Parks are not “empty spaces.” Nor are they to be used as trash receptacles or sites for illegal camping. They are the living expression of our need to be in touch with nature.

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Growing up in Seattle, Ravenna Park was a magical place with its deep ravines and steep hillsides, and a lovely bubbling creek flowing through its center. Tall trees. Green ferns. Myriad songbirds.

Ravenna Park is more than just a nice place to walk. It is home to a native species of trout found in no other Seattle stream. It is field-trip territory for local schoolchildren who study the creek ecosystem. It is the site of a 1930s-era stone-and-wood picnic shelter. It is a park renowned and beloved by Seattle residents, who in the early 1900s traveled by streetcar to visit the hundreds-years-old evergreen trees. They even named these trees, they were so special in the hearts of the people.

Sadly, in the past few years Ravenna Park has been severely damaged by trash and human waste from homeless camps. Piles of drug injection needles have been strewn where children play. In-ground latrines and buckets of human feces and urine have been found on steep slopes and beside the stream waterway. At times food containers, juice boxes and liquor bottles, metal spikes and plastic containers have littered the hillsides below homeless camps.

Our parks should never be used as a dumping ground. They are important in our urban environment for human respite, for people to connect with nature and to be tended to and restored. Even in New York City, a place of 8 million residents, Central Park has 840 acres of grass, trees, shrubs, ponds and lakes, walking trails and rock outcroppings.

Parks have no defense. There are no gates or fences. They are for Frisbee-throwers, nature-exploring families, runners, children, dog-walkers, for pick-up baseball games and spur-of-the-moment basketball meet-ups. But sadly, the very accessibility of parks makes them exquisitely vulnerable to those who would damage and destroy plantings and vegetation, to those who would repeatedly vandalize park features such as restrooms, park benches, and decades-old stone picnic shelters.

As a city, as Seattle residents, we must preserve our parks.

This may seem like an impossible task. Many of us ask ourselves, what can I do? It seems hopeless. But if you care about the parks, about our neighborhoods, and about assistance for the homeless in our city, you can make a difference.

First, if you see an illegal camp, report it. Those who are living unsheltered are at risk from crime, weather, harsh conditions, theft, and may suffer from untreated health issues. Call the city’s Customer Service line: 206-684-CITY (2489), to report an illegal camp. Use the city’s Find It Fix It smartphone app. The city’s Navigation Team works with homeless campers to get shelter and services. Report used needles to Seattle Public Utilities, which is committed to clean them up within 24 hours.

Second, email the City Council and Mayor’s office. Tell them we need to protect the parks. Finally, consider reaching out to your neighbors via email or social media, and together insist the city protect our parks.

You and your neighbors can make a difference. In my neighborhood, we have banded together to protect Ravenna and Cowen parks and over the past year, both have improved dramatically. It’s not perfect yet, but these days there are very few camps. People play in the parks again, walk their dogs, throw Frisbees and have picnics in the picnic shelter. Trash and drug paraphernalia is largely absent now.

Parks are not “empty spaces.” Nor are they to be used as trash receptacles. They are the living expression of our need to be in touch with nature.