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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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.

50 ways parks and recreation pay out everyday!

Investment in these diverse community assets always produces a high return—with profitable benefits for all.

11174648 - multi-ethnic group of people outdoors.

Today’s recreation and parks are not your momma’s playground program! They are multifaceted physical and socioeconomic systems that daily deliver the foundational needs and essential human services of our modern existence. It’s not just fun and games anymore!

So much of what constitutes the appeal and livability of our communities is our direct connection to our public spaces and our natural and cultural assets. Their facilities and features build a strong and resilient infrastructure. Their recreational opportunities bolster our wellness and life satisfaction. Together, our park and recreation systems contribute expansively to a healthy economy, environment and society in at least 50 tangible ways—here hyperlinked to corroborating research and authenticating documentation.

  1. facilitate physical activity and healthy lifestyles
  2. advance social equity and access
  3. preserve and sustain environmental quality
  4. connect people to nature for human health benefits
  5. facilitate positive youth and family development
  6. reduce carbon footprints and pollution
  7. nurture physical, mental, emotional therapy
  8. promote healthy food production and choices
  9. create popular public spaces through green infrastructure
  10. preserve wildlife habitat and connective corridors
  11. administer preventative treatment for drug abuse, and criminal and risky behaviors
  12. reduce stormwater management costs
  13. fortify tourism and economic development
  14. improve physical, cognitive, social and emotion functioning of people with special needs
  15. foster creative play
  16. mitigate urban blight and brownfields
  17. stimulate business viability and diversity
  18. reduce heat island effects and energy costs
  19. buffer extremes of flood and drought
  20. foster community engagement
  21. develop athletic skills and healthy competition
  22. preserve and enhance biodiversity
  23. facilitate and promote public-private partnerships
  24. strengthen motor and cognitive skills in young children
  25. build experiential learning, team cooperation and leadership
  26. rejuvenate mental clarity and alleviate stress and attention deficit disorders
  27. safeguard park visitors and recreation participants
  28. foster risk resilience and independent mobility skills in children
  29. enhance property values
  30. facilitate meaningful leisure experiences contributing to quality of life
  31. provide teen mentoring, workforce preparation, and vocational training
  32. boost student performance and educational attainment
  33. administer child nutrition and food distribution programs
  34. create multimodal transportation alternatives and reduce traffic congestion
  35. reduce healthcare costs
  36. rejuvenate employee productivity and stimulate creativity
  37. provide forums for public art, entertainment and expression
  38. expedite medical recovery and boost immune systems
  39. foster diversity and cross-cultural cooperation
  40. reduce crime and increase community safety
  41. enable access to economic and socio-cultural goods
  42. improve air quality
  43. promote and regenerate community resilience, cohesion, and vibrancy
  44. generate $140 billion in economic activity and support 1 million jobs
  45. preserve and interpret historical and cultural resources
  46. reduce taxes
  47. stimulate recreation-related equipment and supplies sales
  48. mitigate youth crime and deviant juvenile behaviors
  49. establish a sense of place and belonging
  50. serve as civic repositories of social capital and community wellbeing

(Please contribute additional ways, references and resources!)

Park and recreation systems are the attractive masterpieces of our most vibrant cities and communities. It’s there we connect nature and neighborhoods for our individual, social, environmental, and economic well-being. Investment in these diverse community assets always produces a high return—with profitable benefits for all.

Don’t be a Twit

Curtailing or eliminating park and rec services only cuts off our nose to spite our face

hand on chain-link fenceRoald Dahl, the celebrated author, wrote a delightfully disgusting story for children about a wretched, extra-specially horrible couple named Mr. and Mrs. Twit. Not only are they dirty, ugly, and mean-spirited, they are also stupid, and fall prey to their own nasty tricks.

The Twits built their house without any windows, because they didn’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry peeping in to see what they were doing. It never occurred to them that it made it more of a prison than a home.

It’s the Twits I think about when I hear of another municipality cutting its recreation and park budget.

Sure, you can build a house more cheaply without windows. It’ll save on materials and labor. It may reduce heating and cooling costs. It may even save on maintenance. But who would want to live there?

I contend that recreation and park services are an integral, essential feature of any well-built, open community. They must not be mere window-dressing—just a frivolity for good times, but the first to discard when things turn grave.

Park and recreation services impact every aspect of modern living, from stimulating our economic activity and mutual wellness, to safeguarding our natural environment and collective resiliency, to strengthening our social capital and communal livability.

These essential services don’t just offer benefits to be enjoyed only in prosperity, but advance practical solutions to many of our most intractable issues. That these channels become all the more critical to real people during economic downturns, societal distresses, and natural calamities are all the more reasons to keep investing in their outcomes.

Where else are you going to find the resources and expertise to nurture physical, mental and emotional therapy? Fortify economic development and tourism? Administer food distribution programs? Reduce crime and increase community safety? Foster diversity and cross-cultural cooperation? Create transportation alternatives and reduce traffic congestion? Preserve and enhance biodiversity? Administer preventative treatment for drug abuse and risky behaviors? Facilitate positive youth and family development? Strengthen motor and cognitive skills in young children? Expedite medical recovery and boost immune systems? Raise student performance and educational attainment? Establish a sense of place and belonging? And provide many other critical services?

Through integral park and recreation systems, that’s where.

Our collective wellbeing is framed in our communities’ windows to recreation. Not only do they enhance the desirability of living and working there, shed light on the issues, enable an exchange of fresh ideas, and facilitate engagement between diverse groups where there had been only walls before, they are the most effectual conduits for progress we have.

Curtailing or eliminating them only cuts off our nose to spite our face—which is also counter to the resolve of sensible people.

A Penn State study revealed that 91 percent of Pennsylvanians support keeping existing funds dedicated to parks, recreation, trails, conservation and open space. And 82 percent support increasing funds for these purposes, even if it would cost the average household $10 more annually.

Here’s what we need to view from our window on the future: for our own good, we must continue to invest in parks, public spaces, recreation and green infrastructure.

See, it’s the windows that make the profound difference between a mausoleum and a home. Just who are we investing for? Don’t be a Twit.

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?

Park and Recreation’s Big Picture Issues

a starting discussion to improve our industry’s comprehensive benefits.

hikingThe park and recreation profession is a diverse and comprehensive industry that improves personal, social, environmental, and economic health; promotes unifying and comprehensive solutions to societal issues; and advances standards of living wherever its unique contributions are sought and valued.

In preparation for developing a series of statewide issue-based strategic plans, I am enlisting help to articulate the big-picture issues that continue to restrict the industry’s full potential.

These issues, here in draft form, but when objectively presented and referenced, may then serve as a starting point to build political and operational strategies to improve the overall capability of the industry’s delivery of comprehensive benefits.

Please add your suggestions below to clarify or refute these issues or identify others, as well as for supporting references and strategies; or send them by September 30 to herd@prps.org.

1. Universal Value Recognition

A) Most governmental agencies and public service organizations do not readily recognize or identify a positive contributory role within their purview for parks and recreation as a go-to industry to help meet modern social issues (i.e. health, social services, public works, community development, etc.); and B) While the profession is an essential community service and problem-solver, and one of the highest enablers of wellness and life satisfaction, many professionals and volunteers don’t sufficiently engage in their responsibilities to evidence that belief.

2. Effective Business and Leadership Modeling

The traditional business model of park and recreation services is outmoded and ineffectual, as is the paradigm of autocratic leadership in a pluralist society. Many agencies lack the abilities to assimilate best management and leadership practices from nongovernmental applications, and to create publicly responsive and relevant value propositions, a performance-driven organization, sustainable funding, and compelling community leadership.

3. Sufficient and Sustainable Funding

Lack of adequate funding prolongs and exacerbates social inequities, environmental harm, and unsafe and poorly maintained facilities. It stifles economic prospects, innovative solutions, new opportunities, and responsive services, as well as the vocational appeal to new careerists.

4. Industry-wide Integration

The comprehensive park and recreation industry includes many diverse disciplines and related fields, but a lack of full and continual interagency and interdisciplinary awareness, cooperation and integrated services impedes the highest effectiveness and influence of the entire profession.

5. Professional development

Many routes lead into the dynamic industry in a changing society, but many professionals do not actively develop leadership and maintain adequate training in all competencies. Many do not seek further training after their formal educations, keep up with changes and trends in the profession, or sustain their own active learning or self-improvement plans, which effectively and continually diminish their own capabilities and influence.

6. Community Resilience

Cities and communities everywhere are facing unprecedented environmental, social, and economic challenges, which in turn make them more vulnerable to degradation and less able to restore, let alone improve, complex services and systems that meet high livability standards. In its unique central role, the park and recreation profession unites people across social, racial, and economic divides, and can be a catalyst to help communities become more resilient and better adapted to thrive.

7. State and National Leadership

While the National Recreation and Park Association provides leadership in many national issues, it remains a challenge for statewide professional associations to rise to a similar position of influence in state and regional matters. Without establishing the state association as a readily recognized industry leader and trusted change agent, interpreter of societal trends, and advocate of public policy, it cannot achieve its fullest potential in relevant capacity and profound influence for its members, profession and public.

Thank you very much for your thoughtful response!

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