On March 27-29, more than 230 delegates from 45 states and the District of Columbia gathered in Washington, D.C., to advocate for a common agenda for parks and recreation funding, learn about current national legislative issues, share facts and data to support the value of parks and recreation, and network with fellow professionals and park advocates.
Highlights of the 2012 NRPA Legislative Forum included an opening education session on overcoming park funding challenges, a national policy dinner with presentations on obesity and transportation alternatives, a congressional briefing featuring Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) and presentations on preventative health and park conservation efforts, and of course, the heart of the Legislative Forum—dozens of meetings between park and recreation professionals and advocates and their states’ Congressional representatives, senators, and staffers.
Funding the Future
Of the many issues facing the field of parks and recreation, none generates more buzz than dealing with a changing fiscal environment at all levels of government. That’s why NRPA chose two funding experts for the opening session. Matthew Zieper, national research director for the Trust for Public Land, and Tom Murphy, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute and three-term mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, addressed theoretical and practical dimensions in “Conservation of Parks in a Time of Fiscal Crisis.”
Zieper described the state of public support for funding acquisitions of land for parks and open spaces. Ballot initiatives saw a sharp spike in public approval beginning in the mid-1990s that continue to this day. “It’s a bedrock value the public cares about,” Zieper said.
Citing data from TPL’s 2012 Conservation Almanac, more than 400 of the ballot initiatives the San Francisco-based organization has advised on have passed public muster during the two–decade period. New England states were particularly active in open space acquisition. Other states with significant open space acquisition activity included Oregon; South Platte near Denver; Duluth, Minnesota; Chicago’s Bloomington Trail; and Fourth Ward Park in Atlanta, Georgia.
Zieper noted that the common denominator behind such strong public support was a concern for water quality. In nearly every case, the public saw preserved open space as a means to protect water resources.
“People will vote to raise taxes to do this,” Zieper said, adding, “Oftentimes, you can combine water resources, trails, and parks” to give the public ballot initiatives they can support wholeheartedly.
Our challenge is everybody likes parks but they think they just happen,” Tom Murphy, Mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2005, told Legislative Forum attendees.
That was just one of the challenges Murphy faced when he became mayor of a major rust belt city that had once prospered from the wealth generated by its many steel mills.
“We transformed Pittsburgh because we valued open space,” Murphy said. “We didn’t have access to rivers, and part of the deal was to have a continuous park on the rivers.”
Murphy described how they employed sticks and carrots to lure major corporations (such as PNC Bank) to relocate to the Pittsburgh waterfront—in ways that left open space between their buildings and the rivers.
“You must be relentless about telling your story,” Murphy said.
He cited negotiations with the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers organization which wanted to utilize all its property, right down to the riverbank for practice fields. Murphy says the city held fast and the Steelers compromised, and today both sides are happy.
“These are 100-year decisions you are making,” Murphy said. “Don’t accept the reply that ‘We don’t have the money’—there’s always money if it’s a priority.
“Remember, great cities have great parks.”
Parks get Americans moving—in ways that improve public health and enrich the national transportation system. Public Policy Dinner speakers Dr. Heidi Blanck (chief of Obesity Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Greg Nadeau (deputy administrator for the Federal Highway Administration) addressed the vital roles parks play in getting kids active, raising the standard for healthy vending and concessions, taking cars off the roads, and providing the public with transportation choices.
“Too many kids are struggling with obesity,” Blanck said. She went on to outline the implications of this generation’s growing weight problem for both the national defense and the fabric of the U.S. economy. From rising incidences of military recruits being too physically unfit to serve their country, to chronic health problems that decrease worker productivity, Blanck outlined an obesity problem that weakens our nation in alarming ways.
“So, what are the solutions?” she posed.
A catalog of ideas and resources followed. Park systems can negotiate cost-neutral healthy vending and concession options, ensure that adequate water stations are available to patrons, host farmers’ markets, and partner with local health care systems. Blanck also challenged park agencies to use technology and media wisely: to gather and layer public health data into their GIS mapping, to guide park visitors via smart phone apps to drinking water stations and healthy food options, and to tap into federal government public health resources online.
According to Greg Nadeau, automobile transportation alternatives are “good for the wallet, the environment, and the health of the community.” Nadeau addressed NRPA members in the midst of a week of unusual partisanship, as legislators debated whether to extend the Transportation Bill. He affirmed DOT’s commitment to increasing transportation choices—including options for cyclists, pedestrians, and people in wheelchairs.
He also commended park agencies for taking leadership in their communities—by participating in such transportation initiatives as Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School.
The bottom line, according to Nadeau, has nothing to do with partisan politics. It is, simply, “using the entire surface transportation network to make our country a better, healthier place.”
Wednesday’s Hill Visit Day opened with an early-morning briefing for Congressional staffers on the value and importance of parks and recreation. Representative Mike McIntyre (D-NC), a previous NRPA Congressional Award winner and founder of the Congressional Caucus on Youth Sports, focused his remarks on a new Government Accountability Office report on school-based physical education and sports programs (www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-350). He noted that in the past 30 years, childhood obesity has tripled, that the direct economic cost of childhood obesity could be as a high $14.3 billion per year, and that increased physical activity offers not only an antidote for obesity—but keys to improved attitudes, attention, and behavior.
Budget cuts around the country, however, have created formidable challenges for many schools in providing enough physical activity for students. Facilities are often inadequate, transportation costs for sports programs too high, and expert, team-building coaches difficult to retain. McIntyre emphasized the character-building aspects of team sports and urged parks and schools to work together in increasing youth sports participation.
Richard Hamburg of the Trust for America’s Health had more to say about the broad-scale consequences of inadequate funding. Noting that preventative health systems are chronically underfunded (having retreated to 1999-2000 levels), he outlined his organization’s two goals—developing a national prevention strategy and ensuring mandatory preventative health funding. He described how grants to 61 communities are resulting in new partnerships between traditional health providers and non-traditional partners such as parks and recreation. If current five-year goals just for reducing obesity could be reached, Hamburg estimates the savings at $29 billion. He urged park and recreation advocates to stand their ground and support their positions with similar data.
Gregory Miller, president of the American Hiking Society, wrapped up the briefing with his thoughts about what it means to be in nature—is nature “out there” in the wilderness or is it right here amidst the built environment? He challenged Congress not to just think of conservation in terms of large pristine landscapes but also in terms of local parks and nearby nature.
“Near is the new far,” he mused. He noted that conservation of plants and animals fosters a human connection to nature, protects biodiversity, and create a more livable city. Nature-focused neighborhoods tend to be more valuable neighborhoods since nature is a core human need. Recreation is the best way to foster a conservation ethic—with no need to travel to the backcountry.
As the briefing concluded, Legislative Forum attendees were already beginning a day of Hill visits. Attendees were well-equipped for any situation, with handouts and “leave-behinds” for each legislative priority, not to mention small laminated cards with brief notes that could be used as reminders or left behind as well. The Indiana delegation even had an opportunity to try out a literal “elevator speech” when a representative they were unable to connect with earlier in the day turned out to be waiting with them in the lobby for an elevator.
A typical Hill visit opened with some light banter about high school sports, a new hiking trail, or other local news back in their home state—progressing into cordial discussion of topics like LWCF as staffers asked questions and took notes. Relating national legislative priorities to local effects proved to be crucial.
After a day of fanning out across the Hill, weary attendees regrouped at a reception at a Capitol Hill restaurant to network and compare notes on the day’s meetings. Thursday, attendees had one final education session on how to continue their advocacy at home.
Next year’s Legislative Forum will be March 19-21, 2013.