Public Participation Aren’t Dirty Words

For many public sector employees, the most horrifying and defeating words are Public Participation.  And not because it’s 2020 and that would mean ANOTHER Zoom meeting.  No, I speak of the dreaded public meeting filled with dozens of head nodding, agenda-driven NIMBYs.  Their opinions supposedly represent thoughts of your community because they just so happened to be available that day and at that time.  

Many think of public participation as a necessary evil when proposing a new project or drafting a plan.  I beg to differ.  Public participation is actually one of the most valuable and powerful tools an agency can wield when harnessed and applied correctly.  While I’ve had my fair share of missteps when engaging the general public – plenty of phrases I’d like to take back, awkward pauses and regrets about what I should have said – I’ve also learned how an engaging, honest and frequent public process can build long-term community support.   

Don’t Do the Minimum – If you are holding one in-person public meeting and calling it quits, hand in your ID badge because your community deserves better.  While the number of engagement opportunities is unique to each project, one just isn’t enough.  Consider surveys (mailed and online), interactive social media posts, hybrid meetings (in-person and live stream with opportunities for questions from all), post-meeting message boards, progress report discussions, etc.  Your goal should be for the public to stop participating because they have heard enough to trust the direction of the project.          

Take the Show on the Road – If you are opting for an in-person meeting, consider holding it in a place local to the project.  Churches, synagogues and fire houses are all great sites.  For those interested that can’t be there, consider live streaming on a platform like Facebook Live.    

Publicize Your Process – Every meeting, every social media post, every conversation should be plastered in emails, on paid social media ads, on your website and in press releases.  Don’t hide behind the public process – embrace and celebrate it!

Document – Make sure you note every time you engage the public.  This will be valuable during two key times: 

1. When someone comes in at the 11th hour and says they didn’t know.  You know this will happen.  But how will you deal with it?  My recommendation: review everything your agency did to solicit input and ask for the person’s suggestion for a future outreach method.  

2. When you are applying for grants.  Grantors want to know the story of the public’s involvement.  Being able to accurately recount the ways you encouraged feedback will go a long way in showing how you actively sought input.

Doing each of the aforementioned will not only yield a process you can stand behind, but also generate feedback/ideas/opinions that are valuable and perhaps weren’t considered and create future agency support.

Now get out there and say, “Hello, my name is Leslie Knope, let me tell you about a project I’m working on . . .”           

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Grant Writing 101

As September approaches, Parks & Recreation Departments will be in the thick of budget season with many new questions in the current COVID-19 world.  While operating budgets are being meticulously picked through and may be subject to no increase or a decrease, the importance of capital improvement projects for our existing infrastructure and creating new community amenities is more evident now than ever.  Faced with the temporary closure of many recreation opportunities and lots of free time, residents have rediscovered the ease of visiting their local, regional and state parks. 

When faced with paying for capital improvements in our parks, grants have traditionally provided the financial or resource support to help those projects become reality.  With Congress passing the Great American Outdoors Act on July 22, 2020, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is now funded at its fullest level.  There is now even greater financial stability for PA DCNR to support projects throughout the Commonwealth – including your capital improvements!

If this is your first time ever applying or you’re a veteran, keep these steps in mind as you navigate the grant process:     

Step 1: Choosing the Project – Select a project that appears in one or more of your long-term planning documents, fulfills a pressing need in your community and/or builds upon a previously funded endeavour.  

Step 2: Choosing a Grant – There are many funding sources out there, but try and find partners that align with the spirit of your project.  Begin your search with PA DCNR, PA DCED, PRPS and NRPA.

Step 3: Do Your Research – When reviewing the grant application, review the background documents referred to in the application.  These documents will routinely provide you with the criteria that your request should be addressing.  If you do not have the time to review the entire document(s), split the work up amongst several staff members.  This is a great way to get project buy-in and gain other perspectives.  And don’t forget to review your own planning documents for references to your project so you can highlight the work being part of a larger community plan.       

Step 4: Be Creative – So you aren’t sure that your project fits the bill?  Don’t be afraid to think creatively about how your project, its goal and the impact on your community connects to the goals of the funding partner.  Mine those background documents and search for connections between your project and the grant.   

Step 5: Bullet Points for Precision – Use a bullet point method during two distinct parts of the process: 1. When reviewing the questions, create a running list of every way your project applies to the question. & 2. When answering the questions, consider using bullet points as part of your answer to make it obvious to the reviewers how you are addressing the questions – don’t bury your answer in fluffy text.  Be direct and to the point.  

While the grant application process may appear daunting, but when broken down into small bites, you’ll find it manageable and absolutely achievable. 

Parks & Recreation in the Plastic Age

As humans, we have lived through the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, but now have unofficially entered the Plastic Age.  Unfortunately, because plastics are so resistant to decomposition, archaeologists may be studying all of the water bottles, dental floss and disposable diapers that we leave behind.  

Our use of plastic can have a negative local and global impact as evidence by this albatross’ consumption of many small bits of plastic.

We know plastics are everywhere, but how prevalent is it in the parks & recreation world?  Probably more widespread than you realize. The majority of your equipment and tools are primarily made of plastics or have elements of plastic in them.  Your programs?  Many of them rely heavily on a single-use plastic items.  Events?  I’ll just say balloons and bottles of water.  What about in your parks?  Check your trash & recycling cans and the edges of your woods because I’m sure you’ll find evidence of visitors bringing and leaving items behind.  

There is no doubt that plastics aren’t going away, but much like naturalizing our neighborhood parks, the parks & recreation field has an opportunity to lead by example and reduce its use of plastics for the betterment of everyone.  At the same time, this approach could save your department money.  

Simple ways to get started:

  • Buy high quality, commercial grade tools and supplies to reduce the frequency of breaking and needing to be replaced.
  • Borrow instead of buy.  Reach out to departments in your area and see if they have what you may need for that one-time use.  
  • Attempt fixing an item instead of just tossing it.  Some employees may like the challenge of making the repair and it shows you value reuse.   
  • Instead of cheap, plastic giveaway items, focus on bettering “the experience” of your participants at your events and avoid those items all together.  Those participants will remember what they did and felt well after that item has been thrown away.  
  • Avoid working with instructors that offer programs that rely on kits with excessive waste.  
  • Provide a cooler of water and encourage BYOB (bottle) at your park clean-up events.
  • Strive for at least one waste-free event a year.  Promote it as that and solicit the community for ideas of how to achieve that status. 
  • Install bottle refilling stations at your most popular parks and don’t forget to publicize it.
  • Consider and purchase products that are made of plastic alternatives such as hemp, paper or bamboo.  

While we each have the pleasure of hosting thousands of people a year at our parks, programs and events, we also have an obligation to do so in a way that shows thoughtfulness towards our environment and lessens our impact as much as possible.   

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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