The End of Thinking Outside the Box

By Phil Hayward | Posted on October 7, 2011

At the special roundtable, “Financing the Future” hosted by NRPA and the Urban Institute in September, one comment in particular came through loud and clear: There are no more boxes to think outside of anymore. How true. In a full day of frank and passionate exchanges among not only parks professionals and advocates, but also mayors of U.S. cities, speaker after speaker offered ideas, insight, and counsel for what ails the financing of parks and recreation in America. Not everyone agreed with each other, and that was good. Much common ground was identified, which more than ever is crucial for moving forward.

NRPA and the Urban Institute, with cooperation from the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities, partnered to bring high level decision makers together in one setting to tackle this most vexing of issues facing parks today—how to ensure that there is sustainable long-term funding for public parks.

Having the four current and former mayors discussing their struggles to reconcile idealism with political reality provided the dimension needed to ensure the conversation stayed outside the much lamented “box.” With representatives from the highest level of virtually every corner of the world affecting parks—agency directors, citizen advocates, think tanks, vendors, the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, philanthropists, architects, the White House, hospitality, and the National Park Service—no idea went unexamined, but many were challenged.

The organizers, NRPA and UI, intend to take the lessons learned and the questions posed in the day-long roundtable sessions to craft a research and action agenda for moving forward. This working discussion will serve as the basis to craft new knowledge and resources for parks and recreation professionals and advocates.

Following are 15 key take-away points from the day. There were many more. And not all of these key points are outright prescriptions—some are deeply considered questions posed by urban park directors. Look for a full-report on these and other points of discussion in the near future from NRPA and its monthly magazine, Parks & Recreation. Also, in October, check the NRPA website for the audio recordings of Sessions 2, “Making Market Based Approaches for Parks and Recreation Work,” with a panel from the private sector, and Session 3, “Tackling Fiscal Challenges: Case Studies of Cities and Counties,” with a panel of park and recreation directors from large urban park systems.

Fifteen key take-aways from the Roundtable:

  • Do not rely on continued direct federal funding. Those days are gone.
  • Even when municipalities want to do the right thing, it's difficult. Former St. Petersburg, Florida, Mayor Rick Baker reported having to lobby the state capitol to obtain permission erect a stop sign. 
  • It is possible to do joint ventures with school boards, if you are creative, cooperative, and sometimes willing to meet it more than halfway. 
  • With regard to maintenance, if you commit to a public/private partnership, you must commit to funding the long-term care and maintenance of the project. If that can't be done, don't do it. 
  • Selective targeted real estate development can influence population growth and other development in cities when and where you want it. 
  • Beware of research as a single solution—elected officials often ask for yet more data when plenty is available. Equally, be prepared for the unintended (and sometimes unwanted) results of research. 
  • Creation of a land bank from distressed real estate could simultaneously create more parks and green space while reducing the oversupply that has depressed real estate values and thus the economy. 
  • Corporations and organizations often choose to relocate to municipalities with the highest quality of life—and parks and recreation are a key factor.
  • When a state or municipality cuts the components that contribute to its quality of life, it can expect to see important segments of its population to relocate to where quality of life is valued more.
  • Knowing the true cost of your services is a competitive advantage. This is critical knowledge for businesses, and it must become critical knowledge for public parks and recreation.
  • It is possible for a park agency to be 100 percent self sustaining, but becoming so can mean having to cut services and programs to those least able to afford it.
  • Every dollar raised is a dollar that does not have to be cut. 
  • Government has been here for 250 years; others who come and go won't always be around.
  • Volunteers are not a threat to unions and some are the best advocates for parks and recreation. 
  • Legislators and elected officials need to look beyond the “collection gate” to the overall economic and social impact of parks. These are the reasons people support parks, not just the revenue collected.

Phil Hayward is the Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.