Building a 'Decentral Park' out of tiny nearby-nature plots

Here's a proposal to let neighbors and families create "button parks" out of small bits of land, with help from land trusts and with links to a broader urban network of green spaces.
Crosscut archive image.

A small park in Kentucky

Here's a proposal to let neighbors and families create "button parks" out of small bits of land, with help from land trusts and with links to a broader urban network of green spaces.

Remember the special place in nature that you had as a child — that wooded lot at the end of the cul de sac, that ravine behind your housing tract? What if adults had cared just as much about that special place as you did, when you were a child?

In the spirit of the "Do it Yourself, Do it Now" philosophy of the Children & Nature Network, here'ꀙs an idea whose time may be coming: the creation of 'ꀜnearby-nature trusts.'ꀝ Land trust organizations develop and distribute tool kits, and perhaps offer consulting services, to show how neighborhood residents could band together to protect small green parcels of nearby nature. What might these little parcels be called? How about 'ꀜbutton parks"?

A few weeks ago, I was in Charlotte, N.C. for a gathering arranged by the Catawba Lands Conservancy, a regional land trust which has protected 7,500 acres. Catawba is also the lead agency for the Carolina Thread Trail, a regional trail network that will eventually weave throughout a huge area of North Carolina and South Carolina, reaching into 15 counties and serving over 2 million people.

The Catawba organization describes the Thread Trail this way: 'ꀜSimply put, it will link people and places. It will link cities, towns, and attractions. More than a hiking trail, more than a bike path, the Carolina Thread Trail will preserve our natural areas and will be a place for exploration of nature, culture, science, and history, for family adventures and celebrations of friendship. It will be for young and old, athlete and average.'ꀝ

When the Trust for Public Land (TPL), working with the Colorado Health Foundation, brought together groups concerned about the disconnect of children from nature, TPL leaders brainstormed on the future of land trusts in tough economic times. Considering this approach, a TPL leader suggested that neighborhood leaders might also identify abandoned houses, buy them, raze them, and turn them into natural parkland or community gardens. 'ꀜWe really do have to think about creating nature, not just preserving it,'ꀝ he said.

As with family nature clubs, the central organizing principle of nearby-nature trusts would be: Do it yourself, do it now — with a little help and information from friends who know about land trusts. A larger pattern could emerge: joining these special places to similar ones throughout a city, building parkland across an urban region as a kind of Decentral Park.

'ꀜPocket park'ꀝ is the term for small parks created by governments or developers. My idea is for "button parks," because people can sew those on themselves.

The term makes particular sense in the Carolinas. The reason that the Carolina Thread Trail is called a thread trail is not only because of the image that word evokes, but because of the Carolinas'ꀙ long dependence on the textile industries. In past decades, stitching shirts has given way to circuit chips, but the sense of history remains. Development pressure has brought the need for regional planning, so that the nature connection can continue, especially for children and families in urban and suburbanizing areas.

So, while visiting with the good folks of Catawba, it occurred to me that the Carolina Thread Trail could be strengthened over time, politically and socially, if the people who live adjacent to the trail were to become more directly involved, not only in the use of the trail, but in the concept'ꀙs expansion deeper into their own neighborhoods. Give interested access to free tool kits to help them create their own 'ꀜbutton parks'ꀝ connected to the 'ꀜthread'ꀝ trail. These button parks wouldn'ꀙt need to be literally connected to the trail, but would serve as small extensions of the trail throughout the region.

One obstacle is fear of liability. ACRES Land Trust in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has protected natural habitats throughout northeast Indiana, southern Michigan and northwest Ohio. Jason Kissel, ACRES' executive director, suggests that button parks could be created by neighborhood associations, since public use of private land left in its natural state poses less danger of future litigation than land that has been 'ꀜimproved.'ꀝ

By going through the process of creating button parks, people would learn about the growing importance of the land trust movement. Potentially, figuring this out could dramatically increase the amount of protected nearby nature. The residents of neighborhoods would be able to take pride in their protection of those little special places. Such places are too small for government or large conservancies to protect, but they are large in the hearts of children and their families.

This article comes to Crosscut courtesy of


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors