Monday, December 06, 2010

Next Generation parks: there's an app for that?

When you think of camping you might think of exploring the woods and making new discoveries across the landscape. Perhaps you envision lying out under the night sky, seeing the Milky Way and the countless stars usually obscured by the lights of the city. Maybe you love to gather around a fire to share the experiences of the day with friends and family.

The ubiquity of smart phones and wireless devices challenges these traditional notions of outdoor recreation. In the future will we explore the forest aided by self-guided audio tours through our smart phones, use iPad apps to tell us the names of the celestial bodies we’re espying and supplement the glow of the fire with the light from laptop screens accessing wireless Internet?

The new Lake Vermilion State Park will be a crown jewel in the Minnesota state park system. Last week, the draft master plan for the development of Lake Vermilion State Park was published. It’s a thoughtful and comprehensive document that raises deep philosophical questions about the role of technology in how visitors will experience parks in the future.

The plan positions Lake Vermilion as a pilot for what the DNR calls “Next Generation” state parks. This new paradigm of state park management is wide-ranging and attempts to respond to the changing demographics of park visitors. It focuses on attracting new state park users among young people and providing amenities that will preserve the audience of aging baby boomers that make up the bulk of state park visitors now. One part of this paradigm is the embrace of “emerging technologies.”
The purpose of embracing emerging technologies is to focus the technology on providing and enhancing quality recreational experiences and connecting people with the outdoors. Importantly, this also includes minimizing the impact of technology on other park visitors who are seeking “unplugged” experiences and taking care not to replace “real” outdoor experiences with digital ones.
But that last sentence is the sticky wicket, isn’t it? At some point, technology begins to replace the experience of being outdoors, rather than enhancing that experience. As we design parks to be relevant to the next generation of visitors we need to take care. What will we gain if we attract new visitors to parks at the expense of destroying what makes the experience unique?

Outdoor recreationalists are not Luddites. “Gearheads” among them love new fibers, lighter materials, and the convenience and safety of GPS. But the “next generation” paradigm risks going beyond using technology as a means. When technology becomes the experience, we have crossed the line.

Responding to the “nature deficit disorder” phenomenon by creating overly structured experiences like “challenge parks” and campgrounds that are more like hotels in their amenities is the wrong response. If anything, the lack of unstructured time to explore, create, and learn is the problem. We’ve raised an entire generation of children that largely lack that freedom of unstructured engagement with nature.

The inability to escape wireless devices, for even a weekend in the woods, is yet another problem. People go camping to leave the workaday world behind and to experience the natural world. And it’s not enough to simply say “leave the laptop at home if you don’t want to use it.” A campground full of others texting, typing and chatting is simply a different experience.

One can’t design a new state park, particularly one as important as Lake Vermilion State Park, without an eye to the future. There is no doubt that technology, particularly communication technology, is part of that. But let’s be careful not to eviscerate what is special about camping and outdoor recreation in the name of attracting new users.

You can hear more and give your thoughts on the Lake Vermilion State Park plan tomorrow from 5 PM to 8 PM at Silverwood Regional Park. If you can't make that meeting, consider leaving comments using the DNR's public input tool.

Follow me on Twitter @aaronklemz

(Image credit: Lake Vermilion Resort Association / Explore Minnesota)


Phoenix Woman said...

I think that any place that already allows cabins or gift shops should allow Wi-Fi in the cabins and gift shops.  But places that are still wild should stay wild.

John Hakes said...

Great question on an important topic.  The new Vermilion State Park is the right place to begin exploring this breaking issue, given what I'm guessing will involve a lot of stationary camping in a laboratory of nature.  On the one hand, with applications that expand the learning, and by extension, the conversation, would fantastically enhance the experience.  But the author is right, the technology could stand to eclipse people's being available while there.  

Perhaps one way to address this would be to prohibit or limite the devices which people use to transact their daily business.  Though difficult to control given the multi-purpose functions of smartphones, allowing the tool for exploration only on hikes, could be a start to a solution.

For those who just have to keep tabs with goings on at home or work, perhaps some sort of "power hour" for doing this?  But absolutely at no time would it be acceptable to bring a laptop to the campfire .... unless for the purpose of Karaoke, of course :)

Yeah, this technology in the woods topic gets complicated real fast ... but if a place like Vermilion Park gets it right, it could stand to be a model to follow.

DiscordianStooge said...

use iPad apps to tell us the names of the celestial bodies we’re espying

That's not the future. That already exists.

Me, I'm still pissed at people who bring their pre-made nylon tents and coolers of food out to the woods. What happened to enjoying nature by spending a weekend building a lean-to with fallen branches and catching slow-moving squirrels for food?

Aaron Klemz said...

I know about the iPad app, it's really neat. All joking aside, I'm as much of a gearhead as anybody. But I watched my teenage nephew spend half a weekend texting until his batteries died once, and it stuck with me. I just think there ought to be spaces to get away from that, even if it is in a siliconized nylon tent and 800 fill DWR sleeping bags.