Making Smart Parks

May 1, 2016, Feature, by Edward Krafcik

Real-time data collected from patrons using technology in parks can help staff with better program planning.In the past 10 years, technology has rapidly disrupted industry after industry, becoming deeply intertwined with everything we do. The ways we get around, connect with our friends, meet new people and do business have been revolutionized. Even the infrastructure of our cities and the buildings we live in have been transformed. Why, then, has technology been so slow to find its way into parks and open spaces?

Is this slow adoption of technology causing our parks to be less desirable to, or worse, less used by, the growing connected generations? Are park managers missing major opportunities to improve the management of park networks with the aid of technology? 

To answer these questions, it is important to first define how technology can be implemented in a park setting, clarifying what value it provides. Soofa, a startup out of MIT’s Media Lab, calls these technology-enhanced parks “Smart Parks.” Since its inception in 2014 and through a partnership with Boston New Urban Mechanics, Cisco and Verizon, Soofa has worked with numerous innovative cities and park departments across the United States and Canada to implement its internet-connected, solar-powered park benches in public and private settings. Soofa’s philosophy dictates that effective technology in parks provides a clear benefit for the public while adding value to park departments. This includes, for example, improving operations management and programming. When operations and programming become more effective, visitors enjoy parks more, giving park agencies additional ideas for improvement. 

Creating technology-enabled Smart Parks does not require a monumental shift in management practices or departmental organization, nor does their creation require excessive capital expenditure. Quite the opposite. Soofa’s approach is to start small and build on success with incremental changes. Through testing ideas with innovative partners ranging from the size and scale of the NYC Parks Department to the city of Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, with a population of approximately 20,000 people, Soofa has begun building the foundation for a nation of Smart Parks. 

Why Smart Parks?

The need for creating Smart Parks arises in part from the demand of park users. Today, connectivity is a basic facet of life. For many, connection is a lifeline. It’s no surprise, then, that amenities like public Wi-Fi and free phone charging have made their way into public places and spaces. 

A Smart Park goes far beyond just giving connected generations what they want. By creating Smart Parks, park directors can begin to harness the energy of people and groups who over the years may have become disconnected from public spaces and the outdoors. After all, parks facing threats of budget cuts or complete removal in favor of tax-generating new developments will find it extremely powerful to have highly energized and passionate people on their side. Look no further than the Lawn on D in Boston’s Seaport Neighborhood as an example. This park is technology-enabled and has become home to popular gatherings like concerts, food truck festivals and numerous community-driven events. People love it and will fight for it to remain and grow. 

In addition to engaging younger and more connected generations, Smart Parks can help park agencies manage amenities in new ways. In a first-of-its-kind pilot project with the NYC Parks Department, Soofa Benches, containing solar-powered sensor technology, will measure the pedestrian usage of a large park in the Bronx. The data collected will include a basic tallying of park users entering and exiting the park. Knowing this information in real-time allows baseline usage rates to be captured. From this information, the park’s “activity score” will be developed. With activity scores in hand, department staff can begin to measure the efficacy of programming and capital expenditures. This eliminates the guesswork around how much a community basketball tournament increased park activity, or how many people have been using a new entrance built with last year’s capital improvements budget. 

Knowing the answers to these questions is increasingly important as budgets become tighter and measurement becomes the status quo. The most innovative park departments will take action by seeking out new technologies and partnering with startups and established players in the industry. It is most important to remember that making big changes doesn’t require taking dramatic action. As Bobbi Nance, senior manager of strategy and innovation for the Park District of Oak Park in Illinois told us, “Sometimes park departments tend to overlook the value of pilot projects.” 

Small interventions go a long way in getting the department on the same page around innovative technologies and, importantly, demonstrate to the public that meaningful and exciting change is actually happening.  

Edward Krafcik is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Soofa.