This paper examines the impacts associated with visitor use at West Asheville Park in Asheville, North Carolina. The 8.6 acre, neighborhood park is managed by The City of Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department. The park has infrastructure in place for a variety of activities considering there is a playground area, a baseball field, a building with concessions and restrooms, and picnic pavilion area. There are also walking trails along Rhododendron creek that run along the park’s back edge opposite from the south parking lot. Additionally, there is a second parking lot east of the baseball field that is next to the picnic pavilion. This paper discusses the park’s unique aspects and describes how recreation activity is causing impacts. Next, it touches on initiatives from the public to preserve the space and the stream restoration project that is taking place. From there, I proceed to suggest additional management practices that would mitigate visitor impacts going forward.
There are a variety of types of impacts throughout the park. First and foremost, community members who live in close proximity to the park do not feel it is safe. Specifically, in the middle of the night, nearby residents explained they see a lot of lights from cars entering and leaving the park (Penter 2019). They also reported hearing a lot of noises, including occasional gun fire shots, coming from these visitors (Penter 2019). The same residents expressed concern that there is illegal drug activity as they have reported finding needles (Penter 2019). The safety issues are derived from a media, as opposed to scholarly, source. However, they are based upon interviews with the local citizens who are the primary users of the park’s recreational services. Further, I found that empty alcohol bottles are scattered throughout the premises (Figure 1). Clearly, there are impacts that remain from the unsafe activity happening at the park.
In general, litter is a prevalent problem at the park. Dog owners are not properly disposing of canine waste (Figure 2). Perimeters of the parking lots are trash collection sites (Figures 3 and 4). The pavilion area generates a lot of litter as people have gatherings with food and do not throw it all out into the garbage cans (Figures 5). According to my interview with Dana Harrington (personal communication, May 21, 2021), park visitor and former professor of Ethnography at Eastern Carolina University, crows end up eating some of the trash. The park is home to other types of birds such as hawks, blackbirds, and cardinals (D. Harrington, personal communication, May 21, 2021). Considering all the birds are existing in the park ecosystem together, the litter that attracts the crows alters the dynamic between all the bird species. Crucially, waste from the pavilion ends up settling in close proximity to the creek as the two park sections border each other (Figure 6). Additionally, visitors leave materials at the trails that run directly next to the creek (Figures 7 and 8). Deeper into the woods, on the other side of the creek, there is an area with cleared out vegetation where visitors built a teepee and left trash (Figure 9). Witnessing all the garbage next to the creek brings impacts to the creek itself into consideration.
While the trails along the creek do provide a beautiful walking path for visitors, there are also signs of erosion occurring throughout the park. Some sections of the trail are raised to a level that makes them clearly separate from the water (Figure 10). However, in other sections, it is difficult to differentiate a muddy trail from the creek (Figure 11). This is caused by the compaction of the soil due to visitors hiking on the trail. It leads to a more compact surface which does not allow water to be absorbed and run through it. Instead, the water runs over the surface and erodes areas away. The other noticeable impact is trampling of the areas around the creek trail. This seems to be from visitors walking from the baseball field to the creek without using marked trails to do so. There are areas that are currently under restoration which may be damaged significantly by this trampling (Figure 12). The restoration project will be discussed in more detail in the Current Management section of this paper.
There are signs at the edge of both parking lots that outline basic regulation (Figure 13). Additionally, the closed building at the center of the park provides a place for visitors to go to the bathroom and buy food (Figure 15). Having restrooms would theoretically increase visitor use because people would make the initial decision to visit a place with restrooms. It also helps keep the park clean because people will not need to go relieve themselves elsewhere such as at the woodsy area near the creek. However, the restroom’s limited days of operation presents problems for visitation that falls outside of the restroom’s months of operation (Figure 16). Further, I observed the building not even being open in late May when the sign said it’s supposed to be. Moreover, since the concessions are not open, visitors are not going to stay at the park in the case they did not bring their own food. Whereas, if the park provided a place for people to purchase nourishment, they may stay there for a longer amount of time. Similarly, there are lights above the baseball field that would improve safety at night that park managers do not use (Figure 17). It is essentially a waste of space to have non-operational infrastructure in place.
While there is no current management to address the safety issues that I discussed, the littering impact is a different story. There are trash and recycle bins at the baseball field near the restrooms and concessions building (Figure 18). Also, there are trash and recycle bins at the picnic pavilion near the cooking area (Figure 19). The managers had great intent in placing the infrastructure in these locations as the bins are in spots where visitors consume food and drinks. However, the lacking enforcement and park cleaning services leads to litter still lingering.
Current management at the picnic pavilion is particularly interesting. According to Harrington, managers recently repainted the pavilion (Figure 20) and added a walking path from the east side parking lot to the picnic pavilion. Theoretically, the paint job would lead to visitors respecting the space more as a fancier facility. The managers seem to be prioritizing the pavilion maintenance as superiorly important to the baseball field’s dugout as a severe amount of paint has chipped off of the latter (Figure 21). Additionally, the sign calling for dogs to stay off the athletic fields is not taken seriously by visitors as the field is unofficially understood as a fenced- in, off leash dog park. On the other hand, hopefully, adding the walking path would prevent visitors from trampling the vegetation around the pavilion.
However, the increased amount of parking lot spaces does not largely benefit any sort of carrying capacity issue concerning the entire park. It is typical that both parking lots have a plethora of empty spaces because daytime park visitation is primarily composed of walkers from the neighborhood (D. Harrington, personal communication, May 21, 2021). Further, it is clear that the additional parking lot was designed to improve recreational use for special events including baseball games and gatherings at the pavilion. The park now has a reservation system in place for both activities. Specifically, private reservations to use the pavilion are posted by the City of Asheville’s Park and Recreation on the structure itself (Figure 22). The notice offers visitors the opportunity to call the park maintenance team in the case that the shelter area is not in suitable condition. So, management is allowing visitors to contribute to setting the standards of quality at the pavilion. At the same time, the management tactic is reactive, as opposed to proactive, by allowing litter to remain around the pavilion unless visitors speak up.
Another way that local visitors play a role in the current management is by making their own signs to support the park’s ecosystem. For example, on the park’s edge along the baseball field’s home run fence, there is a block of tall grass amidst old growth trees (Figure 23). Community members inserted a sign (Figure 24) in this area that has been standing strong for at least the entire month of May and still remains in the ground today. The sign serve as a form of communication from park visitors to city managers declaring a desire for management practices that are ecologically sound. The sign has served its purpose as, still, no one has mowed the plot. The scene is a tangible example of the city collaborating with its park visitors.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, there is a native plant restoration project at the park’s creekside that is currently in progress. RiverLink is the organization that is conducting the wetland management. They explained that sediment is a natural part of all stream ecosystems, however excessive sediment from stream bank erosion is bad for water quality (Stream Restorations, 2021). Each of their restoration projects involves stabilizing eroding stream banks through grading and planting woody vegetation to hold the banks in place (Stream Restorations, 2021). The plant community beside a body of water is known as the riparian buffer (Stream Restorations, 2021). Native woody plants make the best riparian buffers as their deep, extensive root systems stabilize stream banks better than non-native plants like fescue grass or bamboo (Stream Restorations, 2021). Riparian buffers moderate water temperatures and provide food and cover for wildlife (Stream Restorations, 2021). They are also the first line of protection against polluted runoff entering a stream (Stream Restorations, 2021). The project is useful for the park considering the impacts from erosion that I mentioned earlier in the paper. However, the signage does not express any sort of native plant restoration project boundaries.
The current management also fails to upkeep the fencing that serves as park boundaries. One example of the shortcoming is due to a surrounding property owner’s negligence. The property owner did well in building the initial infrastructure for the fence to clearly mark separation between a backyard and the park. However, part of the boundary is destroyed and remains unfixed while the middle section of it is left completely open (Figure 25). Additionally, the fencing that marks the park’s boundary near the one of the parking lots is broken (Figure 26). The broken down boundaries serve as a symbol for a concept that I expand on in the preceding discourse about additional management that could help mitigate future impacts.
While there is clear signage indicating intentions to upkeep the park’s condition, the managers inadequately enforce the rules. The safety concerns are particularly problematic considering the playground and baseball field attract families with children on a daily basis. Since the primary visitor population is people who live close by, their observations of danger are not conducive to generating recreational use of the park. Further, considering the copious amounts of litter, a sense of community ownership is not spread across the visitor spectrum. Placing trash and recycle cans in even the most sensical spots is not enough to establish consistent cleanliness and care for the space. The litter is not only unpleasant to look at. Its impacts on the wildlife and creek throughout the local park’s ecosystem are detrimental.
The data also revealed the management’s lacking attention towards its trail system. Despite signifiant erosion problems, trails along the creek are left unmarked. Aside from a single sign suggesting that visitors stay away from the native plant restoration project, there is no guide regarding how people can practice environmental stewardship while visiting the creek. Managers do not even clearly identify the circumference where they are conducting the native plant restoration project. Further, there does not seem to be evidence of management tapping into the public’s motivations or attempting to educate visitors about the logic surrounding native plant restoration. The bare grounds where the teepee and miscellaneous trash pieces lie reveal a lacking of enforcement throughout the creek area. As a result, visitors use the park as if no limitations exist. Surely, the action without limitation encompasses feeling empowered to support the park’s ecosystem by taking a stand against mowing tall grass near breathtaking trees. However, the drawbacks of lacking park management authority leads to destructive behaviors.
The situation at West Asheville Park calls for natural resource managers to establish desired conditions, indicators and thresholds. While I depicted some of the impacts from my short-term study, the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council (IVUMC) addressed the importance of tracking conditions over time (National Park Service). In order to make the management plan as proactive as possible, the managers could verify the impacts in this paper by creating a model of baseline conditions. Moreover, desired conditions serve as the point of reference for all the decisions about management of visitor use (National Park Service). So, it is important that data contributing to formulation of desired conditions is accurate. As Nathan Reigner (2014) described, land cover analysis empowers managers to have a thorough picture of the terrain and note impacts that I, as a single visitor, did not observe. Outlining a method for tracking the conditions also helps planners envision management strategies which assists in revealing whether the desired conditions are realistic (National Park Service).
From there, indicators of quality are measurable, management variables that help define the quality of the recreation experience (Manning 2010). Thresholds are standards of quality that define the minimum acceptable condition of indicator variables (Manning 2010). It is crucial to consider that lacking agreement between stakeholders surrounding desired conditions, indicators and thresholds is problematic because it would lead to a project struggling to move along. Stakeholders must not only come together under a unified intention to address the impacts but also they need to agree about the extent to which it needs to improve. While research can help illuminate the relationships between increasing use levels and change in the recreation environment, determining the point at which change becomes unacceptable will usually require some element of management judgement, which can and should be supported by scientific information (Manning 2010).
For the purpose of completing a full recommendation in this paper, I have determined desired conditions, indicators and thresholds that would be useful to sustain the park based upon my own research. The desired conditions are: 1) Use areas are capable of sustaining recreation visitors while also conserving the surrounding water, soil, vegetation and wildlife 2) Accurate, high quality visitor information is available through multiple sources, including electronic media and on-site information boards, to enhance the visitor experience. From there, I would not move forward without a research team because I support the IVUMC’s initiative to screen potential indicators (National Park Service). In this step, the agencies state that professional experience, interdisciplinary input, and best available science should play a role in screening potential indicators (National Park Service). Even simply by declaring the desired conditions, I can suggest specific tactics that would enhance conditions at the park.
In order to achieve the goals that I outlined, I recommend West Asheville Park managers use Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York as a model and accordingly take action. First of all, the Prospect Park Alliance (PPA), a non-profit organization founded in 1987 that works in partnership with the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation to care for Prospect Park, was inspired by a grant to design the ravine section of the park (DiCicco 2014). It reminds me of the stream restoration project RiverLink is conducting at West Asheville Park. Further, I figure that generating extra grant money that would enable RiverLink to allocate more resources towards its initiative would only enhance the management activity there. Perhaps, it would pay for establishing clear native plant project boundaries and providing visitors with information about the project’s logic so that they would be motivated to stay off the off-trail terrain. It may also pay for strategies that would speed up the project so that its benefits could be attained faster and the erosion issue would not worsen due to delays in the process. Additionally, involving another non-profit to address the litter problem would help improve enforcement which would aid in conserving the area.
Another crucial factor that contributed to success at Prospect Park is that managers carefully planned the staff that would be required to actualize its vision (DiCicco 2014). Prospect Park’s Land Management Plan detailed the yearly numbers and types of staff that would be needed, including a crew of ten, 9-month seasonal workers, five full-time staff, and a supervisor who should hold a degree in forestry or a related field (DiCicco 2014). Considering lack of enforcement is a major shortcoming at West Asheville Park, outlining the amount and types of staff that would be necessary to achieve the desired conditions is useful. From there, proper monitoring can take place that particularly tracks which of the installed native plant species are thriving in the given location (DiCicco 2014). Then, managers can adjust the stream restoration actions to align with the data. There can also be enough staff to maintain the building with restrooms and concessions all throughout the year. The Land Management Plan also emphasized that all staff members should be effective communicators to represent the goals of the program to the public (DiCicco 2014). Since issues at West Asheville Park involved visitors not listening to the signs, in-person correspondence between managers and visitors would help ensure visitors absorb regulations. From there, it would be easier to hold visitors accountable.
Establishing policies can also help make desired conditions more realistic (Glacier National Park 2017). For example, it is illegal to be within 100 yards of any bear at Glacier National Park. The policy helps achieve a desired condition of preserving wildlife populations because if a visitor cannot be within 100 yards of the animal, then the person is less likely to take measures that disturb the wildlife (Glacier National Park 2017). Visitors are also incentivized to stay away from the bear if there is a fine associated with breaking the rule. By applying a fee to littering or stepping within the native plant project grounds, West Asheville Park management can decrease the likelihood of violations. Further, a public population that is informed about why the policies are in place would be more inclined to spread the word to other visitors which would decrease the need for official enforcement personnel and increase the chance of desired conditions being realistic. Achieving desired conditions is based on the ability of managers to successfully integrate policy and public input into origination of every desired condition.
Finally, it is essential management considers the importance of adapting to a community’s changing vision, needs and priorities (Parks and Recreation Master Planning). Specifically, in the case of West Asheville Park, the local government needs to develop a public engagement plan to identify who to involve, how to conduct outreach, and what public involvement opportunities should be included throughout the planning process (Parks and Recreation Master Planning). Some strategies include workshops, focus groups, surveys and interviews (Parks and Recreation Master Planning). To uphold the Freedom of Information Act and to achieve my second desired condition, all of the public involvement opportunities need to be well-advertised to the people (Parks and Recreation Master Planning). Doing so would increase the sense of community ownership which is essential to improve conditions at West Asheville Park.
DiCicco, Jessica. 2014. “Long-Term Urban Park Ecological Restoration: A Case Study of Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York”. Ecological Restoration. 32(3): 314-326. https://www-jstor-org.du.idm.oclc.org/stable/43441668?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Glacier National Park. 2017. “Backcountry Safety.” National Park Service. October 23rd. https://www.nps.gov/media/video/view.htm?id=E1CE4282-1DD8-B71B-0B6A01574CB2221C
Manning, Robert. Studies in Outdoor Recreation, 3rd ed.: Search and Research for Satisfaction 3rd Edition. Oregon State University Press, 2010.
National Park Service. “Interagency Visitor Use Management Council.” Accessed May 31 2021. https://visitorusemanagement.nps.gov
Penter, C. (2019, September 10). West Asheville residents concerned about safety at neighborhood park. ABC 13 News. https://wlos.com/news/local/west-asheville-residents-concerned-about-safety-at-neighborhood-park
Reigner, Nathan. 2014. “Integrated Social and Ecological Recreation Monitoring for Vermont’s Forests.” Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative. Youtube. Dec 22.
Stream Restorations. (2021). RiverLink. https://riverlink.org/work/stream-restorations/YouTube. Parks and Recreation Master Planning. Accessed May 2 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=10&v=i2-sIM2F_Mw