Knowing Your Community

youth soccerNo two Pennsylvania communities are the same, so it’s no surprise that no two local parks and recreation agencies are the same. Each serves different residents with different needs and desires. Each has different access to funding. From the very small to the very large, from rural to urban areas, from no staff to hundreds of employees, Pennsylvania parks and recreation agencies come in all shapes and sizes.

Today, local parks and recreation agencies are charged with the responsibility to play a significant role in improving the quality of communities. Stepping up and playing this role means knowing your community and the residents you serve very well.
Studying your demographics is an important step. What is the median age, how fast/slow is the population growing, how much time do residents spend commuting, what percentage of the population is over 65/under 5 years of age, what is the education level and the poverty level of your residents? There’s much more to understand, such as the state of the local economy, the available resources in the community, the value residents place on parks and recreation, and the top issues and challenges facing the local community.

Local challenges for your community may be the explosion of travel sports teams and children specializing too early in one sport, food insecurity, an aging population, a sedentary population, a declining or a growing population, high rates of childhood obesity, escalating costs for program participants, lack of early childhood education, private organizations offering competing programming, lack of facilities for programs, and lack of funding for programs. Your list may include some of these issues, plus many others.

For public recreation to meet residents’ needs, programs that appeal to multiple generations, interests and abilities are offered. In part, this is done by determining trends and responding to challenges. The big question is – how do you determine what your community is faced with?

To stay ahead (as much as you can) of the challenges that your community is and will be faced with, and to offer recreation programming that addresses these challenges, hold regular meetings with your staff and volunteers, meet with the public, be visible at community events, be out in your parks and recreation facilities, keep up with the local news, survey the public, evaluate your programs, attend professional conferences and workshops, and network with community organizations.

Your mission statement, vision statement, and core values should be well developed. Undertaking a strategic plan is a great step to knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your recreation programming, discovering the opportunities for growth, and identifying the threats to your success. A strategic plan will provide a clear vision for the future of your recreation programming and serve as a guide to best serve your residents. A strategic plan will help you figure out what role your parks and recreation agency should play in improving the quality of your community.


It’s been 25 years…

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…since the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks underwent its last strategic planning effort, State Parks 2000.

Planning for Pennsylvania’s state parks of tomorrow has begun. Named Penn’s Parks for All, the strategic planning process places a priority on public input and participation – because after all, these 121 state parks, totally nearly 300,000 acres, belong to all of us.

Fast Facts:
• State parks receive nearly 40 million visits each year: 36.3 million day visits and 1.6 million overnight visits.
• State parks receive 0.16 of one percent of the state’s General Fund budget.
• A state park is located within 25 miles of nearly every Pennsylvanian.

The mission of PA’s State Parks is to provide opportunities for enjoying healthful outdoor recreation and to serve as outdoor classrooms for environmental education. First consideration is given to the conservation and protection of the environment by balancing the potential impacts of recreational activities and facilities with the natural, scenic, aesthetic and historic resources within the parks.

A public survey which closed last fall yielded 14,276 responses that are being analyzed by researchers at Penn State University. 488 state parks staff members completed an on-line survey. Two additional surveys are in the works:  a statistically-valid statewide telephone survey and an on-line panel survey targeted to reach young adults and ethnic minorities.

Later this year, a preliminary report will be presented at roundtable public meetings throughout the commonwealth to get feedback and reaction from stakeholder groups and residents.

As we look to the future of state parks, questions to answer (among many others) include:

  1. What actions should be taken if natural resources within a park are being harmed by over use?
  2. What changes should be made if the general fund allocation continues to be less than is needed to properly operate and maintain all 121 state parks?
  3. How important is internet access in parks?
  4. Should overnight accommodations be enhanced?
  5. What is the appropriate balance between recreation and conservation of resources?

You can help to craft our state parks strategic plan – Penn’s Parks for All – by attending the future public meetings, reading and commenting on the preliminary report when it’s ready, and promoting the public meeting dates and locations to residents and customers.

We have an amazing, award-winning state park system that we all share. As DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn states, “It’s important to ensure our state park system remains as relevant and valuable to future generations as it has been to current and past generations.”




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?