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A CALL to ACTION II: Parks & Recreation's Prosperity Project

Updated: May 31, 2023

What if we were to think about this moment in time as a door into which we could walk and transform public parks and recreation? What if we were to design and develop emerging park and recreation organizations that would endure volatility and uncertainty? What if we were to create organizations that focused on legacy rather than on the short-term? And what if we came together and galvanized around the common cause of public park and recreation prosperity?

The coronavirus onslaught will eventually be a part of history yet right now it is central to daily life. It has shaped a new reality while the cloak under which we all once existed and called “normal” has been ripped away, likely gone forever. Looking back, “normal” may have worked for some but it wasn’t all that great for others. Excessive entitlement, greed, political self-interest, unsustainable growth, inequities with growing division between the haves and have nots, poor public health indicators and more have led us to a place where we might wonder whether “normal” was best.

As we see the pandemic’s path of destruction, it has revealed many weaknesses and fractures in our society and systems. If we are to begin to heal and recondition, it will take a complete and unmitigated commitment to strengthening our communities’ social fabric, creating rules and policy that favor the common good, and doing some tough but necessary work which will require courage, resolve, determination and strength of character.

In order for this to happen we should reflect back on whether or not WHAT we were doing and HOW we were doing it BC (before coronavirus) was best for our communities. Were we being smart about how we managed our organizations? Were we responsible in how we spent taxpayer dollars? This crisis has presented us with a golden opportunity to review, re-think, and get a do-over when it comes to our spending choices, our management methods, and quite simply, the ways we were facilitating and providing park and recreation services.

What if we were to think about this moment in time as a door into which we could walk and transform public parks and recreation? What if we were to design and develop emerging park and recreation organizations that would endure volatility and uncertainty? What if we were to create organizations that focused on legacy rather than on the short-term? And what if we came together and galvanized around the common cause of public park and recreation prosperity?

The Emerging Parks & Recreation Organization Moving forward, we imagine the emerging parks and recreation organization being one that is intelligently managed and fully prepared for whatever crisis may come their way. They will:

  • bold and have an all-in resolve.

  • embrace and learn from the past while challenging convention and tradition.

  • step into new management patterns and methods with a commitment to innovation.

  • emphasize the value of educating citizens, elected and appointed officials and employees in order to advance advocacy.

  • engage communities across boundaries and include marginalized populations and the silent majority with greater intention.

  • always collaborate to reduce duplication and best use finite resources.

  • generate action focused on making an impact.

  • have diversified revenue sources that provide greater long-term financial stability.

  • prioritize existing physical assets by taking care of what they have first and foremost.

  • always focus on community NEED and the COMMON GOOD as the ends to their means and never allow “the way it’s been done” to dictate the future and limit what they can become.

As we further imagine the park and recreation organization of the future emerging stronger rather than collapsing under the weight of the pandemic, we need to call attention to the very issues whose structure, composition and constitution have had and will continue to have far reaching effects on the industry. By directing our energies towards these issues, we gift ourselves with an opportunity for the manifestation of a new mindset and a new path forward based upon lessons learned.

Public Health is Partnership Priority:

Emerging park and recreation organizations lead the conversation about consolidation of social and health services and community recreation centers while also combining libraries with community centers. Essentially, they take their organizations back to the field’s foundations when parks were considered the public’s keystone to community wellness and the principal gathering place for people to heal and improve their physical and emotional health (as has been realized as a result of the pandemic - history does have a way of repeating itself).

Consolidated service centers will incorporate walkable/bikeable access, healthcare, and child/afterschool services into existing parks, providing close-to-home access. Partnerships with hospitals and other health service providers will focus on efficient use of collective resources, bridging markets, and cooperative capital investments.

These organizations capitalize on the enormous amount of health data available that directs efforts towards affecting community health concerns like obesity, diabetes, asthma, opioid use, and other poor health indicators. They make informed decisions and design policy that connects tax-payer dollar investments to these indicators.

Investments in Social Equity Happen:

Emerging park and recreation organizations recognize that many people experience deprivations and may not have their most basic needs met. These organizations dig deep to identify and define community “need” in order to support and provide services that have the propensity to enhance and change lives in profound ways. These revelations position organizations as well as their communities to better understand what “essential” really means.

They reverse course to counteract historic disinvestment and underinvestment in low-income communities and other sub-communities that have been left without access to quality parks and recreation services and in park assets in need of significant upgrades that serve these same communities. Understanding the beneficial outcomes of equitable investment, these organizations use contemporary, geospatial-based research that provides new place-based information which identifies and maps neighborhood health and environmental indicators. This information can be used to ensure that funding is distributed for existing assets, new assets and their operations and management in ways that align with community needs.

Taking Care of Existing Assets is More than Lip Service:

Emerging park and recreation organizations know the maintenance requirements necessary to take care of their current assets and do not have any backlog. If they do, they don’t delay investments in existing infrastructure, rather, they position themselves financially to diminish the backlog until one longer exists. This becomes the priority over any new build or development.

These organizations develop informed narratives and stories which include accurate data and information encouraging new development only when they have identified funding sources and methods for both construction as well as preventative and long-term maintenance over the life of the asset. These pre-emptive efforts safeguard these organizations from assuming any debt of which they cannot afford.

Organizational Vitality (not growth) Will be How Worth is Measured:

Emerging park and recreation organizations acknowledge that many approaches to growth and community development have squandered precious resources that should be invested to make communities more prosperous. They know that trading short-term growth and the “bright, shiny new object” for the long-term, liabilities that result is slowly bankrupting communities.

These organizations lead innovative, broad based planning efforts valuing resilience over vocal minority interests. They embrace continuous adaptation, invest in infrastructure based on how places work and what neighborhoods need rather than on abstract and outdated theories, and obsess about financial stability rather than growth.

Financial Sustainability Strategy is Daily Work:

Emerging park and recreation organizations possess a solid financial sustainability philosophy and policy(ies) which provide the operational foundation from which all investment and spending decisions, and funding strategies are built. They expect higher returns from discretionary services moving towards full cost recovery, no longer allowing these services to benefit from taxpayer subsidies, and analyze unconventional options regularly in order to diversify funding sources.

These organizations are diligent and are able to justify how tax dollars are spent and invested. They use this philosophy to encourage productivity and the pursuit of opportunities for efficiency and revenue growth knowing that these efforts can strengthen their organizations for the long term.

Special Interests are Invested in Proportionally by Those Who Want Them:

Emerging park and recreation organizations crystallize investment decisions, community impact and overall value understanding that specialized activity serving narrow markets, is not accessible to the masses, and does not qualify as a community “need” or “essential service” and is best provided by non-governmental organizations and/or the private sector. If these organizations continue to serve as facilitators of public lands/spaces for specialized users, they recover the total cost of facility operations and maintenance. This allows for taxpayer dollars to be spent on park and recreation services which have more far reaching community impacts.

Technology Enables Advancement & Community Connectivity:

Emerging park and recreation organizations understand that adopting advanced technologies translates to reduced costs and enhanced revenues. Given today’s circumstances and the unknowns that lie ahead, these organizations know that staff time is optimized by using technology to modernize internal operations and that the right blend of technology enables them to provide their communities with the virtual services they have come to expect.

These organizations embrace the use of technology for a variety of purposes, including monitoring park visitors, biometric identification at entrances to public facilities and programs, user-friendly online registration, virtual engagement, and scientific uses such as surveying fire-prone landscapes and charting the spread of invasive species.

Education is the Principal Path to Advocacy:

Emerging park and recreation organizations stress the importance of informed and educated constituencies by re-distributing sufficient resources in order to develop and generate greater advocacy for parks and recreation. They go beyond repeating stories about the importance of parks and recreation or sharing data that implies how much parks and recreation impacts the local or regional economy. They know that while these stories are noble, they have already been told and will not result in more dollars when no more exist.

These organizations re-direct and pivot. They use marketing resources towards a focused energy on community education – and not just creating awareness of services, but on how tax-payer dollars are spent, the importance of shopping locally, the pros and cons of dedicated funding sources, why organizational decisions are made, etc. These organizations are proactive and out ahead of potential controversies using a “frequently asked questions” approach to any and all issues that they believe will raise public concern.

Policy Makers Focus on the Commons:

Emerging park and recreation organizations include appropriate numbers of advisory boards and committees whose composition is representative of the broader community offering regular opportunity for public assembly and therefore, greater democracy. They are intentional, intelligent and strategic in how they improve and expand engagement and outreach processes so that those with resources and access are not the only ones invited to participate in representing their community. This fosters a greater understanding of the community’s common issues, needs and fate. These organizations connect policy makers with advisory groups so that policy development aligns with a broader representative community interest. Further, policies are created and developed in unison with staff. The basis of the emerging organization’s policy is the ethical orientation of all decisions made with the “commons” as the ultimate guidepost. Emphasis is placed on the good of all over the good of a privileged few.

A Promise Statement Replaces Mission:

Emerging park and recreation organizations design unique promises to their community. Their promise is the essence of why and what they do in order to positively impact their community. It directs how they operate and manage their organization and guides all taxpayer investments. Their promise clarifies and communicates what differentiates them from other service providers and aligns with current reality(ies).

Imagining Tomorrow This all may seem a bit provocative and imply that tough work is ahead. It is and it will. We are about to enter an even more challenging time that will require our best effort, and un-abiding leadership from everyone at all levels based very simply upon a foundation of responsibility to others.

Being a public park and recreation professional comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. We serve the general public and are stewards of community-owned resources like taxpayer dollars and property(ies). And while we have the authority to spend other people’s money and be a caretaker of their property, the expectation is that we do it wisely and prudently and with an entire community’s interests top of mind. The public relies on us and our best judgement to impact the places where they live, work and play so their lives and the community as a whole will somehow be better tomorrow than today. This is quite a privilege – and it comes with the understanding that we are equipped for the task and up for the job and have the integrity to always remember that we are there to serve an entire community whose majority will likely never be able to tell us what they think and need.

In some ways we all are attempting to predict what the future might hold. We may be wondering how we’ll shop, eat out, work from home or go back to the office, or how we will recreate moving forward. Everyone is likely considering these same questions, imagining themselves returning to life after self isolation and stay at home orders. And those who manage businesses of any type regardless of sector are wondering how their organizations will have changed when society re-engages. Imagining the future of parks and recreation beyond today’s crisis management and recovery efforts may seem impractical, but quite to the contrary. We are at a proverbial tipping point and our action or inaction will affect the future.

If we are to imagine a better tomorrow, we need to imagine the work that needs to be done to make it happen. The ultimate difference maker will be turning the imagined into a pragmatic, tangible reality that creates a wave of prosperity for the industry and a legacy of which we can all be proud. A colleague recently wrote a book titled, “What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be”. There has never been a more poignant moment than now to ask and answer that question.

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