Last week, 8,000 people gathered in Baltimore for the 2019 National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) Annual Conference. As a member of NRPA’s Health and Wellness Advisory Panel, I attended the joint advisory panel meeting before diving into three days of sessions.
The joint advisory panel meeting focused on NRPA’s Social Equity pillar, specifically exploring the challenges and successes of advancing equity through the parks and recreation field. After two rounds of breakout discussions using tools of the nonprofit trade (flip charts, sticky notes, and a dot-vote gallery walk), we went around the room, each person sharing their takeaways in just two words. A few themes emerged.
First, there’s a need for a common language among parks and recreation professionals about what “social equity” means. One person shared that her department responded to that need by getting specific: “When we say equity, we mean racial equity.” Second, diverse representation is a challenge, both among parks professionals and in community engagement and outreach. Finally, as Rachel Banner, NRPA’s Director of Park Access shared with Healthy Places by Design in a recent conversation, limited resources are an enduring challenge. One panel member didn’t mince his two words, saying simply, “more funding.” Everyone laughed, but some were probably crying a little on the inside, too.
The conference provided a platform for inspiring stories from people across the country who are working through these very challenges in their communities. More than 300 sessions covered issues such as advocacy, conservation, design, evaluation, equity, and health, among many others. It was tough to decide which sessions to attend. As an artist, an advocate for natural spaces, and a curious person in general, how was I supposed to choose between three simultaneous sessions with titles like these?
Every session I attended was informative and energizing. But I learned the most from breakout group discussions and chats between sessions in the hallways. Conversations like these are one way in which Healthy Places by Design practices a culture of learning. Though our team most often plays a consulting role, we also seek opportunities to show up in listening mode.
I heard two people, one from Alabama and another from North Carolina, share how public-private partnerships had filled funding gaps, but had also resulted in parks that were so heavily programmed—one by sports leagues and another with concerts and festivals—that sometimes “there’s nowhere a family can even have a picnic. We actually need less programmed park space.” Another person shared why the definition of what we mean by “equitable outcomes” is so important: in their city, black neighborhoods have plenty of parks, but all are in poor condition. Meanwhile, the city’s affluent white neighborhoods have no parks at all. They asked whether investments should go toward improving existing parks in underserved neighborhoods, or toward creating new parks where there are none. And “in a county that’s 97 percent built out already, how do you create new parks without taking away affordable housing?”
These kinds of questions illustrate how theoretical concepts about practicing community engagement and building multisector partnerships play out in real communities. They also highlight the need not only for more funding (so that departments don’t have to make so many either/or choices), but also for a framework that defines what equity means in the context of parks, and helps departments prioritize their investments in ways that reflect their community’s context and residents’ perspectives.
“Parks and recreation” is a big tent in every sense. It includes the needs of national, state, and local parks ranging from hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, to baseball and soccer fields, to tiny pocket parks that are sometimes the only green space within a 10-minute walk of a neighborhood. This big tent includes interests as varied as managing forests to prevent wildfires, research on the relationship between perceived social cohesion and physical activity in older adults, the importance of branding and marketing to increase public buy in, and, yes, urban goose management. Though uniting these diverse needs and interests around social equity won’t be easy, this diversity also offers myriad opportunities for innovative collaboration, partnerships, and projects.
One final takeaway: this conference was a gathering of 8,000 people who care. People who are passionate about parks and recreation, conservation, health, equity, and making communities great places to live. One attendee reflected that a new greenway had connected two neighborhoods that were wary of each other and initially resisted the project. “Now, people from both neighborhoods use it all they time. They can’t get enough of it.” Another shared how a new park in their community, though small, had created what might be the only place where children in the neighborhood could connect with nature. Climb a tree. Watch a bug.
“That’s why, even though it’s hard sometimes, I wouldn’t have any other job. I love this work.”
To learn more about NRPA’s commitment to social equity, check out Healthy Places by Design’s interview with the organization’s Director of Park Access. And to be part of next year’s NRPA Annual Conference, explore the details here.