Local park and recreation agencies are positioned to be leaders in the environmental movement. But, given the current economic and political climate, what does the future hold for those about to enter the field and those already working in it? Parks & Recreation magazine recently sat down with Kevin Doyle, a national environmental careers expert, to get his perspective about industry trends and opportunities and the skills park and recreation professionals will need to possess in order to be competitive and to optimize the impact they can have on the communities they serve.
Parks & Recreation magazine: What trends in environmental careers should park agencies pay attention to?
Kevin Doyle: 2017 is shaping up to be a very interesting year for trends in a wide variety of environmental career sectors, including those who work in occupations related to parks and recreation. Let’s start with a trend that everyone will recognize: political disruption. Environmental budget cuts at both the federal and state level have been proposed, and these proposals come on top of previous underinvestments. Even if proposed cuts don’t materialize, just the expectation of budget concerns is likely to put a pause on hiring, especially for new full-time workers. In an environment of uncertainty, it seems reasonable to expect park directors to adopt a status quo approach in terms of hiring, except for larger projects that are already funded, or under way.
On the positive side, there are a number of trends that have been growing over several years that should be good for the parks workforce. These are work innovations generating new assignments for existing crews that will require new skills training, and may potentially require new hires as well. One of those trends is the growth of green stormwater infrastructure “GSI” approaches in cities and towns, and the growing realization that park facilities can play a key role in the successful implementation of “GSI” plans.
Progressive city leaders understand communities pushing for green infrastructure alternatives will achieve results most quickly if they lead by example. This means designing and implementing strategies that use existing public land and right of ways for green infrastructure projects for stormwater — especially parks. We’re already seeing this “lead by example” approach in many cities, with an accompanying in the need for appropriately trained public workers, contractors and subcontractors. Bringing together green stormwater infrastructure and park design, installation, maintenance and monitoring will be an important employment and training driver in 2017, and beyond.
On March 27, Jobs for the Future released a major report about the employment and training implications of urban green infrastructure. Among other things, JFF notes the large number of urban water utilities – often in collaboration with their parks departments – that are supporting a National Green Infrastructure Certification Program to institutionalize job training needs for “GSI” workers.
Another positive that pushes back against the budget cutting narrative is that people love parks. Over and over again, surveys indicate that the American public values their local, state and national parks. Whether they are willing to pay the freight to maintain them is, of course, another matter. But, people in many states are realizing they can no longer postpone some of the backlog in maintenance and, at least a dent in some of that backlog is going to need to be made.
I would love to say that that positives outweigh the negatives this year, but I note that even in my home state of Massachusetts, we’re looking at budget cuts in the Department of Conservation and Recreation. So, I think the best we can expect for 2017 for public workers is status quo.
P&R: What skills should park and recreation employees look to gain in 2017?
Doyle: This is a great question because no one knows better than NRPA that the skill sets needed to really serve the public and maintain our parks are becoming more sophisticated. Keeping things simple, we could break them down into two different areas. One skill set has to do with dealing with ecological resources, and the other with dealing with people.
Let’s take people skills first. Citizens expect more and more from their parks. They expect an experience. For some people that experience is just to be quiet and enjoy small and large natural areas in otherwise crowded and developed urban areas. Other people, especially younger generations, perhaps want parks that are linked to the digital world through mobile devices. Yet another group wants the parks to serve as a background for active recreation. They want ball fields and other kinds of places to play. And still others want their parks to be a backdrop for environmental and cultural education and entertainment. This is not new, of course, but the price of not delivering on these expectations has never been higher.
Park professionals need to have the skills required to plan for these competing interests, and to make sure they are giving people a wide variety of different experiences. That’s not easy, especially if jurisdictions where the overall acres of park land are not growing, and existing parks must accommodate multiple uses that meet the needs of divergent citizen groups.
On the ecological resources side, dealing with water in parks and incorporating water into parks will be among the important themes. I’ve already mentioned green stormwater infrastructure and the skill sets that go with incorporating things like rain gardens, bioswales and other best management practices into parks. In addition to that, parks are incorporating more native plants and recreating more native ecosystems generally. This means less use of big, grassy expanses that you can maintain through “mow, blow and go” maintenance. Managing a more natural environment, while also incorporating spaces for all of the other activities people want from their parks, means that parks managers will need to have an array of staff people, contractors and subcontractors that can offer all of the needed skill sets.
P&R: Where are the potential opportunities for parks in 2017 (in terms of funding, partnership, etc.)?
Doyle: The opportunities for parks are huge in 2017. You mentioned the word “partnerships.” Partnerships are not only opportunities; they are also an essential tool for parks management in 2017, and certainly beyond. The need for deeper partnerships connects to the budgetary pressures that we discussed at the top of the interview. As financial constraints get more compelling, parks managers are finding ways to get work done and expand the opportunities that parks offer through partnerships. Fortunately, many partners are ready to serve! Nonprofits, corporate interests, small businesses, youth and scout troops, garden clubs…there are lots of potential partners.
High-quality volunteer coordination skills are very much in demand. It’s not easy to really take advantage of partnerships and make them work for you to get done things that you wouldn’t otherwise get done with your limited paid staff.
In terms of funding there are new sources of funding that parks managers have used in the past but they are going to have to try to find ways to use much more creatively in 2017 and beyond. I’ll suggest three that seem to hold possibilities:
- One is foundation funding focused on resilience. “Resilience” may be the new buzzword, but, just because it’s a buzzword doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. Resilience is an essential thing for urban and regional and national parks. Because it’s hot right now, there are groups of corporate and foundation funders that want to find ways to invest in urban resilience, and parks are right at the center of that. So, parks managers could be looking to sources of corporate and foundation funding to underwrite the cost of even some of their basic work because that work ties to urban resilience.
- A second thing is, I think, there is even more possibility than ever before of getting money directly from people, especially wealthier people in cities who value their parks. “Friends of the Parks”-type groups have often been underutilized for their financial fundraising possibilities, even while being well used for volunteer labor and other ways of engaging people. I think that there are people who want to make absolutely sure that local parks remain jewels of their city areas.
- And then, lastly, at the state and even national level, we need well-organized campaigns. We need a campaign for citizen action to make sure that those budgets for parks are not cut, and are actually increased. And, I think community residents in many places are ready to be called to task by talented organizers. Skilled campaign coordinators can organize people to say, “We are here, we care, and we will fight for these budgets.”
P&R: What are the potential threats or negative trends worth noting?
Doyle: I mentioned the most serious negative trend, which is simply that there is an effort afoot to cut budgets and, especially, to cut the expenditures that go to public workers associated with retirement, health and other benefits. In many places, there is a willingness to spend money on things that need to be done, but a preference for using contractors and subcontractors instead of supporting the public workforce. None of this is new, of course. It’s just my impression that the attack on the public workforce is perhaps worse than ever.
Another serious treat, in terms of the very long view, are the problems coming, especially to coastal areas and low rainfall areas — two completely different ecosystems — because of climate change. Climate change is here, it’s real, it’s affecting our lands, and it’s going to affect parks. Parks that are in coastal areas are going to be concerned about sea-level rise, storm surges and about coastal flooding. Parks that are in drought areas, in more desert and low rainfall areas are going to be concerned about fires, droughts and the need to use water more effectively, incorporating xeriscaping and native plant use to make sure that those parks are alive and well even if rainfall is less than usual.
P&R: Why should people who are interested in employment in the green job sectors look to parks for employment?
Doyle: One of the great things about parks is that they are resources that have appeal and the involvement of multiple stakeholders. So, when you think about the scope of environmental careers you think about things like the maintenance of ecological resources. You think about thing like woodlands, urban forestry and other kinds of resources, wetlands, riparian zones, streams and rivers, greenways and so forth. All the maintenance and installation and monitoring that needs to happen to keep those ecological resources healthy.
Then, you also think about the incorporation of those more natural areas into urban centers, so you start to connect with things like parking and land use planning and landscape architecture and so forth. And then you begin to reach out to paid services that are in parks, things like swimming pools and ball fields and late night movies on the green and so forth, and this begins to reach out to the fields of tourism and hospitality, so there are so called “parks jobs” there as well.
So, you see where this is going? The effort to maintain a healthy park system, instead of just the individual park sites, means that you need to reach out to all the different kinds of professions and occupations, including accounting and payroll and economics and business planning. When you think about that quintessential, iconic park ranger, the person who is actually on-site wearing the hat and the uniform, that is just part of the overall parks workforce, which expands out to include all sorts of other industries that surround the park, that support the park and that make them real sources of beauty and excitement and recreation for people everywhere.
P&R: Does the new administration bring any opportunities to the green careers sector? Any challenges?
Doyle: I think the new administration does bring opportunities. I say that and I really mean it. I know it may be hard to imagine given some of the statements, especially the immediate budget at the federal level. I think that the opportunity lies in bringing out the support on all sides — on the Republican side, on the Democratic side, on the Independent side – bringing out a support for parks, which is huge, which is real and which, I think, people only need to be asked more effectively to be part of that supporting network. Sometimes, it’s easier to bring out support for something when it feels threatened. And, I think that that moment is here for us, so in a strange kind of counterintuitive way sometimes a good thing that can bring out the best in all of us who want to support this amazing resource is somebody who says that they question its value. So that’s a possible upside.
The negative side goes without saying. If somebody says that an already stressed budget, a budget that’s already much, much lower than it needs to be, especially on the maintenance side, is going to be cut further, that’s serious. I also mentioned the things about climate change and, sort of, a negative assessment of science in general. Twenty-first century parks management incorporates ecological science, and when people begin to question the role of science in managing natural resources, it give one a sense of pause and makes one a bit concerned.
The opportunity side is that the scientific community and the science education community are very galvanized to support our value. And, as you know, a big part of what happens inside parks is science education for school children. I think that actually anyone who tries to push back against it is going to receive a quick sense that they’ve made the wrong decision. The schools really need parks as living laboratories and classrooms. And, that whole educational community is another set of occupations that is part of what I was talking about when I said that the parks workforce extends so far beyond just the people who are on-site at the parklands.
P&R: Do you see a disconnect between citizens’ love of parks and their willingness/ability to pay for them?
Doyle: This is something that I think the parks community and also, frankly speaking, the entire environmental community — those working for clean air, clean water, solid waste, hazardous waste, urban forestry, etc. — struggle with every day. We live in this disconnect between people’s expressed love for environmental values, and their very real feeling of being stressed financially to pay not just parks but for all public values — for schools, for healthcare and so forth. And, it sometimes feels like parks are that one thing that legislators are willing to keep cutting a little here, a little there and a little again, and cumulatively, those cuts are affecting us disproportionately. I have a suspicion, however, that a galvanized effort on the part of the environmental community could focus on parks as not just one thing among dozens, but as something that is at the center.
So, I have not so much a projection or a trend here. It’s more like an invitation to all of us who care about the environmental movement, who care about environmental agency support and budgets, that we put parks at the center. Because, if we have really vibrant, beautiful parks full of school children learning and full of local people who really are enjoying the resource, and if we put that at the center, make sure that at least parks are well funded and well supported with good professional environmental career workforce people, then, I think, we will find that we get a benefit that extends beyond that, because people will say, “Oh, that’s what it’s about, that’s environment, that is what environmental protection looks like. I like that. I want more of that. How much does it cost? Talk to me about how to pay for it.” In the interim, we may have to depend on those outside sources to make up some of the difference — foundations, corporate interests, wealthy donors and fees from the people who most enjoy the resource most right now.
P&R: Do you see a need for defining the lines between the proper role of paid public workers, paid private contractors, conservation Corps folks, labor from correctional facilities, volunteers, private property owners and neighborhood groups?
Doyle: One of the things about the park workforce is that it extends far beyond just the core paid workers who, for example, work at the national parks service or at the state parks department or at local, urban park and recreation departments. It extends to include contractors and subcontractors, and there are thousands of those, but in most cases, they are calculated and counted a little at a time…you know there’s three or four here, three or four there, 10 over here, and, before you know it, you’re talking about hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe tens of thousands of mostly small businesses that receive revenue from parks. You can extend that out to include all of the volunteers and incorporate things like Student Conservation Association, The Corps Network, AmeriCorps, and so forth.
There can be a tendency on the part of parks departments to deal with financial constraints by trying to get even more work done by either free or poorly paid people, and I can understand that. But, I think, it’s really time for us, as parks people, to draw the lines about what work is appropriate to be done only by paid professional people, whether they are public workers or contractors and subcontractors. We cannot afford for the quality of the work to be sacrificed because it will come back to bite us.
And, I’ll end by going all the way back to one of your first questions, when I talked about green stormwater infrastructure. GSI is being installed throughout parks, and, in fact, whole parks are being viewed as possible stormwater infrastructure. This work is more complex than it might appear. It may seem that it’s easy to install a rain garden or to appropriately install a bioswale or to make sure that you clean pervious pavement correctly, but I can tell you that that’s not the case. It’s more difficult than you might think and things can go wrong very quickly. And, if you think you can sell a bill of good to residents, telling them that you’re going to do something about their flooding using these approaches and, if instead they receive pools of standing water, it’s going to come back to bite us. So, it’s time to do really well-thought-out delineation of what work can only be done by professionals, and I’m using the word “professional” to mean simply well-trained people who have the appropriate certification to do that work.
As the conversation ended, Doyle offered the following observation about 2017 that he felt was important to share:
Reading the news, 2017 may feel like a year of only challenges and downsides. It seems to me, however, that 2017 could actually go down in history as the beginning of a revitalization of the entire environmental movement. I think that the parks workforce can be at the very center of that revitalization.
Rather than wondering about whether millennials and a more diverse population is going to be supportive of parks in the way that previous generations have been, I think parks managers are going to ask: ‘What are the creative things that we can do to create truly 21st century park systems?’ We want satisfying park experiences to be part of the American experience for everyone. As the parks community come up with those creative answers, we will see an expansion of financial and political support, including the rise of a new generation of young workers and professionals for whom parks management is the very definition of a modern environmental career.
Note: Click here to access the Jobs for the Future green infrastructure job study.
Sonia Myrick is NRPA’s Managing Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.