Are we building people—or just running programs?

If recreation and parks are really essential services, are we measuring what truly matters?

Part of why recreation and parks doesn’t receive more of the rave respect it deserves, in my opinion, is because most people notice programs far more than the objectives behind them.

That’s not surprising. It’s always easier to focus on outward expressions than on internal improvements of the mind, body and soul.

When the summer pop-up gathering space arrives on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, so do outdoor yoga, fitness challenges and games galore. Tucked between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Philadelphia’s City Hall, the family-friendly urban park attracts a friendly, laid-back crowd with food, music, beer gardens, movies, golf, games and more. Credit: Visit Philadelphia.

But that’s where the common disconnect begins, I believe.

When we providers declare that recreation and parks are essential community services, what does that mean to our constituents? What is our bottom-line purpose of enabling quality leisure experiences? And are we cognizant enough of it?

• Is it just a walk in the park—or is it physical exercise, stress relief and mental rejuvenation?

• Is it merely a Paint With Me class (with wine!)—or is it stretching skills and enriching relationships?

• Is soccer practice just about scoring a trophy—or is it developing fine motor skills, building teamwork, modeling good sportsmanship, and growing cooperative social interactions among diverse teens, teams and talents?

• Is it merely an object of public art—or is it celebrating a cultural heritage, invigorating a downtown district, connecting destinations, and attracting visitors, tourists and new businesses?

• Is it just an evening activity—or is it character development, anti-ganging intervention, and preventative treatment for abusive and addictive behaviors?

Are we strategically planning with such measurable outcomes in mind, or are we satisfied that it was “fun”?

Here’s the crux: Are we building people—or just running programs? Are we purposefully collaborating with experts from other disciplines in meeting people’s needs? And are we measuring what truly matters?

Because here’s the other just-as-important part of our jobs: we must show it.

Moving beyond ROIs, attendees, and social media stats, are we documenting personal and social good in our value statements? Can we point to specific cases of cleaner resources, less waste, crises averted, problems solved, and healthier lifestyles? Are we enriching our neighbors’ lives, improving the livability of our cities, and ensuring a more equitable future?

If we are to convince a wider audience of the great worth of our indispensable services (and, in turn, influence higher funding and priorities by decision makers), we must deliver whole goods. We can’t merely insist that recreation and parks are essential, we must intentionally demonstrate it—and prove it!

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Author: Tim Herd

PRPS CEO

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