A virtual stroll in the park

How webcams bring the great outdoors inside

Bob C. Blanchard
Senior Application Support Technician
Parks and Open Space Division
City of Eugene, Oregon

What if you could enjoy a live view of your favorite rose garden without leaving home? Or watch long-legged shore birds bobbing for lunch from the comfort of your family room? Well, now you can.

As public works agencies across the country strive to reach out more effectively to the citizens they serve, the Internet has become a vital communications tool. And few features of the web are more intriguing than the increasingly popular web-based cameras, or webcams.

Webcams offer unique and fascinating glimpses into real-world places around the globe. They present dynamic views of scenes both urban and rural, from the mundane to the momentous. Webcams in parks give citizens a visual point of connection to the beauty of the great outdoors.

The Parks and Open Space Division of Eugene's Public Works Department manages nearly 3,000 acres of public land within more than 100 parks and open space areas. Of all the services public works agencies perform for the public, creating and maintaining safe, attractive parks and open spaces is one of the most visible and appreciated. It's a "feel-good" service.

To offer its citizens a nearly live park image, the City of Eugene installed its first webcam at Owen Rose Garden in December 2001 (http://www.ci.eugene.or.us/parks/Owen/owencam.htm). It presents a bird's-eye view of the neatly-groomed modern and hybrid rose beds and the Oregon-heritage Owen cherry tree. This tree is believed to be the oldest and largest black Tartarian cherry tree in the U.S. The image of the garden, updated every few minutes, quickly became the most-visited page on the Public Works Department's website. Then, the stories started rolling in.

Local citizens thanked the division for this unique view of one of their favorite local parks. Former residents e-mailed from across the country, telling staff how much they appreciated seeing an old familiar site. Others related how they reconnected with family and friends by arranging a time for them to pose in front of the camera. And a young woman from Brazil said she feels closer to her boyfriend in Eugene when she "visits" the rose garden.

"Hola, Bob. Mi nombre es Helena y soy brasileĀ¤a. Veo tu webcam in Owen Rose Garden para ponerme mas cerca de una persona que vive en Eugene. Las images siempre son muy hermosas. Gracias por el servicio. Saludos." Helena [Translated: "Hello, Bob. My name is Helena and I am Brazilian. I see the Owen Rose Garden using your webcam so that I can be "near" a person who lives in Eugene. The images are always very beautiful. Thank you for the service." Helena]

"Dear Bob: Thanks, thanks, thanks for having this webcam online. You and my kid made my WEEK tonight. My son Daniel lives in Eugene, and I am down here in California. I told him some time ago about the rose garden webcam...he called me tonight and said he was on his way over there. For what it's worth, he's a quad in a wheelchair... This is so worth it! ...what you're doing with this website and webcam is truly "serving the customer" (not to mention making our day for about six of us in five states tonight). Thank you!" Kelly

"Bob, I recently moved away from Eugene but still like to keep an eye on things. I couldn't believe the snow in the rose gardens. I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan and you have more snow in Eugene than we've had here all winter!" Sarah

The Owen webcam has been featured on several webcam pages, including one in Denmark (http://www.degronnesider.dk/Html/Webcam.asp). Some folks become hooked on the view and let technical staff know immediately whenever there is a problem.

Changing scenes at the Owen Rose Garden

A more moving experience
In addition to developed parks, the Eugene area is blessed with hundreds of acres of natural wetlands. These low-lying regions, usually dry in summer and ponded with shallow water in winter, were once disdained as "swamps" and often filled in for agriculture or construction. But in the last couple decades, wetlands have been recognized as vital natural areas, replete with native plants and animals and providing essential habitat for migrating waterfowl.

So, what better place to erect Eugene's second webcam than Meadowlark Prairie, a 400-acre wetland recently restored to its natural state? This time, rather than a single, fixed-view camera, Eugene staff decided to install a controllable, pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) webcam to showcase this natural area (http://www.ci.eugene.or.us/parks/wetlands/cams/prairiecam.htm). The response has been very positive, as illustrated in this e-mail message from Curtis, a former resident:

"Bob, a couple of years ago I wrote to you about the Rose Garden camera and how we saw our son and granddaughters from our home here in Maine. Well, a week ago our son called us and told us to get online and go to the new [wetlands] webcam. While he was on his cell, we talked to him and saw how much our youngest granddaughter had grown since we saw her last summer here in Maine. We used to drive past that park many times... That webcam is lots of fun. When I want to see what the weather is like in Eugene, I just check that site. Thanks."

Another citizen pointed out a benefit we hadn't thought of:

"Bob, I am writing to let you know how much we appreciate the wonderful Meadowlark webcam we recently discovered, thanks to the Parks and Open Space web page. It is a delight. I thought you might also like to know that there are people who lack the ability/mobility to visit the park that I have told about the camera. They were very happy to be able to 'take a walk in the park' online."

And Ron from Eugene wrote:

"The Meadowlark Prairie cam was a real surprise with live video and the remote control available. Very nice!!!"

When it comes to portraying the weather, a picture truly is worth a thousand words. Both webcam views change seasonally and hourly, reflecting the saying around Eugene: If you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes.

So whether you're checking the weather, getting in touch with a loved one, or simply taking a virtual stroll in a beautiful place, it's hard to beat the real live images served up by a webcam. And humans aren't the only ones who appreciate Eugene's video technology. Occasionally, a spider will make a home in front of the rose garden camera, giving new meaning to the word webcam.

Bob C. Blanchard can be reached at (541) 682-4800 or at bob.c.blanchard@ci.eugene.or.us.