Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Americans are trading their RVs for high-rise hotels

Visits to the nation's national parks have been in decline for most of the past two decades. A well-publicized study from 2006 blamed movies, the internet, and video games. [statistical footnote below]

So it might not qualify as news, but since park visits are on a downward trend yet again this year, this week's Economist offers up a fresh take on the phenomenon. They find the television and internet arguments "implausible." After all, visits only started declining in 1987, well before the Internet, and long after Americans discovered movies and television. However:
"Attendance at national parks was not the only thing that peaked between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In 1991 America’s homicide rate reached 9.8 per 100,000 people. Many cities were known for lawlessness and grot; not surprisingly, holiday-makers were passing them up for greener spots. Then, miraculously, the murder rate began to slide, falling to just 5.5 per 100,000 in 2000. Led by New York, cities spruced themselves up and began to attract more tourists.

"Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces, a consultancy, reckons Americans have rediscovered the pleasures of densely-populated, exciting places... Yosemite is long on staggering views but short on what most people would today regard as entertainment."
I've long admired Kent and the Project for Public Spaces for advocating for interesting parks and streets that enliven cities (and often provide a dose of wildness in the midst of densely human habitats), and I think he has a good point here.

The Economist concludes that national parks should build more luxury hotels and spas in order to compete with places like Times Square and Las Vegas. I'm not so sure this would work - and it's not only because of my strong personal distaste for places like Vegas and luxury spas.

The Economist fails to take note of an important factor. Not only are cities safer; they're also making the biggest investments in urban parks and greenspaces since the turn of the last century. The last two decades have seen major park renovations in places like Chicago's Millennium Park and in Manhattan's Central Park, and huge new parks are being built or planned in Atlanta and in Orange County, California, plus dozens of other metropolitan areas.

If you can hike, swim, or watch wildlife by catching a city bus or riding your bike to your local abandoned military base, you'll be a whole lot less likely to drive four hours through RV traffic jams to do the same things.

1 This study modeled national parks visits as a function of various other social variables, and found that per-capita visits were "significantly negatively correlated with several electronic entertainment indicators: hours of television, (rs=-0.743, P<0.001), video games (rs=-0.773, P<0.001), home movies (rs=-0.788, P<0.001), theatre attendance (rs=-0.587, P<0.025) and internet use (rs=-0.783, P<0.001)."

As with most regression analyses, the first number indicates the magnitude of statistic influence, and the second number (P) indicates the degree of statistical certainty. So internet use, with an rs of -0.783, seems to have a bigger influence on park visits than theater attendance, with an rs of -0.587, but the larger p-value associated with theater attendance also makes it less certain that it has any influence at all.

Interestingly, the same study found that the number of "Appalachian Trail hikers (rs=-0.785, P<0.001)" also had a negative statistical influence on park visits. This seemed counterintuitive to me at first, but on closer reflection on my experiences working in the Appalachian Mountain Club huts of New Hampshire, I can attest that the chance of listening to an actual Appalachian Trail thru-hiker talk about his/her "spiritual journey" is, in fact, a strong deterrent to spending time in the woods.

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