City hopes ‘Neighborhood Naturalists’ are the answer to ‘nature deficit’

Written by on January 30, 2013 in Featured, Neighborhood News - No comments

A Neighborhood Naturalist could have helped our editor identify this strange-looking duck in the Patterson Park boat lake as a muscovy duck. Thanks to the Patterson Park Audubon Center for identifying this bird. Photo by Erik Zygmont

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If you believe that urban kids and adults need more experience in the natural world and access to experts who can make learning about nature fun, you’ll be glad to hear that Baltimore City Recreation and Parks is partnering with the Natural History Society of Maryland to create the Neighborhood Naturalists Corps—the first of its kind for Baltimore.

“The neighborhood naturalists are local nature enthusiasts who, with training, will lead nature walks, tours, and conduct programming in both neighborhood parks and communities,” says Fran Spero, Division Chief, Park Programs and Events for Rec and Parks.

The NHSM, based in Overlea, has been in existence since 1929 and possesses substantial collections of plants, animals, fossils, and minerals—many dating back to the 1800s—which were on display at the Baltimore Zoo until the 1970s.  “It was the first nature center in the state,” says professional ecologist Charles Davis, its spokesperson.

Spero says the ultimate goal of Neighborhood Naturalists is to “combat the increasing nature deficit that many urban kids and adults experience.”

She references Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, which asserts that children, particularly urban ones—and more than a few adults—tended to avoid natural areas for a variety of reasons including parental fears, lack of knowledge, and being distracted by electronic media. Louv, a journalist, believes that exposure to nature is essential for healthy child development.

“We want to increase nature-related programming available to children and adults, both in our parks and in the community, and the Neighborhood Naturalists is a way to accomplish this without any additional City Rec and Parks resources,” Spero says.

The NHSM and Rec and Parks will likely have other partners in this endeavor. “There’s already been some discussion with the Carrie Murray Nature Center and with the Audubon Society, among others,” explains Spero, who says these partnerships are vital because in this economy no one organization really has funds to run a program like this on its own.

To gauge interest in the Neighborhood Naturalists corps, Rec and Parks and NHSM recently issued a call for volunteers. There has been a great response from the Patterson Park and Herring Run Park communities, as well as the Gwynns Falls, Roosevelt Park (Hampden), and Inner Harbor areas, Spero and Davis say.

Davis says that while a major goal of the corps is expanding members’ subject knowledge, improving their perception of the natural world is just as important: observing, listening, smelling, and paying attention.

“We’ll teach them the awareness skills they need to be good naturalists,” he says.

Spero emphasizes that the program is still in the planning phases, but says she plans to have Neighborhood Naturalists’ training workshops scheduled in the spring.

Neighborhood Naturalists is still seeking volunteers. To apply, contact Fran Spero

by Danielle Sweeney

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