What will it take for park and recreation agencies to be successful in the future? That was the buzz at the 2018 NRPA Annual Conference in Indianapolis, and, fortunately, there were several sessions focused on future possibilities. Yes, there certainly was content about becoming more fiscally responsible and managing more efficiently, but what struck a chord with me were those sessions where presenters challenged the participants to think bigger, perhaps bigger than they ever have before, about what it will take to be successful in the future.
Some of the strategies for success are new ways of thinking for parks and recreation: becoming involved in “value capture” initiatives, working with real estate developers to boost the economy while protecting affordable housing, ensuring zoning incentives that benefit the public and the private sector, using business improvement districts (BIDs) and participating in Opportunity Zones to create and maintain parks, and learning how to work with public-private partnerships (P3s) for the public good.
Some park leaders get it. They are already taking advantage of these opportunities, and their communities are benefiting as a result. They have stepped up as players in a changing landscape, where elected leaders expect public parks and recreation to support economic development and to produce a range of benefits, such as making their communities more resilient, for cities and counties. Park leaders understand that resiliency is about how a community responds to natural and manmade disasters. Is there community cohesiveness, where residents will work together to heal from the devastation? Is there a real sense of community? If we truly believe Parks Build Community, then parks are a key ingredient to making communities resilient.
New thinking will also be required to solve, or at least minimize, the impact of gentrification, a challenge that continues to haunt park leaders. While we tout the transformative power of parks, residents are often displaced because of these changes. This dilemma, displacing the very people the park seeks to serve, can be mitigated with creative financing, like community land trusts (CLTs). The benefits of these nonprofits include, but are not limited to, providing affordable housing, maintaining local businesses and protecting a community’s heritage. CLTs often are composed and governed by community residents and are funded by private foundations, local government and other nonprofits.
It’s an exciting time for parks and recreation, because the role is growing in complexity and importance. But, those agencies that limit their role to handing out balls and bats and cutting grass will become irrelevant if they don’t step up to be players in our country’s future. The future is ours to shape, but only if we step up and claim it. What kind of leader will you be?
Barbara Tulipane, CAE, is NRPA's President and CEO
PS: Yes, I took the prerogative of including my dog, Maya, in this issue since she didn’t win the cover!