Diversifying for the Benefit of People and Parks

April 1, 2016, Department, by Tyler Tapps and Tim Wall

What can we do to extend opportunities for participation in parks and recreation to a broader spectrum of society, including more racially and economically diverse Americans?Our parks are gateways to new worlds, allowing us to meaningfully connect with the beauty and wonder of natural places while learning, growing and fostering a profound appreciation of natural resources. Yet not all groups of Americans have the opportunity to take equal advantage of park and recreation facilities. Families from marginalized, under-represented communities comprise 22 percent of park and rec users, which is well below the comparable rate for 80 percent of Caucasians based on results of a study released in 2011 by the Department of the Interior. Also, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, under-resourced children have disproportionately high incidences of several health concerns: infant mortality, chronic diseases such as asthma and poorer nutrition. They also face access barriers to quality health care, and have lower immunization rates and higher levels of obesity and its complications. Meanwhile, we know access to parks and open green spaces can help increase health, community and longevity.

Parks and recreation foment healthy, naturally connected living. So, what can we do to extend opportunities for participation to a broader spectrum of society, including more racially and economically diverse Americans, who would gain great benefits from being in nature and participating in recreation?

Broadening Professional and Recreational Access

When considering future park and recreation leaders, we must confront the challenges of access on two fronts: engaging all communities to share the benefits of participating in parks and recreation, thereby developing a connection to and love for such activities, and recruiting and preparing new leaders from diverse backgrounds. 

City, state and federal parks and recreation entities differ in many ways. Some are rural, some are urban and some have designated funding sources while others do not. Some focus on adult programming and facility development while others focus on youth, outdoor, conservation, preservation and health issues. Some provide financial support for people with economic disadvantages to have better access engaging in recreational activities. Some design special programs for groups with different cultural and ethnical backgrounds. This collective diversity among the mission and purpose of various park and recreation entities is one of the great strengths of our field. Preserving that diversity, and taking care to ensure those who carry out their agency’s respective missions are equally diverse, is essential if we hope to serve the needs of our modern clientele.

In our experiences working or participating with park and recreation agencies, we have discovered that many share a common belief: It is vital to embrace diversity to fulfill their primary missions. We should advocate for diversity in policy, programming and personnel. Park and recreation organizations must strongly express how racial and ethnic diversity should be considered in strategic, land and capital planning. Diversity:


1     Strengthens communities and workplaces. Park and recreation programs within diverse settings support citizenship while developing respect for others and nature. 

2     Enriches educational experiences. Education is a staple for all park and recreation agencies. We learn from those whose experiences, beliefs and perspectives are different from our own, and those lessons can be best taught in diverse environments by diverse park and recreation professionals.

3     Enhances America’s economic competitiveness. Financial constraint is a primary issue for agencies at the national, state and municipal levels. Sustaining prosperity requires us to make effective use of the talents and abilities of all citizens. 

4     Promotes healthy communication skills. We do not have to go far to find the research-driven benefits of being outdoors and participating in recreation programs. Diversity challenges stereotypes, encourages critical thinking and helps people to improve communication with people from different backgrounds.

It is our professional obligation to improve inclusion. As global diversity evolves, the park and recreation field should positively and proactively embrace this change. It is essential to determine and implement best practices that encourage more inclusivity and access for families from diverse and under-represented backgrounds to the natural, healthy settings provided by parks and recreation. It is time that we as professionals promote and enhance diversity within the park systems to broaden the culture and bring the parks to the people.


Tyler Tapps, Ph.D., CPRP, is a Graduate Coordinator/Assistant Professor at Northwest Missouri State University’s School of Health Science and Wellness.Tim Wall, Ed.D, is the Dean of the School of Education at Northwest Missouri State University.