Creating the “New Normal” In Parks Management

“Where are all of the dandelions?” I was searching for that bright yellow flower while visiting one of our parks and could not find it.  To be clear, I know that a dandelion is a non-native plant, but it was the dandelion, or lack thereof, that alerted me to the fact that our parks could be supporting more.

At their core, parks should exist to support the recreational, physical, mental and emotional needs of us.  They should also exist to provide the basic necessities for nature to survive and thrive.  In most suburban parks, we’ve failed miserably.  Our current park maintenance practices revolve around preserving a grass monoculture that requires too much time and resources – both of which we never have enough of.

There is a place in our industry for the manicured lawn – most of which is sports-related.  In hindsight, rather than designing a few pollinator gardens around an athletic field, we should have been designing the athletic fields around fields of native plants and trees.  If your community is like ours, most of your parks are already constructed without the luxury of ever getting a mulligan on that design.  What if you could change the look and functionality of your parks and reduce maintenance hours while establishing a “new normal” in parks management?

The “new normal” is different for every community, but the visual expectation of what a park should look like is what we sought to alter.  For us, it had to start with being okay with imperfect lawns and giving nature a presence where it hadn’t existed before.

How can you create the “new normal” in your parks?

  • Find the Low Hanging Fruit:  Our very first step was raising our mower decks and mowing less during the summer.  Following that, we started questioning why a location is even mowed.  Mowing is 40% of what we do annually.  If we were going to find time to work on our maintenance backlog, mowing was where those hours would come from.  Conveniently, nature also benefits from this approach.
  • Educate, Retrain & Engage Staff: Gradually introduce topics like no-mow areas, native plants and green infrastructure.  Agree upon new maintenance practices and standards. Ask staff, at all levels, where they think change could occur. 
  • Keep the Public Informed: Educate the public on the why, where and how of what you are doing.  Not everyone will agree with the vision, but remaining transparent and listening will build confidence.  Celebrate your successes on your various marketing platforms.
  • Maintain a Presence: “Low Maintenance” doesn’t mean “No Maintenance”.  This will be a different type of maintenance than what your residents are accustomed to so having a presence is important.  For example, mowing the edges of no-mow areas indicate that a space is still looked after.
  • Trust the Process – With a good plan in place and a little bit of time, your agency will begin seeing tangible benefits like more time to focus on other projects and reduced fuel consumption and wear-and-tear on equipment.  These are two easily measured meters of success. Another benefit, you’ll see a lot more nature also using your parks.

The “new normal” needs to start somewhere – community parks sound like a great place to me.   

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Author: Derek Dureka

Upper Dublin Township Parks & Recreation Director, CPRP

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