What the Park and Recreation Professional of the Future Needs to Know

May 1, 2015, Department, by Barbara Tulipane, CAE

NRPA President and CEO Barbara Tulipane, CAEOn the occasion of NRPA’s 50th anniversary we take pleasure in reflecting on the past five decades, reminiscing about how we got to where we are today. It is enjoyable to look back on how our field has evolved, but it is also the right time to look forward and speculate on what knowledge and resources a park and recreation professional will need to thrive in the coming century.

In the past 50 years, a number of key events have influenced our profession. Understanding the past helps predict the future and will help us be prepared. For if there is one thing we have learned during the past 50 years, it is that change is a constant in our field. 

Many consider the 1960s — when the modern iteration of NRPA was founded — to have been the golden age of parks and recreation. Cities and suburbs were booming and the public’s willingness to pay for new parks, new infrastructure and new services was at an all-time high.  

Unfortunately, that willingness to pay dried up. In California voters approved Proposition 13, a property tax-limiting amendment that capped what many saw as runaway government and the unlimited growth of property taxes through ever-higher assessments. Many other jurisdictions followed suit, and over the years the public’s appetite to fund many government services, not just parks and recreation, diminished greatly. This anti-tax philosophy continues today even though the desire for more park and recreation services has not abated. Thus, park and recreation departments are increasingly expected to offset the loss of general fund support with new forms of cost recovery — increased fees and charges, new forms of revenue and public/private partnerships that bring in additional funding.

The park and recreation industry has changed dramatically and so have the expectations for fully functioning professionals. The simple fact is, as the field changes, so must our skills. In 1965 only seven types of park and recreation facilities were categorized by NRPA. Compare that to the dozens of types of park and recreation facilities identified by agencies today, with more and more coming online virtually every day. New classifications of facilities are only a part of the picture, however. The skills needed by successful professionals have changed dramatically as well.

So what does the well-rounded professional need to know today? Here is a list — only a partial list, mind you — but it is a good starter for the professional of the 21st century:

Commitment to technology. Success means committing to technology fully and learning the most effective ways to utilize it. It means understanding and applying GIS knowledge as a means of visualizing relationships. It means understanding and using tools like PRORAGISTM to explain how economics, population, leisure activity, proximity and other datasets relate to each other and how all are critical for making decisions when deploying resources and personnel.

Full-range marketing and communications skills. Just knowing how to read, write and speak in public aren’t enough anymore. Success means mastering and using social media, learning how to go mobile, using apps to communicate with the public, and deploying your marketing skills in creative and innovative ways. 

Evaluation Design. Many have said it — if you don’t count, you don’t count. You must build in to program design methods to evaluate the effectiveness of what you do and the investments you make. And if you don’t base decisions on information and data you have collected, even in ways as simple as counting visitors or understanding peak-use demand, you cannot reliably estimate the impact and benefits of what you do.

Strategic Positioning. If there is one thing that the new PRORAGIS data shows in the just-released Field Report, it is that professionals need to know how to interpret data to communicate to elected officials and decision-makers how parks and recreation provides solutions to problems and saves taxpayer money. Without question, the well-equipped professional must know how to position his or her agency as a problem-solver, money-saver and provider of the public good. As more and more responsibilities are assigned to park and recreation agencies, this is becoming a vital skill set. 

Collaboration. To succeed in the future you must have the knowledge and skills to build partnerships, whether for fundraising, public/private partnerships, community- and friends-raising, or interagency cooperation. 

Providing the expertise required to successfully manage and program these facilities has led us to create comprehensive tools like PRORAGIS and educational offerings that will keep all park and recreation professionals on the cutting edge and moving forward. A recent demonstration for agency directors on how PRORAGIS can instantly show walk and drive times, recreation expenditures, leisure activities, income level, age and racial demographics based on specific locations in a community — not just now, but projected five years into the future — left them speechless. 

If you don’t think you that you need to apply any of these tools, resources and skill sets to your work, you are running the risk of becoming irrelevant and missing the opportunities to better serve your community.

The skills required of today’s professional look very different than they did 50 years ago, no doubt about it. But NRPA is committed to providing you the resources and education that you need. Our future depends on it. 

Barbara Tulipane, CAE, is NRPA's President and CEO.