Maintenance operation musings

The challenges of park maintenance

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Park maintenance operations is a wide and multi-discipline function that can mean different things to different people, departments, officials and staff.

The scope is largely dependent on several factors: size, location, budget, staffing and policy. I’m sure you can name several others that are likely a driving force in how you may operate and maintain your parks. But as stewards of parks we are charged with providing a safe and pleasant park experience while practicing good environmental stewardship at a reasonable cost. That is what I would consider a universal policy we all share in Pennsylvania regardless if you serve in a small capacity in a local borough or in a large capacity in a major city or county.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about what that means in a municipal setting. I don’t believe there is anyone dealing with park maintenance that has not found both challenges and conflicts with this statement in their career, regardless if you are new in the position or have spent a long career dealing with these very challenges.

So how do we address the seemingly never-ending challenges and obstacles. A highly respected and successful park professional recently made the analogy to me that he used to be 6’3” when he started his career, but throughout his career has been beat down (he’s semi-retired and 5’7”.) A good chuckle – but it dawned on me that what he was really saying was the success of his parks was not without his own personal struggles and challenges, and that there is a price to pay for that success. That price is for us as park maintenance professionals is to work hard to objectively understand our users needs, identify appropriate resources to meet those needs while moving forward in the direction of the policy makers visions.

If this is beginning to sound like documenting strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges, you are right. If we want our parks to be safe and provide a pleasant experience while being good environmental stewards at a reasonable cost, it is imperative to have a handle on these factors to provide a clear and objective presentation of these elements for our leadership to make good, well informed decisions.

Between the work to get that information and the culmination of decisions is where our friend may have experienced his (metaphoric) beating down. But in that process, he experienced amazing success which is now enjoyed by multitudes of park users for years to come. The better we become at providing clear and objective information and data, the better chances we have for our decision makers to move forward to meet the goals of their respective municipalities.

A recent grant award from the DCED and DCNR with support of PRPS is beginning to research these issues in Pennsylvania to provide park maintenance operations professionals a new tool to help them realize their goals.

If you are contacted or see a request for information, please take a few minutes to respond to this request, it may likely help the success of your parks in the near future.

Successful seasonal staff management

Key points to be a successful boss and leader

Seasonal staff can drive you crazy!  They’re often young, easily distracted, have goals and issues unrelated to the workplace, and can be unreliable at best.  But most of them can be trained and coached to be great employees if you take the time to work with them.

To be successful as a manager, leader, teacher, or coach, there are some key points that can help.  To start:

  • Determine your definition of success with your employees – what are the characteristics that make up the ideal seasonal staff member? Remember these traits as you train them.
  • Determine your own strengths and weaknesses – so that you know where you are confident in your training and where you may need help from outside sources.
  • Understand that every employee is different and may require differing coaching strategies to successfully manage them.
  • Set realistic goals for your employees.
  • Create an environment in which they can be successful.

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On day one, engage your employees.  Be prepared and welcoming, and have clear expectations in their job description or staff handbook.  Give them the information that they need, and use power words with them such as please, thank you, you’re doing a good job, I appreciate your work.  This will all create a positive environment with informed employees, who will then be easier to coach towards your ideal.

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Your employees will take their professional cues from you.  So have a positive attitude (or fake it), resolve conflict quickly and professionally, and focus on the issues that caused the problem rather than on how to fix the blame.  Sometimes you need to be a boss and sometimes you need to be a leader – know the difference!

Every employee knows the absolute minimum effort that it takes to not get fired.  They know that if they just do this minimal amount they can keep their job.  Some socialists argue that the gap between this minimum and their potential may be as much as 70%-75%…so it takes many employees only about 25%-30% of their potential to not get fired.

Every morning your employee will negotiate – with themselves – how much effort over that minimum that they will put into their job.  That vote is largely determined by the ENVIRONMENT in which they work.  The challenge of their manager is to create a situation where employees will VOLUNTARILY give more than the minimum required.  Here are some ways to help with that:

  • Create a positive atmosphere and working environment.
  • Compliment and praise when appropriate.
  • Use formative feedback or teaching moments to replace negative feedback.
  • Coach them – prod, motivate, encourage, and teach.
    • Recognize that you may need different coaching strategies for different employees.
    • Some staff need a simple and swift kick in the butt – while others need you to explain the ‘why’ before they buy in.

When it comes to discipline or correcting issues – remember your definition of success!  YOUR immediate reaction to a situation may not be what THEY need to improve.  Approach it as a coach – “How can I help you improve” may be more effective than “Get your head out of your rear and stop screwing up!”

  • Make sure the duties and expectations were clearly defined
  • It’s not personal – don’t let it be
  • Praise in public, criticize in private
  • Be clear and concise with communication
  • Let them know the next step (whether an action plan for improvement, or an appeal for discipline if available, or anything moving forward in the process)

Successful managers will recognize what is important to their employees and will work toward creating those opportunities.  There are many ways to be successful with this, but here are some ideas:

  • Higher wages – or a good explanation as to why you can’t (for most of us!).
  • A social media policy that allows employees to be involved but keeps your agency out of their posts – and promotes a healthy work environment among employees.
  • On-line or app-supported scheduling and communication.
  • Teaching best practices on customer interaction.
  • Use post-season surveys to solicit honest and open feedback on staff issues – then work on improving them.

When working with your seasonal staff, keep your focus on your definition of success.  It’s not your way or the highway, its all about coaching them to fit your ideal.  This may involve differing strategies for some employees but in the long run you’ll create an environment in which they can thrive – which will make YOUR professional life better.

Why sustainability is not just about the environment

5 key principles

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In essence, sustainable is about five key principles:

  1. Care for the Environment
  2. Respect of Ecological Constraints
  3. Fairness and Equality
  4. Quality of Life
  5. Participation and Partnership

Or in a nutshell, a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

As parks and recreation professionals each of the key principles affect our daily lives.  In order to ensure future sustainability practices, not only should the younger generations should be engaged in these philosophies, practices and key elements but the entire population.

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods sparked a movement to encourage children to go out and reconnect with nature. This movement has since sparked innovation in amenities to keep them engaged such as Nature Play Playgrounds, Sensory Gardens, and Nature Programs and Curriculum.

Most of us are aware of the above aspect of Sustainability.

But what about… Fairness and Equality? Quality of Life? Participation and Partnership?

Fairness and Equality

When it comes to societal transformation for a sustainable future, there are three reasons why equality could be part of the equation.

First, inequality drives materialism.

Second, people living in more equal societies value collective responsibility more. This leads to a host of sustainable spin-offs.

The third reason also relates to business and economic growth. Transforming societies will require significant innovation.

Quality of Life

Our profession enhances the unique characteristics of all communities by providing healthy, safe and walkable opportunities for all ages. It creates memories, physical activity, and fun! We have the power to enhance the quality of life for those willing to participate.

Participation and Partnership (or in our case, FUNDING!)

We have recently witnessed the lack of participation and partnership regarding the support of funding for parks and recreation in Pennsylvania. Continued development of strategies that inspire our communities, residents and government officials will allow them to discover the importance of parks, recreation and open space in the Commonwealth. Partnerships have proven to be the backbone to financial sustainability. The Growing Greener Coalition, PRPS and others have worked to keep us informed of changes that are being made to potential funding cuts that can and will affect most of us.  Continue to be part of our uniform voice when there is a “Call For Action!”

Sustainability will continue to increase in Pennsylvania because of all YOU do.

Parks and Recreation is “Good For You, Good For All.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Green elements can increase support, funding for local parks

Be #StormwaterSmartPA

MMNC#3 (002)We think of our local parks as a green oasis in our communities.  In addition to being great places to play and beautiful to enjoy, they also can incorporate green infrastructure to help communities with managing stormwater, protecting wellheads, and ensuring clean water.

Green infrastructure provides municipal leaders and elected officials an additional reason and benefit to support the acquisition, planning, development, and maintenance of public recreation areas because it helps improve water quality and minimize flooding.

It also can provide opportunities for leveraging funding sources from other agencies and organizations outside of the traditional park and recreation realm.

For many years, DCNR has been working with communities and non-profit organizations to plan, acquire, develop and rehabilitate publicly owned conservation areas, parks, trails and waterway access points.

Recently, the department is leading an effort to plant forest buffers along waterways and investing in community tree planting.

What is green infrastructure?

Think of green infrastructure as a network of natural and semi-natural systems that manage stormwater runoff by slowing the rate of water flow, and filtering out harmful pollutants before they drain into waterways.

DCNR supports green elements in park and trail rehabilitation projects such as:

  • Porous pavement and asphalt for basketball and tennis courts
  • Permeable pavement in parking lots, overflow areas, trails, walkways
  • Trees plantings, infiltration basins, and drainage areas to temporary storage tanks that can be utilized for irrigation
  • Forest buffer habitat along streams, use of native trees and plants, pollinator gardens
  • Bio-retention gardens, green roofs, rain barrels, cisterns, rain gardens at concession stands, maintenance sheds, restrooms, and visitor centers
  • Porous pavement and asphalt, and bio swales for trails and pathways

Once these elements are incorporated, it’s great to help park users learn from the community’s example with educational signage, and even with educational programs.

In addition to the community revitalization and potential economic benefits, the federal government notes green infrastructure can enhance the diversity of park users; improve recreational value of parks; and create attractive park features.

And, when communities reduce flooding from stormwater runoff overflow in recreation areas, there’s more time to play due to less flooding of fields!

Funding for local parks with green infrastructure

DCNR offers grant funding for park and other outdoor recreation projects that can help municipalities with stormwater reduction. There is technical assistance and financial support for grants from a variety of funding sources including the Keystone and Environmental Stewardship funds and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Learn more about green and sustainable community parks, grants, and how the department can help on the DCNR website.

Be Stormwater Smart

Of course, parks aren’t the only places communities can and should address stormwater.

DEP is working with communities to improve water quality and manage stormwater.  Leaders from Lemoyne Borough, Lower Paxton and Susquehanna townships, and Harrisburg’s Capital Region Water share perspectives on tackling the stormwater management challenge in the DEP video Stormwater Management: Perspectives from Four Pennsylvania Municipalities.

Green parks are one option, but all communities and citizens are encouraged to be #StormwaterSmartPA.

Don’t be a Twit

Curtailing or eliminating park and rec services only cuts off our nose to spite our face

hand on chain-link fenceRoald Dahl, the celebrated author, wrote a delightfully disgusting story for children about a wretched, extra-specially horrible couple named Mr. and Mrs. Twit. Not only are they dirty, ugly, and mean-spirited, they are also stupid, and fall prey to their own nasty tricks.

The Twits built their house without any windows, because they didn’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry peeping in to see what they were doing. It never occurred to them that it made it more of a prison than a home.

It’s the Twits I think about when I hear of another municipality cutting its recreation and park budget.

Sure, you can build a house more cheaply without windows. It’ll save on materials and labor. It may reduce heating and cooling costs. It may even save on maintenance. But who would want to live there?

I contend that recreation and park services are an integral, essential feature of any well-built, open community. They must not be mere window-dressing—just a frivolity for good times, but the first to discard when things turn grave.

Park and recreation services impact every aspect of modern living, from stimulating our economic activity and mutual wellness, to safeguarding our natural environment and collective resiliency, to strengthening our social capital and communal livability.

These essential services don’t just offer benefits to be enjoyed only in prosperity, but advance practical solutions to many of our most intractable issues. That these channels become all the more critical to real people during economic downturns, societal distresses, and natural calamities are all the more reasons to keep investing in their outcomes.

Where else are you going to find the resources and expertise to nurture physical, mental and emotional therapy? Fortify economic development and tourism? Administer food distribution programs? Reduce crime and increase community safety? Foster diversity and cross-cultural cooperation? Create transportation alternatives and reduce traffic congestion? Preserve and enhance biodiversity? Administer preventative treatment for drug abuse and risky behaviors? Facilitate positive youth and family development? Strengthen motor and cognitive skills in young children? Expedite medical recovery and boost immune systems? Raise student performance and educational attainment? Establish a sense of place and belonging? And provide many other critical services?

Through integral park and recreation systems, that’s where.

Our collective wellbeing is framed in our communities’ windows to recreation. Not only do they enhance the desirability of living and working there, shed light on the issues, enable an exchange of fresh ideas, and facilitate engagement between diverse groups where there had been only walls before, they are the most effectual conduits for progress we have.

Curtailing or eliminating them only cuts off our nose to spite our face—which is also counter to the resolve of sensible people.

A Penn State study revealed that 91 percent of Pennsylvanians support keeping existing funds dedicated to parks, recreation, trails, conservation and open space. And 82 percent support increasing funds for these purposes, even if it would cost the average household $10 more annually.

Here’s what we need to view from our window on the future: for our own good, we must continue to invest in parks, public spaces, recreation and green infrastructure.

See, it’s the windows that make the profound difference between a mausoleum and a home. Just who are we investing for? Don’t be a Twit.

Staying true to the public role of parks and recreation

Our challenge is to serve everyone regardless of the ability to pay.

youth soccerThere’s nothing wrong with people paying to use certain park facilities or participate in various recreation programs. The problem with fees and charges centers on our profession’s over-reliance on them. There’s no longer much, if any, differentiation between what are essential services that should be available at no or low cost and what opportunities should break-even or even generate revenue.

A great example of this is the current state of youth sports in Pennsylvania and across the country.

No one would argue that every boy and girl should have the opportunity to play youth sports. Unfortunately, that’s not a reality for many families.

Why? If your dad and mom don’t have money, it’s likely you won’t play. Gone are the days of youth sports being a low-cost activity that all families can afford. That is even more apparent in our urban communities. In our cities, the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is quickly widening.

To me, youth sports is one of the essential services of our parks and recreation profession.

There is tons of research on the links between children’s physical activity and school success, healthy weight, and becoming an active adult. With positive youth sports experiences, children develop confidence and skills they need to succeed in life. Participation should be a right, not a privilege for only those who can pay.

In many Pennsylvania communities, parent-run organizations are the providers of youth sports programs. Because of that, many park and recreation departments have a bit of a hands-off attitude – one of “they’re providing the program so we don’t need to get involved.” The challenge, however, is our public role – our charge to serve everyone regardless of the ability to pay.

As professionals, we should be focusing our efforts on strengthening local youth recreation leagues and helping to lower costs so that all children can participate. Keeping close-to-home youth sports programs strong is even more important today, with the proliferation of expensive travel teams that shut out lower income families.

What do you say?

Be, Know, Do!

Applying military leadership in a parks and recreation setting

military leadershipI had a fairly circuitous route to becoming a Park and Recreation professional. I finished college with a degree in Political Science, had a few internship experiences along the way, but wasn’t passionate about anything. This was six months after 9/11, and so, out of patriotic pride, I decided to join the U.S. Army.

Military life, as everyone knows, is unique. One of the most unique aspects from my perspective was the lengthy and formal training process for its leaders. In most careers, one becomes a productive leader through “feet in the fire” experiences or by latching onto a mentor. Before deploying overseas, I had the good fortune to attend Primary Leadership Development School in Anchorage, Alaska, a month-long program that leads to a promotion to Sergeant. It was at this school that I learned the very simple military leadership concept of Be, Know, Do.

To excel as a leader, one can boil it all down into principles using these three simple words: Be, Know, Do.

BE

Be courageous and through strength of character embody the values of your organization, community and most importantly, yourself. Serve your public with a selfless nature and lead your staff members by being honest, respectful and loyal. Always remember that parks and recreation is an essential municipal service and fight to keep it so.

KNOW

Know your job. Continue to educate yourself about recreation trends and cultivate your technical, interpersonal and conceptual skills to provide strategic vision, clearly defined goals for subordinates and motivation through a myriad of communication styles. Understand your employees, their roles and what challenges they may face. An old Army saying is “one up, two down”, which means you should know all aspects of positions one level above and two levels beneath your current role. Staff members want leaders who know what they are talking about, who understand the difficulties of getting summer camp kids to form a straight line at the end of the day or how gross it is to empty garbage during a festival.

DO

The best leaders act, they DO things. They create a professional culture that works towards a goal and achieves the goal by providing subordinates with a defined purpose, clear direction and motivation.

The three dimensions are all interrelated and dependent upon one another. If you are consistent of character, but can’t communicate a vision to your team, you may not hit your goals. If you have years of experience across a myriad of recreation positions, but aren’t seen as trustworthy or loyal, you may always be posting on the PRPS website for your next Program Coordinator.

Be, Know, Do. A simple leadership phrase I learned quite a few years ago while running around the woods of Alaska. It has served me well and focused the energy I bring to my parks and recreation team. Hopefully it can become a tool in your leadership tool box as well.