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 on September 27th in Washington, D.C., 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, on or about Oct 12, 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 

These are insightful takeaways from the Financing the Future roundtable. It seems that "making the case" for the value of parks and recreation services - economic, environmental, health, education and quality of life - is still our industry's major challenge (and opportunity). I don't have the statistics, but it would be interesting to see how parks and recreation funding as a percentage of total agency budget has fared during this protracted recession. A mayor or city council may tout their community's park systems, but the budget may reflect a disproportionately underfunded parks and recreation system. Public safety usually reigns in shrinking city budgets ... and often results in parks and recreation getting an increasingly smaller slice of the funding pie. All local parks and recreation agencies are just that...local...and must rely primarily on their local revenue sources, typically income or property taxes that must be shared with other government agencies. Local officials must really appreciate the value of their parks and recreation systems...and fund them as if they were essential to the citizens in their jurisdiction. Public officials can tell you how much they value parks and recreation, but the real proof is in the annual operating budget. Prioritizing the allocation of public funds to provide essential government services is a challenge for our local leaders. Parks and recreation agencies that generate their own revenue through a tax levy usually fare much better than their general fund supported counterparts. With sufficient, predictable funding citizens will recieve those essential services that they demand and deserve. by Mark Young on 10/08/2011

The end of thinking outside the box because there are no more boxes rang true at this Urban Institute discussion. What was working well in one community was totally foreign, or forbidden (socially unacceptable) in another. The idea of "pay to play" has been around for a long time, but offering only programs that are 100% sustainable through fees is difficult in some cities/agencies. Educating the public that parks and recreation need a dedicated funding source is one key to sustainability, and yet difficult to achieve in a down economy. Proving that funding parks and recreation serves more people in positive ways than funding public safety is being done in America's toughest neighborhoods, but making it ring true in less densely populated areas is a daunting task. The Urban Institute summit on parks and recreation will result in great ideas for needed research. We learned there is no magic bullet to end the debate and the issues will be discussed, evaluated and reshaped for many years to come. It is a start, and a step in a positive direction. Thanks to all the organizers and participants in making this day worthwhile. by Dianne Hoover on 10/17/2011

NRPA Members -- what do you think about the 15 take-aways from the Roundtable? Anything surprise you? What surprised me the most was when one of the mayors said at the end of the day, he supported communities that would vote for him for re-election. It wasn't the studies that showed enconomic benefit, crime reduction, etc. He admitted that he put or improved parks where he could get votes. If this is true what does it mean for your parks? by Barbara Tulipane on 10/18/2011


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