In recent years the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy has been incorporating Maintained Meadow Areas (MMAs) into its park system. The idea behind maintained meadows is that instead of mowing an entire park over and over (which is not healthy for grass to begin with), small pockets of land are to be dedicated to meadows (something that Olmsted always envisioned for the parks).
Of course, over time people began to look at parks as manicured places with little vegetation other than freshly mowed grass. If you look at our city parks (not the Olmsted parks), most of them look very much the same. Giant stretches of grass that are relatively boring to view and not conducive to a variety of uses. Yes, they are good for throwing Frisbees and laying on beach towels, but if you closely examine the urban parks, they are relatively underused unless you’re talking about sports fields, running tracks, picnic shelters, etc.
What makes a park beautiful to people, and appealing to wildlife, is a mixture of maintained meadows and open lawn. Take Squaw Island for example. It’s not often that you find people sitting around and enjoying themselves on the wide open lawns. Instead you find the visitors (many refugees actually) sitting under trees or close to water features, or amongst the rocks and boulders by the river. These are the areas that are most appealing for people (and birds, butterflies, etc).
There’s an old dumping ground at Squaw Island that remains to this day (see photo below). You can tell where it is because of the huge mounds that look like natural hills. Over the years the hills have become natural meadows filled with flowers and plants and small shrubs and bushes. To me, it’s one of the most natural, breathtaking areas in the entire city. There are even trails (desire paths) to get around, created by people who have found the meadows to be a peaceful and spiritual place.
At one point in time, the rest of the dump was removed and taken to Tifft Farm, where it was covered so that nature would then take its course. Today that land is Tifft Nature Preserve – another of the city’s most incredible natural assets. It’s interesting to note that the most aesthetically pleasing natural assets in the city were/are dumping sites. That’s because the land is completely useless for anything other than Mother Nature to work her magic.
I’m not saying that all of our urban parks should be overrun with meadows. Rather I am pointing out that there is an opportunity to create diversified ecosystems within the park-scapes, where people can play games, pick flowers, bird watch, and enjoy the sights and sounds that were always intended to be a part of our daily life. Olmsted wanted to bring nature to the city, and I commend the Olmsted Conservancy for finally realizing that “nature” is not a manicured lawn. It’s woods and meadows, flowers and trees, birds and butterflies… areas that make us feel as if a part of nature, and the inherent ecosystems that would thrive if given the chance. It might be easier to just go out and mow everything down, but there is something that is missing when we take our walks through lifeless barren landscapes.