Top Trends in Parks and Recreation for 2018

February 6, 2018, Feature, by Richard J. Dolesh

2018 February Feature Top Trends 410

What began a few years ago as a light-hearted look at new, interesting and even controversial trends in the field of parks and recreation has now become an annual tradition for NRPA. Part tongue-in-cheek speculating and part fearless prognostication, here are NRPA’s Top Trends for 2018:  

Parks Everywhere, Especially Underground
Innovative locations for public parks are being proposed everywhere — on the tops of tall buildings, in the middle of stormwater management areas, even in abandoned underground spaces. Thirty years ago, who would have thought that repurposing abandoned rail corridors into linear parks and active transportation networks would become a nationwide movement that would conserve more than 22,000 miles of unused rail lines that would be converted to hiking and biking trails?

Today, the spotlight is on underground parks. New York’s Lowline, billed as “the world’s first subterranean green space” and scheduled to open in 2021, is the conversion of an abandoned underground trolley terminal. Increasingly, the question most often asked about unused public space in cities across America is becoming: “How can we turn this space into a park?”

Major new underground public parks will be proposed in three cities. Advocates fighting to keep the now-closed Battery Street tunnel in Seattle from being filled with rubble from the demolished Viaduct will win their fight, and this underground space will be turned into a unique and endlessly interesting public park. 

Parks as Supervised Opioid Injection Sites
With the spread of opioid abuse nationwide, some parks and public areas regrettably have become preferred sites for opioid users. In response, some localities are considering providing designated opioid injection sites that are staffed with healthcare professionals to supervise injections. Such public health outreach has a long history in Europe, as well as in Canada and Australia. Most recently in the United States, King County, Washington, received state approval to establish an approved opioid injection site. More states are considering such proposals.

One or more newly designated, supervised opioid injection sites will be established in a U.S. community recreation center in 2018.

Hepatitis, Coming to a Park Near You?
Public lands under highway bridges and along streams have sometimes become sites for homeless encampments. Such sites are much more likely to spread communicable diseases from unsanitary conditions and shared drug paraphernalia. In August 2017, the CDC notified all state and local health departments regarding investigations of clusters of hepatitis A in persons who were homeless and/or used injection drugs. Recent outbreaks of hepatitis A in San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, California, were widely reported in 2017 and incidences of hepatitis A have increased in other states, including Michigan, Kentucky and Utah.

Sadly, a U.S. park system will become the site of a hepatitis A outbreak in 2018. 

Parks and Rec as Partners in Evidence-Based Health Delivery
On the good news side regarding parks and health, many park and recreation areas are not only becoming places to improve health through physical activity, but also places to participate in evidence-based programs that measurably improve health. NRPA-sponsored programs with local park and rec agencies range from Active Living Every Day for sedentary adults to Walk With Ease low-impact, weekly walking programs and arthritis intervention programs, such as Fit and Strong!, for those with osteoarthritis. One hundred and fifty-five agencies representing 45 states have already made commitments to implement arthritis evidence-based physical activity programs in parks.

At least one park and recreation agency will sign a contract in 2018 with a healthcare system to participate in a Community Integrated Health model program. 

Drones, Drones and More Drones
Drone use by public-sector agencies is becoming increasingly more widespread with governmental drones performing duties like successful search and rescue operations, surveillance of illegal activity and tracking the spread of invasive species. Drones will only continue to become more popular with the public who are looking for places to fly and by agency staff who are looking to utilize their unique capabilities.

Commercial and recreational drones will prove their value to parks in 2018. Drone use will expand, improving the ability to count visitors, provide security monitoring, and engage in firefighting and search-and-rescue missions, not to mention saving much- needed funds. 

Billionaires Love Parks
In the past five years, there have been a series of extraordinary gifts to parks across the country by very wealthy individuals who want to give back to their communities. These have included a $100 million gift to the Central Park Conservancy by hedge fund manager John A. Paulson in 2012; a $350 million donation by the George Kaiser Family Foundation to the River Parks Authority in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and many multimillion-dollar donations to park systems, including two gifts by Ken Griffin to the Chicago Park District: a $12 million donation in 2016 to create a bicycle and pedestrian-separated trails along the Chicago lakefront and a $3 million gift in 2017 to build 50 soccer fields in underserved Chicago communities.

At least five urban park systems in large cities will be recipients of multimillion-dollar gifts in 2018. 

Dedicate Your Park — Or You Could Lose It
As cities increasingly look for available real estate, a high-profile case in which New York City proposes to convert the Marx Brothers Playground in East Harlem to a high-rise development is bringing the issue of converting parks for other purposes into sharp relief. “Public parks are under constant threat of diversion to economic development and other non-park uses,” says James Kozlowski, law professor at George Mason University, who details another park conversion in Westfield, Massachusetts, in his Law Review column on page 26 of this issue of Parks & Recreation magazine.

In the case of Westfield, the court’s decision, rejecting the proposed conversion, hinged, in part, on whether the land had been dedicated as a park. As required under state law, the conversion would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority vote of the legislature, as well as comply with federal protections of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, which requires any park funded by LWCF to be replaced by land of equal quality and value. 

Proposed conversions of park property to non-park uses without equal-value replacement will increase in 2018. Cities that have not been diligent in defending their parks, including dedicating them according to state law requirements, will lose valuable parks to development.

Dog Waste to Electricity
Park and recreation agencies are beginning to move beyond solar as the primary source for renewable energy resources. Greater application of wind energy and, especially, biomass energy, that is, the conversion of plant and vegetable matter to usable energy, will begin to power more park and rec operations to demonstrate to the public the utility and value of renewable energy resources. Biomass, such as wood chips, horse stable waste, plant matter and, surprisingly, even dog waste, represents new potential sources of energy. A British nonprofit, the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is funding a project to produce a small-scale anaerobic digester for parks so park patrons can deposit dog waste, which is composted to produce methane that is used to power park lighting.

One or more forward-thinking park and rec agencies will seek innovative firms to produce and install anaerobic digesters in dog parks and encourage dog owners to deposit their collected dog doo therein, thus turning waste into energy.

Coyotes in Parks Are on the Rise, and That May Be a Good Thing
Coyotes are becoming fully established in many U.S. cities and suburbs, a trend that does not surprise wildlife biologists and urban ecologists. Intelligent, omnivorous and extremely adaptable coyotes are apex predators that have moved in, and they are here to stay. Despite hysterical news headlines, such as “More Coyotes Are Prowling in Wichita and May See Your Pet as Lunch” (a true headline), local jurisdictions are realizing that the presence of coyotes in parks and on other public lands presents a more complex ecological challenge. However, information about coyote population numbers, density, territorial range, food habits and other important knowledge that biologists and natural resource managers need to evaluate their impact is sketchy. “Compassionate conservation” advocates say that coyotes help keep urban ecosystems in balance, reducing populations of rats and keeping the deer population in check, among other benefits.

One or more park and recreation agencies will rise to the defense of coyotes in 2018 and develop public education messages to show the value of wild coyotes in urban parks.

Economic Development Depends on Quality Parks
What does economic development have to do with parks and recreation? Plenty, according to NRPA VP of Research Kevin Roth. He cites an NRPA study that shows local parks and recreation is responsible for generating $140 billion in economic impact and 1 million jobs annually. This fact is borne out in a recent editorial in Virginia’s Roanoke Times, which details why Humm Kombucha, a specialty health beverage brewer, chose the Roanoke Valley as the site of a new $10 million facility with 46 good jobs: The greenways, the bike paths — they aren’t frills. Those are actually economic development infrastructure, just in a different form.

You can place a sure bet that when Amazon finally selects the location for HQ2, the highly coveted second Amazon headquarters with its 50,000 jobs, it will be in a city that has a great park and recreation system with abundant trails, expansive greenways and blueways, and a populace that loves its park and recreation facilities.

Are You a Trend Spotter? 
What are your top trends and predictions for 2018? Send me an email or post a comment to this article. Look for an early February post on NRPA’s blog, Open Space, to see top trends by readers and leading thinkers in our field.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives.

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