Inside from the Outside: Rock Creek Park

An Inside Glance from the Outside: Modern-Day Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.

A dot. A miniscule, microscopic dot. A small addition in a galaxy of green. The refreshing belittlement is how you feel when you walk around the Rock Creek Park area. You are one tiny, insignificant thing among the surrounding nature and overflowing mansions and luxury apartments. Yet, somehow, we, as human beings, see ourselves as a more valuable entity.

Rock Creek Conservancy, an organization with a mission to restore and maintain Rock Creek Park’s wonderful nature, seeks to make the urbanized individual and the natural environment collaborators in efforts to protect this habitat while allowing it to be a source of enjoyment for any and all. Their textual and visual approach in enticing the public to partake in preserving Rock Creek Park’s natural state (a forest that serves as a home for many) will be put in question throughout this paper.

The website belonging to the Conservancy group is plastered with an overload of text and information. It almost feels like the homepage is screaming, “We are here! And we’re not going anywhere!” I suppose the purpose for this type of layout lets any visitor know that information is always accessible, and one can do absolutely anything to donate or volunteer.

More importantly, when one logs into the group’s website, one has easy access to its Strategic Plan PDF for the years 2016 through 2020. This document will be the main focus here for content purposes. The Strategic Plan brochure has a portrait with a blown up image of the water stream along rows of rocks in front of a man made bridge in the deep back. The image seems intentional in the sense that what is written in the biggest block letters, “Keeping Urban Green,” sends the message of what the organization is trying to keep as the first and foremost important thing. This is putting the environment first in a city setting.

The portrait to Rock Creek Conservancy’s Strategic Plan. This image was cropped.

By making nature a priority, the authors of this Strategic Plan undermine it. If one takes a closer look at all the text that dominates the pages, Rock Creek Park is almost referred to as a part of the area that disrupts the city. And this manner of putting it is precisely why we must protect it. The original reason for the installation of Rock Creek stemmed from the Lincoln administration asking for a space in which anyone could revel in all nature could offer and appreciate it; one of the designers of the park, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. is included in the Strategic Plan packet, showing the importance of Rock Creek’s history to the organization. Instead of wording it the other way around, the park is referred to as “nature in an urban environment” (11).

Although, at first, it sounds like the organization is trying to say that the city comes before the rural, it could be playing to the increasingly urbanized mentality of the public. The residents around the Rock Creek region must all be used to seeing Rock Creek as an addition to the city, somewhere they can go as a pastime, a distraction or to clear their minds. Even though there are actual homes built into the expanse of the forest, the mere fact that Rock Creek Park is entirely surrounded by expensive buildings plays into that phrasing of “nature in an urban environment.”

The forest with the building in the background. Which one catches your attention first?

In order to achieve one of its goals of restoring the park to its original condition, when it was a main site and not just an occasional landscape, Rock Creek Conservancy has to appeal to the public perception that the city needs this piece of nature in order to have a healthy, round lifestyle (11). Nature, today, needs the help of people to survive because the people have the power to destroy it.

Furthermore, Rock Creek Conservancy includes in its mission the desire to make the park a site enjoyable and accessible for all individuals, so they can feel valued (6). I consider the group’s adamant insistence on this particular section of its goals specially interesting. Why would nature be restricted to anyone, when it is a part of the Earth? Nature can’t restrict itself. As I previously stated, Rock Creek Park is at the heart of Washington, D.C. Here, the large majority of the people reside in their millionaire mansions or apartments. Matthew Schwartz published an article in WAMU in which he narrated the story of Barbara Martinez, a well-off woman who was not well-off enough to afford a home around the Cleveland Park and Rock Creek Park area. One of the houses, nicknamed “gingerbread house,” is priced at about 1.9 million dollars, and it leads into a Rock Creek trail (Schwartz).

Gingerbread house in Washington, D.C.

In my own journey exploring the park and the area surrounding it, I was wildly impressed with the plethora of magnificent houses to the side of the trailway and the rows of pricey structures along the sidewalk I was walking on and entirely disappointed at the fact that I saw at most two people of color. One of them was a very sweet black man who walked what seemed to be his dog along the nearest trailway every single day, three times – I had asked him. Additionally, the existence of a highway that runs right along the one side of Rock Creek is bound to be a limiting component. In this sense, I believe Rock Creek Park is hardly accessible for people of all socioeconomic classes and colors, which is why I admire the Conservancy’s goal, yet wonder how the organization plants to realistically make this come to fruition. If everyone that lives around the park is of wealth, and the community is predominantly Caucasian, the organization must first make these individuals understand they are renting space out in nature’s territory. After this is grasped, the Conservancy can work towards making the area a location for everyone to comfortably find themselves in. Making the area widely accessible can be accomplished by, for example, setting up a transportation system that picks up  and drops off at the entrance citizens from any nearby community to visit the Park.

Capture from the Conservancy’s Strategic Plan document, which includes their mission, vision and enticing designs.

The Strategic Plan document reaches for a feeling of familiarity for anyone who reads the packet by including vibrant shades of blue and green. Besides this color scheme, the brochure includes images of the park, namely trees, flowers, and a small picture of people hiking along a Rock Creek path and digital images depicting birds, butterflies, bikes, and more trees. The way the pages are visually constructed, with information outlining stagnant facts and admirable achievements, makes it almost seem like it is trying to sell the successes of the organization, rather than urge the public to be a part of the organization, or simply attend to the park. Most of the pages are divided in half with pretty pictures on one side and a bulk of text on the other. If we take, for instance, the ninth page in the document, there are five big circles outlining the values of Rock Creek Conservancy which are further elaborated upon on the other side of the page. Those descriptions of the values could be shortened and placed inside the bubbles in order to allow allocation for more pertinent information, like collaborations with fellow organizations or something of the sort.

In addition to the aforementioned layout, the packet also includes how the group wants to work to protect the habitat of several species in the Rock Creek area. I found this specific subject to be particularly notable. A large portion of the pages are decorated with digital and abstract images of birds and butterflies as the background. While I was traveling along a park trail, my eyes did not catch sight of a single animal, not even a bird flying overhead. Nevertheless, after extensive research, I learned that the national park serves as a natural habitat for several species. Rock Creek Conservancy includes in its goals a desire to maintain Rock Creek Park as a wildlife habitat. That makes me question just how much of the wildlife they are trying to protect. Though I know the park houses certain species, like coyotes and deer, most of the animals I saw in the area were dogs held on by a leash to their owners. I suppose, as time has passed, the region’s true natives have been threatened by outside forces. I wonder how the organization could structure this portion in their brochure to help the background of the situation and their mission come across clearer.

Snapshot from Rock Creek Conservancy’s online pamphlet. It outlines the organization’s objectives.

Furthermore, the physical layout of the Rock Creek Conservancy’s Strategic Plan makes it hard to discern what the content could specifically be for in the eyes of an alien reader. If the actual images of the park and its components are excluded, the digital ones tell a different story. Firstly, in page 15, your eyes will observe the picture of a faceless child jumping. Even though you cannot see his expression, you know he is excited. In the page right before the aforementioned, there is a line of people walking. The image above with the one of the kid combined could jointly resemble images taken out of a brochure for a zoo. The Conservancy team is trying to convince the reader that Rock Creek Park really is a place for the people, hence the snapshots included. Still, I am not quite sure about how effective they are because in order to appeal to a person’s ethos element, faces are necessary. An individual enjoys seeing another’s enjoyment, and this makes one want to be a part of it.

Secondly, page 9 in the Conservancy’s strategic outline seems to be a personal favorite. The same five value circles mentioned earlier are surrounded by round trees, bikes, stationary hikers, a bird here and there, the golden sun and a perfect cloud. Besides the fact that all of these illustrative pieces are colored in blue and green color schemes, the image as a whole fails to be identifiable as a park.

Snapshot from Rock Creek Conservancy’s Strategic Plan. Image was cropped out of page 9’s ‘Core Values’

 In fact, looking at it from a distance, it almost looks like a blueprint you would come across for the building of a new city. The brochure’s design team was able to keep up the theme of a natural environment integrated into an urbanized location. The page itself plays into nature being in the city to be able to keep up with the regional public’s mindset of what role the park takes on for them.

Image captured during my visit to Rock Creek Park

While the organization takes on an innovative and fitting approach in protecting Rock Creek Park and making it a site for everyone, it makes one curious about the way to direct a conversation with a typical individual nowadays about the state of our green land. The Strategic Plan document appeals to a resident of the city because, in D.C., this is what one is. As much as the group emphasizes that we should protect nature in an urban environment, I believe we should try to restore the perspective to what it must have been when the park was initially developed. It was nature, and the city was around it. Even what we have now, where numerous estates reside inside the confines of Rock Creek, showing that people really do find a home in nature, is something to consider as a viable way of protecting nature while evolving as a city. As the Rock Creek Conservancy team pointed out, even though we need this park for a healthy relationship with ourselves and with what inherently surrounds us, it is dangerous for nature to exist in the increasingly urbanized sector. 


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