials dream of adding extra coins into the coffers. To preserve the now well-recognized need for access to the wild, even in the urban setting, its value as an urban wilderness must be recognized and protected.

As Broward County, Florida demonstrates, avenues and legislation exist that can ensure Griffith Park continue to be the wild in the urban setting of Los Angeles; every effort must be undertaken to make this a reality.

Valerie Vanaman is on the Friends of Griffith Park Advisory Board; Alexander Radar, her son, has a varied career as a photographer and publisher who has also worked in technology related fields and has recently earned a Master of Urban Planning degree from USC. 

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