Who you gonna call? Parks and Rec!
It’s as predictable as gaping baby birds and late-winter potholes, all crying to be filled. Come budget time, municipal park and recreation services perennially want for funding.
In a 2017 national study conducted by Penn State University, researchers found that 83 percent of local governmental officials viewed parks and recreation as worth the average tax investment in their communities. An overwhelming majority (99 percent) agree their community benefits from local parks. Yet during fiscal deficits, park and recreation services are cut the most severely of all community services.
Why is this? According to the research, local officials simply do not perceive park and recreation services to be as important as the others. Follow the money: in flush times, all services reap increases; but during economic downturns, park and recreation services are dramatically and disproportionally cut.
However, far beyond providing mere leisure services, a comprehensive park and recreation system vigorously builds the community, contributing to our individual wellness and public health, our environmental sustainability and our social equity. Its facilities and programs stimulate the local economy, enhance real estate values, attract and retain business, improve community infrastructure, build resilience, and reduce crime. Its enrichments expand community engagement, develop people, and contribute directly to our quality of life. All because it constructively addresses broad-based community problems.
And this is the niche recreation and parks fills better than any other essential community service: the unique ability to bridge across multiple professional disciplines and political boundaries to facilitate comprehensive solutions to real community problems. Need to curb gang-related activities? Or assist police and social services in preventative treatment for risky behaviors? Call parks and recreation. Need to coordinate the distribution of meals? After schools, parks and recreation serve up the most. Need first responders in an emergency and a safe place to rendezvous? Parks and recreation, at your service. Concerned about access to nature and clean air and water? Need multimodal connections to destinations of interest? Looking to build more cross-cultural respect and interaction? Boost student achievement and engagement? Attract more public-private partnerships? Who you gonna call? Parks and recreation!
Fortunately, more cities and communities are beginning to realize that it is always to their benefit to incorporate and prioritize park and recreation services within other life-essential services.
It’s time for a fresh perspective on what makes community services essential — one that recognizes how they are collectively interdependent and indispensable for our modern living. I call it the Life Essentials Community Services Model.
This comprehensive view recognizes that each service sector, alone, would fail the community; but when fulfilling its interactive function within the whole, all people are indispensably protected, enriched and supported. There are three life-enhancing categories:
Life Protection: Firefighters, Police, Emergency Services, Hospitals, Corrections, Preventative Services.
Life Support: Transportation, Infrastructure, Sanitation, Utilities, Housing, Public Welfare, Clean Air, Water and Natural Resources.
Life Quality: Parks and Recreation, Education and Culture, Health and Nutrition, Libraries, Social Services.
In this balanced view, we can better grasp how interdependent our life-essential services truly are. And how the care and use of our public parks and greenspaces is uniquely capable of leveraging limited resources and expertise in all categories to protect, support, and enhance lifestyles and the kind of recovery we need.
The pandemic will likely continue to exact a heavy economic toll on municipal governments and their public spaces, affecting workforce, childcare, food distribution, access to nature, environmental safety, youth development, and of course, our physical and mental health, among many other vital human needs. Now is the time to embrace just how indispensable comprehensive park and recreation services are to the quality of our communities — and to invest, not divest — for our own vitally important recovery and preferred future.
Tim Herd is CEO of the Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society.