Imagine a citywide system of smart parks. Visitors entering parks from their residences or urban work spaces, remaining seamlessly connected by Wi-Fi to their devices and, by extension, their families and work responsibilities, as they enjoy some sunshine and fresh air. Park users learning about, and registering for, park events and activities from smartphone apps or interactive digital displays. Children playing longer and more vigorously on smart playgrounds linked to gaming apps on their parents’ phones, which have been fully charged on a solar-powered park bench. Other kids of all ages using Pokemon GO-like apps to engage with, learn about and develop a connection with the outdoors, all while developing a lifelong love of parks and nature as they play.
It’s anything but a futuristic vision. All these capabilities, and many more, exist today, and they may be more affordable and easily implemented than you might think.
But first, does technology even belong in a park?
The Great Tech Debate
There remains a contingent of purists among park professionals — those who believe that technology has no place in a park, which should be a refuge, a place to escape from the fast pace of our tech-driven lives. Edward Krafcik, director of partnerships and business development at SOOFA, makers of a solar-powered phone-charging bench, encounters the tech naysayers fairly regularly, but he believes they comprise an ever-diminishing minority. “Many others are starting to question what happens if we refuse to provide services that are expected or demanded by the connected generation. Do we miss out on engaging an entire generation with our parks?” he asks.
Mark Saferstein, of American Park Network, which provides Oh,Ranger! Wi-Fi services to parks, agrees. “I think the conversation about parks and technology is much like those we’ve all had each time a new technology emerges,” he says. “At first, there’s typically resistance to change, followed by a begrudging acceptance and then, ultimately, everyone wonders how we got along without this great new advancement.”
A.P. Diaz, executive officer and chief of staff for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, says, “Parks simply can’t afford to stand pat and expect to remain relevant and competitive in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world. In L.A., we are quickly moving forward on technology and helping our visitors be more connected and engaged, and perhaps, we’re challenging traditional definitions of recreation in what we offer. But, I think as long as we are mindful of not inappropriately crossing the line so that a park is no longer recognizable as a park, we’ll be able to maintain the right balance and convert many of the naysayers by demonstrating that technology is a tool that can enhance the park experience.”
Advantages — Obvious and Less So
Today’s most common tech-based services come with fairly obvious advantages. Wi-Fi allows the always-connected consumer to maintain their online lifestyle inside the boundaries of a park, engaging with media — social and otherwise — and staying in touch with work and family. Charging benches are welcomed amenities that keep those smart devices up and running. Proprietary, park-designed apps can educate visitors about activities in a particular park, as well as others in the system that the visitor wasn’t even aware of, and give them the opportunity to register for events or reserve space. A new app that has been proven to be successful in Los Angeles allows park visitors to alert staff to areas of the park that require immediate maintenance or cleaning. This helps the parks more efficiently handle these issues and demonstrates to visitors the responsiveness and dedication of the park maintenance staff.
A less obvious benefit of technology is the vast amount of data that many of these services can provide park agencies. Sensors on the SOOFA charging benches track smartphone hotspot searches, which can yield valuable attendance and usage data. The data can be used to establish baseline usage patterns, which can then be compared to data from special events or when new capital improvements are added. “Now, you can begin to ask whether a newly installed dog park or playground is getting the anticipated use,” says Krafcik. “‘Are they successful?’ ‘Should we make changes?’ Now we have a data-driven framework to begin to answer these questions.”
Wi-Fi networks can deliver extremely valuable information about how people are using the network. This can give park staff important demographic data regarding their visitors or reveal potential new marketing channels based on the visitors’ online activity. Camera vision technology on light poles along paths can document and distinguish between walkers, runners and cyclists, which is data agencies couldn’t easily access before. Even traditional information-gathering tools, like surveys, can be made much more effective and generate a far greater response rate when attached to an app or interactive digital platform.
Social media provides a wealth of benefits all its own. It can serve as its very own marketing and promotion channel. As visitors share their photos and comments about the great time they are having, they motivate their friends and followers to join in on the fun. Even if someone is unable to drop what they are doing and head to the park, the seed of a future park-goer has been planted. The unique Flying Shard art exhibit in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles is a great example. The spectacular, massive, moving sculpture went viral on social media. Photos and comments drove thousands to attend the exhibit and to visit Pershing Square during and after the exhibit. People drove in from the suburbs and workers in adjoining office buildings visited the park for the very first time because of the social media coverage.
Larger parks are even using social media as “crowd-sourced, data-gathering tools” to help track the movement of wildlife throughout the park or to document the effects of climate change on vegetation patterns.
Technology is also a wonderful way to bring social equity to the park system. Computer banks in youth or senior centers can teach valuable skills to underserved populations. Wi-Fi in neighborhood parks can provide free internet connection in parts of the community where it is otherwise scarce. App-based gaming systems, like the ones described below, are being made available in multiple languages and are being refined to put physically or emotionally challenged children at the center of play.
Of course, kids are thrilled to be able to use their beloved devices in a park. Indeed, it may often be what is required to get them to willingly go to a park in the first place. Several innovative companies are already using those screens in parks for more noble purposes. For example, in St. Petersburg, Florida, the parks and recreation department is working on a virtual application that will link all of its archeological parks together.
“The ultimate goal of this project is that when a patron visits one of our archeological parks, they will be able to use their smart device to open an application that will allow them to see the site in real time, with an artist’s rendition of what that site would have looked like during the time Indians inhabited the area,” says Bryan Eichler, parks and recreation manager for St. Petersburg Parks and Recreation.
Along with the visual component, the app will pull up information, articles and pictures of artifacts associated with the particular site, as well as locations of additional sites of interest (click here for an example of this technology). “We hope to work with local schools so they can use this resource as a teaching tool through our website and then actually visit the sites for an up-close experience,” Eichler adds.
In the past three years, augmented reality games have also come to local playgrounds. More than 200 “smart playgrounds” that use app-based games in conjunction with playground equipment have been deployed across the United States by a company called Play Biba. Whether children are playing on Biba-powered equipment or equipment that has been converted into a smart playground, their parents simply have to open up an app that allows the children to play age-appropriate, interactive, imagination-fueled games. Other app-based games, such as Discovery Agents’ “Mission Maker,” promote getting kids out in nature and learning, and allow park staff to customize “missions” based on the features of the park. These missions use geo-triggered content, and challenges may center on the geographic landscape of a particular park.
“We work with local schools to create grade-specific missions that are aligned with the schools’ curriculum,” says Ed Mastro, exhibit director at L.A.’s Cabrillo Beach. “Our park becomes an extension of the classroom. I’ve seen the ‘a-ha’ moments as the kids work through the game and solve challenges. It’s not tied to a teacher or a classroom; it’s tied to nature. And, you can see them getting distracted by the birds and flowers and other aspects of the outdoors, before getting back to the game. That’s all part of the magic.”
Research has shown that these interactive games are not only a marvelously effective learning tool, but also cause kids to play longer, harder and more often. In addition, parents can access a dashboard showing their children’s physical activity profile, and parks are provided with a wealth of data, including usage patterns, distance walked, and challenges engaged with and solved.
Challenges of Implementation
The experts offer a number of best practices for implementing technology-based programs. Perhaps the most universal is not to think the project's complete once it’s operational. “These are not ‘set it and forget it’ endeavors,” says Saferstein. “They must be properly maintained, and should evolve to suit the changing needs of both parks and visitors. The worst thing you can do is offer a needed service and then let it wane or take it away. Also,when you implement new technology, the best results will come from collaboration. This means an open, on-going dialogue about how a digital portal in parks can help educate visitors, support operations and ’market’ the parks.”
Krafcik agrees. “Don’t deem something a success just because it’s been implemented. Gather some data, analyze it and follow it through to an outcome — maybe something as simple as assessing the success of a special event,” he says. “But when you do that, you’re integrating the new system into your workflow and really bringing the innovation to life.”
Perhaps the greatest obstacle is overcoming the resistance to change.
“Any new endeavor seems daunting at the beginning,” says Diaz. “Technology especially can be overwhelming. So for us, the first step is always gaining knowledge, which is one of the reasons it’s so important for park agencies to be in communication with one another. Then we set attainable goals.
“But it really comes down to not being afraid to try something. In L.A., our motto has always been to just try it. If it doesn’t work, what’s the worst thing that happens? You just pull it back. But it might be fantastic and engage park users and make parks more fun, interesting and relevant, and that’s what we’re here to do.”
Tom Dellner is a Freelance Writer, based in Dana Point, California.