Pete Dangermond

The Social Aspects of Park Design

Recorded: October 22, 2013

Pete Dangermond, former Director of California State Parks shares his ideas about park planning and how parks provide an important resource for youth.

Pete Dangermond is president of the Dangermond Group, which he founded in 1983.  He grew up in Redlands, California where spent a lot of time in the hills and in the San Bernardino Mountains near his home.  With a degree from Cal Poly he became a landscape architect and planner.  One position included an appointment as the director of California State Parks and Recreation by then-Resources Secretary, Huey Johnson. Dangermond served from as State Parks Director from 1980-1982.  Over his long career, Pete emphasized partnerships among diverse interests in the communities he has helped.  The goal was to support communities visualizing what they and the land needed, and he provided effective leadership to reach the goal, no matter how long it took.  Pete has served as the president of the board of Save the Redwoods League and other park-related non-profit organizations.


Huey Johnson:    Your very successful career has given you insight by now into what parks do for people, and you may have some reflections of what they do and what they should do.  And the second question is, I’m very interested personally in wilderness and the implications of it and the involvement of it in the human psyche and so on.  Would you start out first on parks and the future?

Peter Dangermond:    Well, yeah, I had the good fortune when first starting out–and the first Parks Department that I worked for was San Bernardino County and then they – it was a new department so there was no background as to exactly what you do and we started to design our first regional park.  And I say we, because there was four of us that were the planners and construction-type people.  So I came across a book that talked about city planning that I thought was relevant. And that is, it mentioned how in around 1900, 1920, city planning was primarily done by engineers.  And all that they seemed to be concerned about was the technical aspects of water and sewer systems and roads and things like that.  And then it mentioned that during the ’30s and ’40s that it– that and into the ’50s–that that was primarily done by landscape architects and architects. And that the book was saying they’re primarily only entrusted in the aesthetics of things.  And the author was primarily angry with Robert Moses at the time, tearing down whole neighborhoods in New York and building high rise buildings with little grass around it and saying, “Well, they’re more beautiful but you’re destroying the social network of the community.”  So we started thinking, well, maybe park design follows that same pattern, what is – we need to be concerned about technical, we need to be concerned about aesthetics, but what does it really mean to be concerned about the social aspects of park design?  And that started us to thinking about well, what is the recreation experience itself?  And that it’s something that people really seek out to match the rest of their lives.  The conclusion we came to is that our main job as park planners was to figure out how to do each of these well, but primarily to figure out, well, what is the match between a recreation experience and the resource so that we’re not doing the wrong thing in the wrong place?  And I always hold Yosemite Valley up as the classic of the mismatch and that’s what I think is at the core of what bothers so many people.  Because Yosemite Valley above all, has the – is inspiration and awe, and yet there’s so much going on there that takes away from that, and the way that people see it and experience it.  So they come away with – and especially those that are the most sensitive–coming away with an awful feeling as opposed… and a realization that something’s wrong here.  Well, I think that since then we’ve learned two additional things; and that is we also need to be sure that we’ve got the right environmental correctness, and also economic correctness, that if we forget about that, either one of those aspects, we can also create a disaster.

Peter Dangermond:    You know, I think that wilderness experiences, as you’re saying, is something totally different again.  When, when I was with State Parks, we became aware of the juvenile detention work that was done in Sonoma County; that they, Sonoma County, had the lowest cost per student if you will, but also the lowest recidivism rate in the entire state.  And part of how we came to be aware of it was they, the leaders there, had a program of training kids to do real things. So we had a contract with them, State Parks did, where they were building picnic tables for the state parks and they were learning skills.  But a part of their program also was backpacking in the Sierras.  By the time they would come out, they had a friendly working team of people that had seen beautiful things – I’m sorry to get so damn emotional.

Huey Johnson:    Well, that’s all right.

Peter Dangermond:    And it’s partly… I think it gets back to [Frederick Law] Olmstead.  In his original report he said something about exposure to beauty makes one more able to appreciate beauty afterwards, and that it was a responsibility of democracy.  I think the wilderness experience is something different to everybody obviously, but can be very uplifting and creating – it’s kind of like reading a book and seeing something new.  And it never, never ceases to help one to grow.

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