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There is an old adage that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” And, sometimes, it takes a global crisis, like the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, for people to truly appreciate the value of their parks and open spaces. While the medical community and first responders have enjoyed the recognition they rightly deserve, it will be the orderly reopening of park systems throughout the country that commands the headlines over the coming months — especially with the looming fear of a second wave of infections that may set us back and further slow the economy. All eyes in the national media will be on the park systems, especially in large urban areas, that take the first leap. It is up to us as park professionals to get it right the first time by ensuring the proper multidisciplinary planning and flawless execution of our respective reopenings.
Looking forward, there are a host of lessons and best practices that NRPA has gathered through regular outreach to its members during the crisis — practices that will be incorporated into our future professional development initiatives. Perhaps the most significant of these will be our embrace of the digital realm as a format for bringing park experiences to the public, especially when outdoor activity and travel are limited. And if we are smart, we will use these virtual park opportunities to not only encourage and influence healthy physical activity in living rooms across the nation, but, more importantly, to talk directly with our customers, teaching them to cherish the social, environmental and economic benefits of parks and recreational programs in their communities. There is a fundamental knowledge gap for the average citizen that if filled by careful, accurate and articulate messaging, has the potential of elevating parks to the “essential” level we have fought so hard for decades to convey. And, the timing is right for building the messaging campaign for a park movement that does not require reinventing our profession, only reimagining it in what will likely become a new digital normal.
NRPA is working with our state associations, allied park nonprofits and World Urban Parks to ensure the strategies for our profession’s pandemic recovery and the projected budgetary impacts are mitigated to every extent possible through durable and coordinated advocacy that focuses on revenue stabilization and infrastructure stimulus. Preventing a repeat of the precipitous drop in funding we experienced during the 2008–2013 recessionary period will require a full-court press with elected officials and agency heads at the federal, state and local levels. We can ill afford another period of dependence on privately financed park development and third-party programming whose business models limit equitable access and lower participation rates.
Perhaps the hardest decision we have had to make has been the reimagining of our annual conference. Like many of our state and partner professions’ conferences, this decision considered the public health risk for mass gatherings, projected budget impacts and travel restrictions for member agencies, and growing conference financial liabilities during a time of uncertain economic impact. With proper digital design, NRPA may open a whole new market of allied professional interest. And, conference will be back bigger and better than ever in 2021!
Parks and recreation is resilient, and NRPA’s leadership will continue to serve as the beacon for best practices in our profession. Stay safe and healthy, and remain connected to NRPA’s website to share and learn from your fellow professionals as we navigate these troubled waters and reimagine our new normal together.
Jack Kardys is NRPA's Chair of the Board of Directors.