Leading me around in knee-high socks and navy shorts, Ralph White, the manager of the James River Park System in Richmond explained how the city has incorporated historic sites into its park system. For a an episode on fitness for The Urbanist, a weekly show put out by Monocle 24, White explains that such sites have helped keep Richmond residents in shape -- and in the great outdoors, accessible even within city limits. --
"Nobody else in Richmond wanted the job," says White, who became de facto manager of the Park System after a series of layoffs in the 1980s. White, who was hired on as a naturalist, suddenly had to keep the park clean and the books balanced -- and do just about everything in between, too. The fact that he couldn't possibly manage it all on his own resulted in a community-driven approach to managing the park that allowed visitors to make it into what they wanted to be. White's belief in the belief in this open-source concept led to a dynamic space where people can jump off of massive rocks, kayak some serious rapids, and ride fairly rugged mountain biking trails when many other cities would bar such activities in the interest of public safety.
The happenstance park manager believes people should have the freedom to take risks, and in Richmond, outdoorsy types of all stripes do just this in a well-maintained park that has become the life's work of Ralph White.
"You go on ahead," he told me as I shlepped up the stairs to the top of the Aztec-temple like Manchester Wall, which is what's left old train abutment now mapped into a dozen or more routes by rockclimbers. White climbs the steep stairs behind me, hacking away at some overgrown vines with a pocket knife as he does. On the way over from the abandoned hydroelectric power pipeline that visitors can now cross down to both sandbars and rocky rapids, he stopped mid-sentence to pick up a plastic cup left behind in some tall grass.
It was great to work with White on my first "walk and talk" style report -- I'm sure he felt like he was just giving me a tour of his favorite haunts in the park, which made the whole thing run quite smoothly. Take a listen to the show here, you won't have to wait long to hear one of the hardest-working park managers in the country:
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