Embracing Inclusivity and Community in Parks and Recreation

June 27, 2024, Department, by Brian Stapleton

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Public parks and recreation spaces play a pivotal role in local communities across the country, offering residents a sanctuary for relaxation, outdoor enjoyment, socialization and physical activities. However, park and recreation departments have historically run into a large issue — how to make these spaces inclusive and accessible for everyone so that all community members can partake in rest and recuperation.

Accessible Park and Recreation Spaces Enhance Civic Experiences

While some park and recreation departments eagerly seek resources and creative ideas to improve their spaces, making them more accessible to the community, others may underestimate their importance. This lack of understanding could limit diversity and discourage historically excluded groups from visiting their local parks, resulting in a poor civic experience. To gain trust and enable an enhanced experience for the entire community, there must be an increased focus on supporting access for underrepresented groups.

There are many tangible benefits of park and recreation spaces — not only for resident enjoyment, but also for mental, physical and environmental purposes. Having an open space to participate in physical activities, like fitness classes, along with exposure to nature has the potential to decrease loneliness, strengthen community connections and so much more. According to the 2023 NRPA Engagement With Parks Report, more than 280 million U.S. residents visited a local park or recreation space during the past year, and 88 percent of U.S. adults agree that local park and recreation departments should be engaging with every member of the community.

Creating an Inclusive Space for All

It’s time for park and recreation departments to focus on meeting their communities’ yearning for more inclusive spaces. The first step is for local governments to get a deeper understanding of these needs by engaging directly with residents. Collecting this data will help park and recreation teams understand how equitable their spaces are and think through what’s missing, including necessary investments that need to be made. To improve accessibility and inclusivity, park and recreation departments can invest in:

  • Community engagement solutions – When evaluating input received from residents, these tools will help to streamline the process of both obtaining and analyzing the data — providing the opportunity to hear directly from those they serve.
  • Inclusive programming technology – Tapping into diverse communities is difficult, but key to improving inclusivity. Recreation management technology can help guide the programming for these marginalized communities.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion training – Park and recreation staff must be properly trained in diversity, equity and inclusion to ensure the programming reflects those values. This will enable inclusive decision making, leading to better service for all residents.
  • Community outreach – Residents can’t participate in programs or take advantage of facilities if they don’t know they exist. Putting extra time and effort into engaging with the community, making them aware of what’s offered, will go a long way in creating inclusive spaces.
  • Accessibility strategy preparation – Providing accessibility to all residents requires a formal strategy. Accessibility management tools help park and recreation departments fully plan and activate strategies, ensuring spaces are inviting for everyone.

Building Stronger Communities

Public spaces should be universally accessible, providing equitable open spaces for every community member. It’s imperative that park and recreation departments embrace engagement with residents, gain insights into what their community wants and needs, and formulate a plan to start making a change.

Brian Stapleton is Vice President and General Manager at CivicPlus.