Building Equitable and Resilient Communities

March 28, 2024, Feature, by Michele White, CAE, IOM

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Best practices and lessons learned from the field

Parks and recreation is essential to communities, and well beyond how people traditionally think. Park and recreation places, programs and offerings help to make sure communities are thriving, nurtured and resilient. To do that, ensuring equity is at the center of our work so everyone benefits is critical. Using the lens of equitable environmental resiliency in our plans and efforts ensures our communities can weather the challenges they face, especially from climate change, by being prepared and adaptable while making certain that those most impacted receive the benefits needed.

Throughout the past three years, NRPA has worked with our membership to advance equitable environmental resilience at the local level. We worked to explore these efforts in the Park Access Network on NRPA Connect, as well as with a cohort of seven cities as part of our Resilient Park Access program. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Lynnwood, Washington; Detroit; New Orleans; Farmington, New Mexico; Navajo Nation; and Toledo, Ohio, worked together as a peer cohort to learn, assess and advance their efforts for equitable resiliency through plans, policies and practices with grant funds and technical assistance from NRPA.

Defining Environmental Resilience

Resilient communities are ones that can weather the impacts of climate change and thrive while ensuring they are stewards of their resources to allow future generations to be equally successful. This is accomplished not only through environmental factors, but also people, strengthening them through knowledge and skills.

Centering equity in that approach uplifts community-led decision making and actions and solutions to ensure all community members benefit — especially those who have historically been excluded from these processes and benefits. Due to historical exclusionary practices, like redlining, many low-income and diverse communities bear the burden of climate change and are more vulnerable to its health, economic and environmental impacts. Specifically from the environmental lens, parks can help mitigate changes in heat, flooding and extreme weather conditions and can determine how communities adapt to changes now and in the future. Parks are community assets that are essential for addressing these inequities, especially as many communities’ largest common landowner and steward of natural resources.

Implementing in Parks and Recreation

Park and recreation agencies are perfect examples of systems that can be changed to advance equitable resiliency. They operate as their own system while also responding to and operating within other systems, like their broader municipal government. Each of these systems have ways they operate, make decisions and share resources that impact how equitable the outcomes are for the communities they serve.
Through NRPA’s work with grantees and members, there are key areas to explore and identify where inequities might be occurring in our work and how we can work to advance equitable environmental resiliency.

Center Equity

Community-led and -centered approaches are key to equitable environmental resiliency. They allow for ideas, approaches and solutions to be informed by or created by those we serve — specifically those groups who have historically not been represented and are impacted the most. There are many best practices and methods for centering equity. A few that were common in the cohort’s approach were:

  • Foster intentional cultural inclusivity – Consider how your outreach and approach is inclusive of cultures present in the community.
  • Shift power and resources – Ensure there is diversity within decision making and authority positions and support those groups with resources and funding to do this work.
  • Engage those who aren’t at the table due to historic marginalization or exclusionary practices – Community engagement approaches should focus on an equitable and inclusive approach, including groups and individuals in decision-making processes that haven’t been included in the past or maybe have been engaged outside of your efforts but excluded or penalized for those efforts.
  • Assess who is represented – Ensure those leading outreach, engaging with your community and making decisions (staff, consultants, volunteers, etc.) represent your community and the diversity in ethnicity and language.
  • Support those who engage – Ask community members to provide feedback, aid your efforts or for other uses of their time. Support those who haven’t historically engaged with your program/organization/department by giving stipends, vouchers or other forms of support. The form of support you provide should be informed by those you are engaging to ensure it’s welcomed and useful.
  • Build trust – You will need to build trust with community members who haven’t been part of your processes and decisions and possibly have been harmed by decisions or practices in the past. Building trust takes time, honesty, humility, dedication and consistency.
  • It’s a practice – Continual learning and change will happen if you are doing this work correctly. And there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to doing this work — but there are best practices.

Value Partnerships

An important part of centering community is community building and partnerships. Community-based organizations and leaders are connected to their neighborhood, serve needs and are trusted leaders. Many may have common goals that align with your efforts, whether you know it or not. Building partnerships can help you equitably advance common goals. Some things to consider include:

  • Assess who you partner with – What groups in your community haven’t you traditionally partnered with? Where can you grow partnerships to reflect the community you serve?
  • Build trust – When centering equity, you will engage with groups who have not been invited to participate previously or have had unfavorable experiences with government organizations. Building trust takes honesty, humility, dedication and consistency.
  • Enact a mutually beneficial approach – What mutual goals can you work toward to support each other?

Assess Environmental Resiliency 

When determining what environmental resiliency means for your community, consider the following:

  • Prioritize those most impacted – Center impacted community members in solutions and programing.
  • Listen to your community – Community members and community-based organizations know firsthand what impacts them and what solutions might help. Before making decisions, talk with the community.
  • Gather data with an equity lens – Consider assessments you can use to understand where you might start and share findings with the community to test assumptions. Remember to include data with an equity lens or note where you may need to find additional information.

Challenge or Rethink the Status Quo

Examine how things are done and be willing to challenge or try new things.

  • What practices could you change to center equity and improve environmental resiliency?
  • What policies could be adapted or changed to advance these efforts?
  • What plans or elements of your plans could be changed/adapted and when does the next revision of those plans take place?
  • How are resources allocated in your agency or municipality and how could that flow change to support centering equity and resiliency?
  • What relationships do you need to invest time in now for future success?

Defining Systems Change

Systems change happens when the goals of a system change, when new patterns of operating emerge, and when new relationships and connections are formed. It is both a process and an outcome.

The systems change process includes six conditions that fall within three layers: structural change, semi-explicit change and transformative (or implicit) change. Structural change creates changes to how the work is done: practices, policies and resource allocations. Semi-explicit change involves sharing power and building broader equitable partnerships. Transformative (or implicit) change occurs when community mindsets are transformed to support this change.

Case Studies

Understanding how these elements are leveraged to create changes that impact your “system” can sometimes be hard to identify. From work with our latest grantee cohort — the NRPA Resilient Park Access Grantee Cohort — we have examples that showcase what these can look like in your work.


In an effort to center equity and resiliency, the City of New Orleans, with the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission as one of the leading agencies, has created a citywide environmental resiliency master plan that pulls in four natural resource managing organizations and will center equitable environmental resiliency across the city through parks and green infrastructure. At the City of Farmington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department, staff are creating a master plan focused on equitable programming.

In Lynnwood Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department, park and recreation professionals are working to put a community engagement compensation policy into place that will solidify a citywide policy. “In a smaller community like Lynnwood, we have the tendency to rely, over and over, on the same pool of CBOs and trusted community leaders for every city-led outreach, survey and engagement project. Starting a stipend program is the first step to recognize, value and honor community leaders for the effort, network and community connections they bring to the table in support of our projects,” says Sarah Olson, MPA, CPRP, deputy director of Lynnwood Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department.


To create culturally inclusive community engagement, Lynnwood Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department staff centered their efforts in inclusive practices, including hiring a community-based organization to lead focus groups with people of various backgrounds and identities, including BIPOC, refugees, and people with disabilities and their caregivers. Additionally, to advance environmental practices, they conducted their first forestry assessment that addresses heat island and inequities in access to nature.

A practice adopted by many of the grantees was paying advisory panel members and community engagement volunteers. For example, staff in New Orleans hired park ambassadors who reflected the diverse communities they wish to engage to help with outreach and engagement as trusted community members.

Detroit Parks and Recreation and City of Farmington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department invited their community advisory panel into the request for proposal (RFP) creation process and had them help create the RFP for their process of hiring consultants and contractors to assist with projects. This allowed the community to understand the agency’s process while also allowing for the community to determine the scope of work and how best to engage the community in understanding these opportunities were available from the agency.

Additionally, to bring nature to communities equitably, staff in Detroit who have historically left natural areas maintenance to volunteers are now pivoting to have the city maintain those spaces. These city staff are working to develop a plan for each natural area to ensure it is maintained sustainably and feels safe.

City of Pittsburgh Parks and Recreation has established best practices around sequence and duration of environmental-focused work with their staff, nonprofits and community-based groups to ensure their restoration efforts are successful and leverage resources of each group efficiently.

Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation added signage and wayfinding information on their trails that reflect their communities’ culture, which provides a more welcoming space for those who live on the Nation to enjoy their public space.


To leverage funding support, Lynnwood Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department was able to uplift the work they started to build equitable environmental resilience to gain both state and federal funding to advance their efforts. Likewise, City of Farmington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs leveraged its project plan to win millions in state funds to contribute to its construction phase of a park project.

Detroit Parks and Recreation hired a staff member to coordinate between community-based organizations and the municipality to move forward with community-centered efforts. Staff also are allocating funding and resources to planning and maintenance of natural areas, which was not a city focus in the past.

Relationships and Connections

By strengthening relationships between internal municipal departments, Detroit Parks and Recreation and the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation were both able to identify mutual goals and effectively move efforts forward. For Detroit Parks and Recreation, these relationships were built between their programs, planning and maintenance teams. For Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation, partnerships were strengthened between the parks and risk management departments.

City of Toledo Department of Parks and Youth Services and City of Pittsburgh Parks and Recreation Department are both building larger networks of community-based organizations and local partners to effectively advance efforts while building capacity for community groups and advance community-centered workforce development.

Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation helped build the capacity of their community through supporting community-based organizations by gaining and administering larger funding opportunities to advance their efforts.

Power Dynamics

City of Farmington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department intentionally worked to create a youth, Indigenous and culturally diverse community advisory panel to lead and inform efforts to create plans with parks and a programmatic-focused master plan.

City of Toledo Department of Parks and Youth Services is funding community-based organizations across its community to create and administer community-led and -desired programming in parks and recreation.


Through City of Farmington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department’s efforts, staff are pivoting how their community thinks of broad inclusive access to parks and working with community members of all abilities, including physical, cognitive or intellectual.

This change could take years, and maybe even decades, before it is recognized. Our grantees are still on this journey, and we look forward to seeing the continuing impacts in their communities.

Changes to practices, policies and plans — as well as relationships and power dynamics — are each important to efforts to advance long-term equitable systems change within parks and recreation. These are actionable items any park and recreation professional can start to explore and add to their efforts to center equitable environmental resiliency. These endeavors can have a substantial impact on larger systems in which they operate. NRPA is working to help all parks advance these efforts in ways that are replicable and meaningful for their communities and look forward to sharing more resources and examples to advance equitable environmental resiliency.

SEE ALSO: Centering Community in Building Equitable and Resilient Parks, Juliet Martinez, Tiffany Taulton, Denisa Livingston and Rachelle Crosby, Parks & Recreation, August 2022, Vol. 57, Iss. 8; Overcoming Barriers to Park Equity, Jai Cole, Parks & Recreation, September 2023, Vol. 58, Iss. 9; Fostering Trust and Engagement Across Diverse Cultures, Julieta Altamirano-Crosby, Ph.D., Parks & Recreation, January 2024, Vol. 58, Iss. 1.

Michele White, CAE, IOM, is Senior Program Manager of Resiliency at NRPA.