In May of 2017, I started a project. The concept was simple: “Let’s raise the bar in parks and recreation”. I wanted to explore what that actually meant, so I toyed around with how I was going to accomplish this mission.
Should I develop a news site that updates professionals about current trends? Create a social forum that openly shared information with others in the field? Give video tours of the parks I’m visiting and showcase all the best practices?
The sky was the limit, but so was my time and my energy. For quite a while, I sat quietly by myself looking for clarity. Hoping that I could talk about parks in a way that changed the world.
It was a humbling experience to realize that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do - alone. We’ve all heard it. “It takes a team. Connections are key. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know…” I say all those niceties too. But when you are absurdly ambitious, a little naive, and naturally impatient… well, it is downright scary and a little ego-shattering to reach out and ask for help. I was afraid to ask the questions that I thought everyone knew the answer to. I hated being put on the spot because I felt it was a make it or break it moment for my career. When I met new people, my mind ran with a thousand different thoughts that asked, “What will they think of me?” Anyone who is so concerned about how they are perceived cannot be presently engaging in conversation. When I spoke on stage, my nerves disrupted my whole thought process so naturally I stumbled over my words. My ego was exposed and I absolutely hated it.
Eventually, the tornado of ideas turned into a weekly podcast with incredible parks and recreation professionals who raise the bar. They make this project valuable. They are the ones that give it life.
So, what I realized was this…I know nothing. Accepting this truth has made me a lot more comfortable in these scary situations. This truth allowed me to accept wisdom from others and share those insights in a meaningful way. I gained very little traction with this project until I realized that it would take an army to raise the bar in parks and recreation. So I reached out, asked for help, and found that the world wasn’t quite as scary as I thought it was.
Turns out, we have some incredibly talented, wise, compassionate, and generous people in the field of parks and rec. They care. They see the vision. They realize that there is enormous potential, both for the benefit of the community and economy.
When you work for a government agency, as most of us do, you have your own tasks, your own budget, your own staff, your own parks, your own facilities. So much to care for. It can be hard to look up from your immediate circle and see what’s actually happening. So here’s a new perspective.
There is a movement of people who actually care about their places far more than we might think. Some may be parks and recreation employees. Some may be culture creators (or co-creators). Overall we are witnessing a collective shift happening towards community building and place making. The best part? You’re part of it. Communities are built through agencies like parks and recreation… and it’s probably not as complicated as you might think.
- connecting sidewalks?
- promoting bike tourism?
- engaging teens?
- building pop-up parks?
- encouraging active living?
- hosting community events?
…Whatever you’re doing, it matters. We truly do improve “quality of life.”
“Quality of life” is a nice buzzword these days, so I’ll jump on the bandwagon. Honestly this term complex and I don’t attempt to define that today. I think it’s multi dimensional and deeply personal. Regardless, I think we know it when we see it. For the Love of Cities, Peter K addresses the dynamic of city government. He talks about how cities can and should be safe and functional. Yes, we absolutely should be fixing potholes and paving new roads. But cities can also be meaningful (and actually, quite fun and exciting) through small changes. It’s the way you make people feel about the places that matter. Let’s work on that.
Can I say something that’s completely true but probably a controversial statement in our field? It is no longer acceptable for governments to be mediocre. Collecting a paycheck and hiding in your office doesn’t cut it. Complaining about the taxpayers who have a concern is unproductive. Criticizing your employed millennials because they want to make an impact is self-defeating.
Please don’t doubt this: Private businesses are seeing the opportunity in parks and recreation far more than parks and recreation professionals. For anyone scared of partnering… I get it. I cringe when I see McDonalds logo on a playground sign, BUT we must ask ourself. Why are we afraid to reach out and build partnerships that build our community? Is our collective government ego so big that we can’t accept help from those that want to give money? Do we have an outdated policy - have you asked why it was put in place? Why are why we afraid that our citizens will shame us for collaborating with business owners?
Just like I became frozen in my doubts and insecurities when I started this project, our organizations are frozen in their policies, regulations and fears. They hear a new idea and think that it will never happen. That their patrons just “don’t get it.” “It’s always been that way.”
It gets old to hear and your citizens are tired of engaging with you. They will stop if you keep doing this. Open your ears. Open your hearts. Start getting personal. Start getting real. There is no doubt that your citizens will fall out of love with you. Your next generation of leaders will leave. And you’ll wonder why the heck parks and recreation is undervalued and doesn’t get funding.
It’s past-time to raise the bar in parks and recreation, and we all need to be a part of this movement. It’s starts with us. Let’s do it!