Jerks at Work

Be a positive role model, not a model jerk

I’ve been a fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons since their start. And this particular one tells me that not only does God love diversity, he’s also got a sense of humor!

Unfortunately, humoring a jerk doesn’t prevent the problems they create. And when you work with a jerk, it’s not just irksome—it can be a major career-disrupter!

Of course, the first, best way to deal with jerks is to be certain you’re not one of them! Many people learn to become jerks at work by mimicking their managers and their coworkers. So the fewer who act like jerks, the less their contagion will spread.

But of course, there are always plenty of jerks to go ‘round. No matter what their role or relationship, you need to know how to manage them for your own (and possibly mutual) benefit. Once you make sure that you have a clear understanding of their questionable behaviors, you can then tailor your response to fit the particular person and situation. Some cases call for swift, direct and assertive action, while others call for more subtlety, patience, and persuasion.

The book Jerks at Work: How to Deal with People Problems and Problem People by Ken Lloyd, is a wonderful resource offering hundreds of real-life workplace questions with practical considerations, suggestions and insights to employ in all sorts of jerk defense and management. Because the author says it all so well, I quote from his introduction and summary:

“Jerks can be present in every aspect of work life, from the first contact in the employment process to the last day on the job, and all points in between. For example, jerks can clearly highlight their presence when conducting job interviews, and in the way they treat new employees. At the same time, there are applicants and new employees who feel compelled to demonstrate that they, too, can act like jerks. With every assignment, task, chore, meeting, project, deadline, objective, and interaction, jerks are always seeking that special opportunity to let everyone know who and what they are.

“In leadership positions, jerks can truly come in into their glory. They can be invisible, omnipresent, inequitable, intransigent, nasty, unfair, unethical—the list goes on and on. And interestingly, jerks as subordinates can be just as outrageous, as can jerks as co-workers.

“One properly placed jerk at virtually any level of an organization can be linked to a vast array of problems that include leadership ineptitude, widespread unfairness, abysmal teamwork, resistance to change, twisted feedback, conflict escalation, pointless meetings, communication breakdowns, employee stagnation, muddled decision-making, inequitable rewards, staff rebelliousness, and a very uncomfortable environment. And as the number of jerks increases, so increases the number of problems.

“Although there are no automatic or canned solutions for the problems jerks create, there are some strategies that can help, provided that every problem is analyzed individually, and specific steps are developed to handle each. With a solid strategy in mind, many actions taken by jerks can be stopped and prevented, or at the very least, avoided.

“There are some key pointers that anyone at any job level should keep in mind in order to be a positive role model, rather than a model jerk:

  • Treat people with respect and trust.
  • Listen to what others have to say.
  • Be fair and honest.
  • Set positive expectations.
  • Recognize the value of diversity.
  • Keep the lines of communication open.
  • Be a team player.
  • Keep furthering your education.
  • Establish realistic plans and goals.
  • Look for solutions, not just problems.
  • Try to understand others as individuals.
  • Give thanks and recognition when due.
  • Keep quality and service in clear focus.
  • Encourage innovative and creative thinking.
  • And most importantly, remember that only a jerk ignores the Golden Rule.”

Invest in yourself and your future. Jerks at Work can arm you with the knowledge and sensitivity to combat jerk behavior in your employers, coworkers, employees—and most importantly, in yourself.


What is—and isn’t—critical thinking

and how we can use it to improve ourselves and those around us

Whenever I’ve talked about the need for critical thinking, I’ve noticed that those who need it most are usually the ones who agree most—but for other people!

Maybe this stems from our volatile society, but our collective exasperation (outrage?) at others’ points of view is certainly exacerbated by a lack of critical thinking by all parties.

I don’t consider myself a master critical thinker, but at least I can see how most political ads break every rule of sound and fair reasoning. (Of course, their purpose is to vilify opponents with innuendo, appeals to irrational fears, outright lies, distortions and half-truths; and a creative lack of depth, breadth, clarity or fairness. For that, they do a pretty consistent job—however unprincipled!)

But let’s start with clarity.

What critical thinking is not: using a judgmental spirit to find fault, assign blame, cancel, or censure.

What critical thinking is: using a disciplined thought process to discern what is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

After all, we are what we think. Our attitudes, feelings, words, and actions are all determined by the quality of our thinking. Unrealistic thinking leads to disappointment; pessimistic thinking spurns joy; practical thinking builds productivity; grateful thinking grows appreciation; and affirmative thinking leads to possibilities and opportunities.

Our brains do a pretty good job in identifying patterns and fixed procedures that require minimal consideration. It allows us to function efficiently in familiar zones and predictable routines. And hardwired in all of us is a prioritized egocentric core to protect our personal interests. But increasingly, our progressively diverse world and its unrelenting pace of change requires analytical thinking that is more vigorous, more complex, more adaptable, and more sensitive to divergent views—if we are not to degenerate into the dystopian futures of our movies!

That kind of elevated thinking is reasoning, which draws conclusions about what we know, or can discover, about anything. To reason well, we must intentionally process the information we receive. What are we trying to understand? What is its purpose? How can we check its accuracy? Do we have a limited, shaded, or jaded point of view? What is fact, what is evidence, and what is interpretation? What is the question or problem we are trying to solve? What assumptions are in our inherent biases, and how can we move away from them? What are the ultimate implications or consequences?

Our reasoning, therefore, needs standards with which to measure, compare and contrast all the bits of information in order to come to a meaningful and fair conclusion. Such intellectual standards include clarity, precision, accuracy, significance, relevance, logicalness, fairness, breadth and depth.

In the absence of these reasoning standards, we default to our self-centeredness, which inevitably leads to gnashing of teeth, biased irrationality, and social regrets. But when we vigorously apply these standards, we develop a capacity for fairmindedness, rational action, and healthy societies. This intellectual clash for the mastery of our own minds frames two incompatible ends:

Virtues for fair-minded rationality          Vices inhibiting fair-minded rationality
intellectual humility                                        intellectual arrogance
intellectual autonomy                                    intellectual conformity
intellectual empathy                                      intellectual self-centeredness
intellectual civility                                            intellectual rudeness
intellectual curiosity                                        intellectual apathy
intellectual discipline                                      intellectual laziness
intellectual integrity                                        intellectual hypocrisy

Here is a starter set of questions for better thinking and reasoning, drawn from the critically acclaimed book Critical Thinking, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder:

Clarity: Could you elaborate or give an example?
Precision: Could you be more specific?
Accuracy: How can we verify or test that?
Significance: Which of these facts are most important?
Relevance: How does that relate to, or help with the issue?
Fairness: Are my assumptions supported by evidence? Is my thinking justifiable in context?
Logicalness: Does what you say follow from the evidence?
Depth: What are some of the complexities of this issue?

Informed reasoning leads to better self-management, better understanding and relationships between people and groups—and ultimately, a better, more cooperative society. And let it begin with me.

Invisible Women

When planners and developers fail to account for gender, public spaces become male spaces by default.

My daughter strongly recommended I read the bestselling book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez. She helpfully loaned me her electronic copy, and I learned so much from it I bought my own copy. And in turn, I recommend it to you.

Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez

In its pages, the author argues that the gender gap is both a cause and a consequence of the type of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male. It was surprising to me (being exclusively male since birth), how widely and how often this bias crops up, and how it distorts the supposedly objective data that increasingly governs our lives.

She covers a lot of territory. The book’s six parts cover Daily Life, The Workplace, Design, Going to the Doctor, Public Life, and When it Goes Wrong; and includes such intriguing chapters as Can Snow-Clearing be Sexist, Gender Neutral With Urinals, and One-Size-Fits Men.

Of particular interest to park and recreation professionals is a section addressing city and park planning and use. She cites a 2016 article in The Guardian that asked why we aren’t designing places “that work for women, not just men” and cautions that the limited datasets that track and trend data on gender make it hard to develop programs and infrastructure that factor in and meet women’s needs.

For example, planners in Vienna found that the presence of girls in parks and public playgrounds decreased after the age of 10. They subsequently found, through collecting pertinent data, that single large open spaces were the problem, because they forced girls to compete with boys for space—who largely chose not to. But when the developers subdivided the parks into smaller areas, the female dropoff was reversed.

They also addressed the park’s sport facilities. “Originally these spaces were encased in wire fencing on all sides, with only a single entrance area—around which groups of boys would congregate. And the girls, unwilling to run the gauntlet, simply weren’t going in.” The simple solution? More and wider entrances. They also subdivided the open areas and sport courts. Formal sports like basketball were kept intact, but they also provided space for more informal activities, in which girls were more likely to engage.

In another example, Malmos, Sweden, discovered a similar male bias in the way they’d traditionally been planning urban recreation for youth. “The usual procedure was to create spaces for skating, climbing and painting graffiti. The trouble was, it wasn’t ‘youth’ as a whole that was participating… It was almost exclusively boys, with girls making up only 10-20 percent of those who used the city’s youth-directed leisure spaces and facilities.” So they began asking what the girls wanted—and the resultant new areas are well-lit and split into a range of different-sized spaces on different levels.

Such a gender-equitable approach doesn’t just benefit females alone, but extends to the economy. When sports funding goes mainly to organized sports, which is dominated by boys, that which was meant to benefit everyone equally, simply doesn’t. Sometimes girls’ sports aren’t provided for at all, which means girls must pay for them privately, or not participate at all. Such detrimental consequences then ripple into the present and future health of half the population, and the overall economy. One study concluded that a certain increase in the city’s support for girls’ sports could “lead to a 14 percent reduction in future fractures due to osteoporosis, and the investment will have paid for itself.”

Perez concludes that when planners, developers and programmers “fail to account for gender, public spaces become male spaces by default.” This is not a niche concern: “if public spaces are truly to be for everyone, we have to start accounting for the lives of the other half of the world.” It’s not just a matter of justice: it’s also a matter of personal health, welcoming placemaking, social equity, and simple economics. And it starts with collecting meaningful gender-sensitive data.

Mind your margin

I used to have an annoying tendency to agree to anything that’s far enough in advance.

My bad habit would kick in whenever I looked at my planner and found a blank space during the requested time. Nothing there? Looks like we’re good to go!

Then the future would show up, and I’d discover that once again I’d overbooked my time, attention and energy—to my physical, mental and spiritual detriment.

You’d think I would have caught on quicker, but it took me several decades to learn to reserve the necessary margin I need in my life.

I’ve finally come to view such demands differently, even when my calendar is open, because I can honestly answer that I already have another commitment at that time—to myself!

May is Mental Health month. Do yourself a favor. Give yourself a break.

Nurturing a child with Asperger’s Syndrome

As mainstream recreational programming welcomes more children with special needs, I humbly offer some of the simple strategies my wife and I learned in raising our son with Asperger’s Syndrome.

“I’m just going to go across the road and… DIE!”

So declared my then eight-year-old son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome.

What caused him such overwhelming agony that he felt he simply could not go on?

I moved a forsythia bush in the yard from there to over there.

And while the drama was undeniably amusing at the time (and required pains to hide it), it’s a great example of one of the mistakes I made—and the lessons I learned—in nurturing my son’s personal development as he grew up.

As mainstream recreational programming widens to welcome more children with special needs, and the real opportunities to raise these children’s future prospects grow, I humbly offer some of the simple strategies my wife and I learned in raising our young son, which may help in providing a more nurturing aspect to your programming.

1. Practice coping mechanisms. Aspergers kids often suffer from sensory overload, detecting every sight and motion, every sound and smell, every texture and sensation. Our son was unable to tune out the background clamor most people don’t even notice. Because it’s not possible to control all surroundings, we introduced and practiced coping mechanisms that helped him manage the overload. Things like deflecting anger with humor, providing a safe place of retreat (very important!), and teaching him how to read facial expressions helped him cope when tensions ran high.

2. Pick your battles. Because he needed social interaction, but would never choose it on his own, we limited the battles on that front to just two that did him a world of good: Boy Scouts with its outdoor adventures; and marching band with its required precision that appealed to his mathematical mind. Knowing what’s really important, rather than what’s merely a preference, helped us focus our care where he needed it most, and avoid needless confrontations and frustrations.

3. Provide stability. Aspergers kids love their ruts. That’s where they’re comfortably ensconced. They’re happy there, with no need to ever change. Routines are important. Rules are important. So as much as possible, we provided stability at home with our routines and consistency in enforcing rules.

This youngest child of four shared household chores with his siblings. Saturday was yardwork, Sunday was church. Every evening at 5:30 the whole family sat down together for supper. And after we were done eating, we lingered together to share in a variety of subjects—from listening to a piece of music to discussing current events to admiring artwork, or something from science, history or literature. One springtime we read the entire book of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer aloud in small segments after supper. Provide stability.

4. Prepare for changes. You thought you hated change? Try being an Asperger’s kid with absolutely zero tolerance! Here was my mistake in moving the bush: I never warned him. While he was at school one day, I decided on the spur of the moment to transplant the shrub. It was already a done deal when he got home. NNNOOOO!! He simply could not cope with its suddenness. His life was over. The only thing he could do was to go across the road and die!

We learned to prepare our son for changes that will come. One year, we had a great three-week vacation at the end of the summer. When we arrived home, we realized, “oh, yeah, school starts next week.” What! A! Disaster! From that episode we learned to prepare him for transitions. “Son, school starts in 4 weeks, 3 weeks, 2 weeks, next Tuesday… ” “You’re going to have to start wearing pants again soon instead of shorts, because the days are getting colder and you’ll freeze your buns off!” Prepare for change.

5. Persevere in unconditional love. No matter the depth of his meltdowns or how he acted out, our love and acceptance as a vital part of our family was never questioned. We approached it from this truth: “Son, you have an amazing gift in being able to view the world from a unique perspective—and you will find purpose in it. Hang in there. We love you intensely!” Persevere!

So for those who have or are working with young children on the autism spectrum, I offer this encouragement and hope: My son —the nuclear physicist with a Master’s degree!—is now working two research jobs with Penn State University. Hang in there! It’s hard to predict the ultimate destination of these kinds of adventures. But you have both the opportunity and the ability to make a difference in these children’s lives and their futures. My absolute best to you!

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!

Agility in the land of Giants

The most effective leaders find ways to disable the difficulties on the way to achieving the mission.

In Bruce Wilkinson’s wonderfully empowering book The Dream Giver, he spins an allegory about a guy named Ordinary who leaves his comfort zone to pursue his dreams. The further he travels away from the familiar, the more unsettled he becomes, and the more he is oppressed by those opposed to his audacity to dream. He encounters Border Bullies, who try to prevent him from crossing into unfamiliar territory. His tenacity is tested in the Wasteland. And just when the fulfillment of his dream is in sight, he meets Giants, whose self-appointed purpose is to take him down and deny his dream.

If you tried to make any headway in 2020, you know the tale is true. Some of the obstacles that prevent us from realizing our goals are gigantic. But as leaders, if we are to persist and win, we must find ways to effectively neutralize those Giants, one way or another:

Avoid the Giant.   Some problems can simply be avoided, like detouring around a landslide. There may be many routes to your goal. One blocked path doesn’t mean you are deterred, merely detoured.

Redirect the Giant.    Some Giants attack simply because they cannot allow any challenge to go unanswered. But if you can convince a Giant that you are not an enemy, and in fact, may share some common goals, you may be able to enlist that Giant’s considerable help by focusing its energies on another target. You may have talented and passionate Giants who have difficulty in comprehending the long-term goal, and unintentionally cause obstructions to your progress. But if that passion can be directed along a parallel path to a mutual aim, you’ve not only removed an obstacle, but have gained a committed ally.

Hinder the Giant.   In an effective offensive strategy of a good football team, some members intentionally block the moves of the opposing team while others advance the ball toward the goal. Recognize that your best chance for reaching your goal is not a solo effort. Take time to develop collaborative partnerships and train your teammates in anticipation of necessary strategies.

What tactics can be employed, if necessary, to move beyond the obstacle, huge as it is? Are there any social, legal, economic, or other incentives (or disincentives) to employ? What resources can be added or removed from the state of affairs to mitigate the problem? How may the confounding issue be countered, refuted or reframed? With a well-trained and well-equipped team, your Giant may be controlled or curtailed enough for the dream to be attained.

Conquer the Giant.   It is dangerous to approach a Giant. Because of its size, strength, and contrariness, confronting a Giant can be a fearfully intimidating experience. It has the capacity to seal your fate and steal your dream. Confronting the Giant may indeed be a life-and-death matter.

Fear is a natural reaction to facing the unfamiliar, the hazardous, or the unknowable. Yet, the only tonic for fear is courage: intentional action in spite of it. Knowing full well the risks, the dreamer takes a deep draught from the flask of Courage, calculates her steps, and proceeds.

Giants do not easily fall. But even the biggest and most fearsome are not invincible. Conquering them, while difficult, is possible. The dreamer/leader and his or her team must commit all available resources to knowing, acting on, and reacting to their own—and the Giant’s—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. With persistence, proper knowledge and courageous deeds against the Giant, yield it may.

Like successful dreamers, the most effective leaders find ways to disable the difficulties on the way to achieving the mission. Who or what are your Giants?

Staging a new ACT

When we meet active, even hostile resistance, how can we begin to facilitate an effective conversation?

It was quite an angry voicemail message I received last Monday: “I WANT TO KNOW WHY YOU THINK I NEED DIVERSITY TRAINING! DON’T SEND ME ANY MORE!  THIS IS JUST A COMMUNIST…! I CAN’T EVEN TALK ABOUT IT!” And abruptly disconnected.

This was apparently in response to our recent notices about the PRPS diversity webinars by Mauricio Velásquez of the Diversity Training Group, which was sent out to all our members and a list of potential members. I can only hope he was in the latter category.

A couple of immediate thoughts came to me:

  • You didn’t tell me who you are, so I don’t know who to stop sending this to!
  • Perhaps he felt he was being singled out by our bulk email that customizes the greeting with a first name. (He wouldn’t be the first. Years ago at another agency, I had a board member who thought everything I wrote about improving leadership and relationships was about him, and resented me picking on him—until I explained that I always sent them to everyone. (“… Oh!”) He was then fine about it; although a bit embarrassed.)
  • Since many people are sensitive about their secret flaws, perhaps we smacked a nerve on this.
  • On the other hand, since he alluded to diversity training as being communistic, he’s likely affixed to quite a different perspective.
  • People naturally feel threatened and tend to react strongly when they feel they are losing power, prestige, control, influence, or elevated status to others who are different from them.
  • If I had been able to talk with him, I probably would have asked him why he was so angry, and perhaps worked a way out of a misunderstanding. Who knows? But since I couldn’t, I’m left to only guess why “diversity” rattled him so badly he had to rant on my voice mail. (A little later, our Communications Manager received an email with this in the subject line: “You can shove your diversity training you nowhere [sic]”.)

In these times of sociopolitical polarities, resistance to what we have to say shouldn’t surprise us. While those within our profession may largely hold these truths to be self-evident, our proclamations about the value of parks, their essential nature, social equity, equal access, and the need for increased funding (among many others), are not universally well-received.

All our advocacy needs to be supported by education, documentation, data, and sound reasoning. But even if we can make an unassailable case for our cause, our communication cannot begin to be effective until it becomes two-way, in an open exchange of ideas, perspectives, and other viewpoints, and both parties achieve better understanding—and perhaps transformed behaviors and policies. This is not a job for the faint of heart!

The same day I received that voice mail, the PRPS staff were engaged in a professional training centering on leadership types and communication styles. We all gained deeper insights about ourselves, and how to better understand each other. Even though we already work very well together, I found it very interesting that, out of the nine of us, we display eight different communication styles! And that’s among people who agree on a lot in common and even like each other!

Which brings us back to my angry caller, and the next time we meet active, even hostile, resistance. How can we even begin to facilitate an effective conversation?

I certainly don’t have all the answers (after all, I’m a recovering hothead myself!). But I will leave you with this valuable tool in the Communications Guide from the Government Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE). While it’s presented within the framework of racial equity, the technique can work in all areas of conflict. As you know, people who are fighting aren’t communicating. The acronym is ACT:

Affirm. Begin by affirming core values that your listener or audience shares with this effort. Reinforce the idea that we’re all in this together.

Counter. Explain the challenge, focusing on the institutional and structural drivers that have created and maintained racial inequity. Be explicit about race, contrasting reality with the vision and values you’ve shared. Use facts and stories to persuade your listener of the reality and importance of the problem.

Transform. Start with heart, reiterate that we’re all in this together, and offer your audience or listener a concrete step they can take or we can take together to transform our current reality into the vision we share.

If we continue to ACT, we can facilitate better communication with all those we serve.

Who you gonna call? Parks and Rec!

A fresh perspective on funding recreation and parks as an indispensable service in a post-pandemic recovery

Schuylkill Banks TrailIt’s as predictable as gaping baby birds and late-winter potholes, all crying to be filled. Come budget time, municipal park and recreation services perennially want for funding.

In a 2017 national study conducted by Penn State University, researchers found that 83 percent of local governmental officials viewed parks and recreation as worth the average tax investment in their communities. An overwhelming majority (99 percent) agree their community benefits from local parks. Yet during fiscal deficits, park and recreation services are cut the most severely of all community services.

Why is this? According to the research, local officials simply do not perceive park and recreation services to be as important as the others. Follow the money: in flush times, all services reap increases; but during economic downturns, park and rec services are dramatically and disproportionally cut.

However, far beyond providing mere leisure services, a comprehensive park and rec system vigorously builds the community, contributing to our individual wellness and public health, our environmental sustainability and our social equity. Its facilities and programs stimulate the local economy, enhance real estate values, attract and retain business, improve community infrastructure, build resilience, and reduce crime. Its enrichments expand community engagement, develop people, and contribute directly to our quality of life. All because it constructively addresses broad-based community problems.

And this is the niche recreation and parks fills better than any other essential community service: the unique ability to bridge across multiple professional disciplines and political boundaries to facilitate comprehensive solutions to real community problems. Need to curb gang-related activities? Or assist police and social services in preventative treatment for risky behaviors? Call parks and rec. Need to coordinate the distribution of meals? After schools, parks and rec serve up the most. Need first responders in an emergency and a safe place to rendezvous? Parks and rec, at your service. Concerned about access to nature and clean air and water? Need multimodal connections to destinations of interest? Looking to build more cross-cultural respect and interaction? Boost student achievement and engagement? Attract more public-private partnerships? Who you gonna call? Parks and rec!

Fortunately, more cities and communities are beginning to realize that it is always to their benefit to incorporate and prioritize park and recreation services within other life-essential services.

It’s time for a fresh perspective on what makes community services essential: one that recognizes how they are collectively interdependent and indispensable for our modern living. I call it the Life Essentials Community Services Model.

This comprehensive view recognizes that each service sector, alone, would fail the community; but when fulfilling its interactive function within the whole, all people are indispensably protected, enriched and supported. There are three life-enhancing categories:

·  Life Protection: Firefighters, Police, Emergency Services, Hospitals, Corrections, Preventative Services.
·  Life Support: Transportation, Infrastructure, Sanitation, Utilities, Housing, Public Welfare, Clean Air, Water and Natural Resources.
·  Life Quality: Parks and Recreation, Education and Culture, Health and Nutrition, Libraries, Social Services.

In this balanced view, we can better grasp how interdependent our life-essential services truly are. And how the care and use of our public parks and greenspaces is uniquely capable of leveraging limited resources and expertise in all categories to protect, support, and enhance lifestyles and the kind of recovery we need.

The pandemic will likely continue to exact a heavy economic toll on municipal governments and their public spaces—affecting workforce, childcare, food distribution, access to nature, environmental safety, youth development, and of course, our physical and mental health, among many other vital human needs. Now is the time to embrace just how indispensable comprehensive park and recreation services are to the quality of our communities—and to invest—not divest—for our own vitally important recovery and preferred future.

This is going to leave a mark

Ready and abundant access to our stress-relieving and health-inducing parks and recreational services is needed now more than ever.

Aerial drone view of a huge riverbed, Iceland

Like the 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, the current COVID-19 pandemic will jar our senses and society in ways we haven’t anticipated.

The coming shift in our collective psyche is not yet clear in anyone’s cloudy crystal ball, but is likely to be profoundly and broadly pervasive.

But even as park and recreation professionals scramble to respond to the abrupt demands of cancelling and rescheduling programs and events, sanitizing and maintaining facilities, establishing and enforcing new protocols—while remaining on frontline public service duty in food distribution, coping and cognitive therapies, and many other community interactions and enrichments—we must also invest in some leadership forethought to our futures. Ready and abundant access to our stress-relieving and health-inducing parks and recreational services is needed now more than ever.

What will all this mean to our profession when we return (yet again!) to a new normal?

I’m no prophet (nor even a mediocre soothsayer), but it’s likely the long-term impacts of surviving the worldwide pandemic will rock our world socially, economically, environmentally, relationally, psychologically—in short, fundamentally.

And with this disruptive shift, comes a series of thought-provoking considerations to re-establishing our community value and our professional accountability. Among them:

●  How do we navigate the inherent conflicts between social distancing and community engagement?
●  How do we maintain sanitary outdoor play surfaces, and encourage trust in our best practices?
●  What adjustments do we make to our maximum load capacities in aquatic centers and meeting spaces?
●  How do we balance park/program equity with new fiscal realities and responsibilities?
●  How can we leverage increased interest in personal health for more interaction in nature?
●  How can we lessen dependence on governmental funding and operate more entrepreneurially?
●  How do we better assist our most vulnerable populations?
●  How do cancelled school sessions create a new niche we can fill in our summer camps?
●  What new partnerships can we create to build more healthful and resilient neighborhoods?
●  What new protocols need to be established in our recreation centers, swimming pools, children’s services, large-group events, fitness programs, playgrounds, concessions, trails, visitor centers, and other public facilities?

Granted, not all of these questions are newly arriving with a post-pandemic world, but if we practitioners are to remain relevant and, indeed, grow our industry’s uniquely influential role in the public good in its aftermath, we can no longer kick these proverbial cans further down the road.

Instead, I suggest embracing a new metaphor for a preferred future.

With the onset of the pandemic, thousands of park and recreation agencies suddenly have to deal with new, yet simultaneously similar challenges. Our many responses are like the myriad of rivulets produced by a flooding rainstorm. They’re trickling everywhere at once, exploring ways of forward passage, but ultimately leading in the same downslope direction. If we will share our new ideas, our innovative procedures, our lessons from failures and successes; our thousands of earnest rivulets will coalesce to braided stream flows that, just a little bit further on, will produce a stronger, broader channel of unified best-practice standards and indispensable public services, restoring and refreshing us all.

Please share your questions, suggestions and experiences with your peers in the PRPS companion Facebook page, What’s Up P+R?! As we gather resources and can offer authoritative guidance, we will post them on the PRPS Recreation and Park COVID-19 Resources webpage for all to benefit.

During the coming weeks, PRPS will be hosting free Virtual Roundtables (Parks & Recreation – Surviving the Covid Crisis) via Zoom to provide a networking platform for members to share issues and brainstorm about how to move forward during this stressful time. Individual Roundtable topics include Aquatics, Maintenance, Programs/Events/Summer Camp, Leadership/Planning, Therapeutic Recreation, and Urban Recreation.

And join the fluid movement forward!

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