Parks and Recreation: A Business of Flexibility and Adaptation

December 17, 2020, Department, by Kristine Stratton

Kristine Stratton 410

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This January 2021 issue is a great opportunity for us to take a collective breath and appreciate the remarkable ways that park and recreation professionals faced the relentless uncertainty of 2020, and that we are here at the beginning of a new day and a new year. During NRPA Virtual this past October, we heard from leaders across the field talking about trends, “next practices,” “trailblazing technology,” continued engagement through the pandemic, and ways to leverage P&R for greater health, equity and climate resilience. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic accelerated the trends we were already seeing — virtual programming, community outreach and meetings; the role P&R plays as community wellness hubs; and the ability and necessity of parks and recreation to be the ultimate adaptive community resource in times of trauma and disaster.

As an adaptive community resource, P&R will continue to grow — both from health and climate-resilience perspectives. Taking the good work that nearly 60 percent of agencies have done to support community health during the pandemic and building upon that to position P&R agencies as community wellness hubs is a trend that will strengthen P&R’s role as essential community infrastructure, as well as the trust and relationship between P&R professionals and community members. Further, health equity will become one of the most important decision-making drivers for planning, inter-agency and cross-sector partnerships, allocation of resources, and community engagement.

Climate resilience will be an increasingly universal focus in communities across the country as they grapple with climate change impacts. This, coupled with an anticipated investment in community infrastructure and workforce development, as part of an economic recovery period, has the potential to cement the field as an essential solution provider and innovator. This will combine with the park access imperative to generate increasingly creative approaches to climate solutions and adaptive usages of the urban and suburban landscapes. The flexibility that COVID-19 response has demanded, along with the continued economic challenges, will serve to reinforce the viability of more pocket parks, parklets, shifts in streetscapes to support linear parks and trails in dense urban areas, and conversion of underutilized real esta te like malls and big-box stores. These creative spaces and the P&R partnerships that will produce them will solve for things, such as Wi-Fi equity in communities, flood prevention and control improvements, and facilities for physically distanced education, to name a few.

Data and technology are increasingly available and more economical for use by park and recreation professionals. Uses include: GPS and telematics to support fleet management; drone, robotic and smart equipment to increase experimenting with integrated video feeds for everything from security to community engagement programming. All of this puts even greater pressure on how P&R should understand and address privacy and security concerns. Community trust and engagement are essential to our work, so we must be careful about how data and technology are deployed in our management and operational practices.

And, community power building, co-creation and shared ownership of public spaces and resources will be increasingly built into local governmental models. Building up the skill and capacity for P&R professionals to create authentic community engagement and a new paradigm for shared ownership will be a trend in P&R training and development.

Many trends we discussed in the past accelerated in 2020 — including how we face increasing degrees of uncertainty, and our principal job is understanding how we navigate that uncertainty. From innovating our community engagement, to continuing to diversify revenue sources, to ensuring that our operations are as efficient and impactful as possible, and to infusing inclusion and equity into all our planning and practices — we are in the business of flexibility and adaptation — and this will be influencing our operating models, planning and professional development for years to come. As we embark on a new year, I am confident that P&R professionals, the most adaptable problem solvers out there, will be ready and willing to take on any challenges that may come their way.