Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Parks and Hallowed Ground


Antietam National Battlefield Park,
Antietam, Maryland

One hundred and fifty years ago this month the Civil War began with the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, and to this day Americans are still trying to make sense of the national nightmare that cost 620,000 lives. That’s an endeavor likely to go on indefinitely. In the meantime, nothing preserves and commemorates hallowed ground—virtually unspoiled and untrammeled—like a park. Civil War sites range from the very small (see “America’s Backyard” in the upcoming May issue of Parks & Recreation) to the large, Manassas National Battlefield Park, where the first major battle of the war occurred in July 1861. And, in between, numerous state and regional parks pay similar homage to the war.

Why the country’s fascination with the Civil War has actually increased in the past 150 years is a conundrum. Especially for me, for whom my best efforts to let it lie only increases my interest. Perhaps it is not such a mystery, though, that the war should spawn an entire publishing industry, Hollywood epics, reenactments, and even a body of music. One hundred fifty years is close enough for all of us to have had great or great- great grandparents fighting in the war. And even after all these years, highly educated people still debate the causes of the war, while many wonder how much has been learned. Most significant for parks and recreation is the “local” nature of the Civil War, having been contested in such a wide swath of the continent. Thanks to far-sighted citizens beginning in the late 19th century, the movement to set aside parkland to preserve battlefields for future generations to appreciate has made the Civil War much more than an abstraction captured in books and magazines. Most of these parks remain true to the look and feel of a century and a half ago. A trip to Antietam, Manassas, or other battlefield parks is to view time stopped in its tracks. It’s a dense person who doesn’t depart these sites a bit wiser and saddened and appreciative of the scale and magnitude of what occurred there.

Yet for all their worth, Civil War parks have their challenges. Whether local, regional, or national, these parks will always have their funding issues. Then, there are the threats from the outside. Here in Virginia, where so much of the war was contested, commercial development continues to be the largest threat. As land becomes scarcer in the face of a rapidly expanding population, what should be set aside for additional and supplemental parkland is often too tempting for commercial developers. It’s usually after fiery national outcry that would-be builders back off from their ventures. Such activism is the price we pay to assure the preservation of our national heritage. For me, though, nothing puts the issue of war and peace into perspective better than to see these parks coexisting with history as places of recreation where visitors also picnic, cycle, and otherwise enjoy hallowed open spaces.

Phil Hayward
Parks & Recreation Magazine

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

41 + 1 = ?

Memphis Woodland Discovery Playground
is one of the SITES pilot participants.

Friday is Earth Day. No. 41, if you’re counting. This week is also the one-year anniversary of the country’s largest environmental disaster, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Parks in the Gulf region have recovered superficially, though much research remains to be done on the long-term impact of the spill on the shoreline ecology. One has to wonder at the coincidence of a federal government announcement one year to date following the spill that deepwater drilling can resume in the Gulf. If there’s symbolism in the timing, it’s lost on most people. And it would be irresponsible not to question claims of lessons learned by government and industry that facilitated continuing the drilling. This from an industry that listed walruses as Gulf marine life in its environmental inventories and this from the governmental agencies that accepted such disrespect.

It’s against this backdrop that I look at parks and Earth Day. Tea Party threats to dismantle our national structure of environmental protection notwithstanding, I still believe we’ve come a long way in 41 years of Earth Days and even in the one year since the Gulf oil spill.

As individuals on a micro level, we’ve learned to recycle, buy energy-efficient appliances, save water, choose green cleaning supplies, and even to turn the lights out when we leave a room.

As a society on a macro level, we’re making progress, albeit painfully slow. Think about climate-change legislation, and you get an idea of how hard it is to get broad environmental change. Still, pockets of progress have the potential to shape broader improvement across the country. Just as the commercial building industry has its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for design and construction, so too does the landscape world. Just over a year ago, the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) was launched to promote sustainable land design, construction, and maintenance practices. A joint effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center in Austin, Texas, and the United States Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C., SITES is a ready-made structure for parks and recreation, and the field has embraced SITES. It’s a system that provides metrics for rating sustainably developed landscapes. A successful organization meeting the standards for a four-star rating can accrue up to 250 points in 51 credit categories.

“Landscapes have the potential to actually give back to provide a whole host of ecosystem services—such as clean air, clean water, reduction in ozone, providing carbon sequestration, and human health improvement through recreation,” Steve Windhager, SITES director, told Parks & Recreation magazine in December 2009. “There is potential to make things better than they are—not just lessen the damage.”

When it launched in 2009, SITES sought pilot projects to implement and demonstrate its concept. Today, pilot programs can be found in 34 states as well as in Canada, Iceland, and Spain. They represent corporate headquarters, botanic gardens, streetscapes, federal buildings and, of course, public parks. Parks & Recreation in its April 2011 update on SITES highlights Memphis Woodland Discovery Playground as a model of how this certification can “enhance an urban park site even while holding it to high environmental standards.”

“We wanted to model environmental leadership in the community,” says Jen Andrews of 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park, where this SITES pilot project is located. “Not just a great playground.”

The pilot stage of SITES concludes in June 2012 and the final rating system and reference guide will be released in June 2013. If you project this initial good start into the future by factors of thousands, just as the commercial building industry is already doing with LEED, then you have the makings of significant progress. And in a world where fighting climate change, cleaning up major bodies of water, and preventing future Gulf oil spills is so difficult, this is something to be proud of.

Here’s hoping that on this Earth Day, 41 + 1 equals much more than the sum of its parts.

Phil Hayward
Parks & Recreation Magazine

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Specialists vs. Generalists

Teton Boulder Park, photo by David Swift
In ecology, the species that are generalists—that can adapt to diverse environments, diets, and neighbors—almost always win out over the specialists who survive in a narrow niche. This fact is not lost on me as career advice either, bearing in mind that I came to NRPA from a small scientific society focused on fisheries and now operate much more as a generalist in the broader environment of parks and recreation. Indeed, the recommendation I keep hearing over and over from agency directors, such as when I worked on our best practices article in February, is that agency staff must get out of their specialized silos and interact more with other disciplines—this includes working with other government departments and even local citizen groups, non-profits, and businesses.
That being said, another ecological axiom is that environments with a diversity of species are more resilient than those with fewer species. In fact, one distressing trend in fisheries is the “homogenization” of fish fauna, where the spread of invasive or purposely transplanted species means that stream after stream across the landscape will often contain the exact same mix of species. And one can see the same homogenization in the American landscape itself, with city after city having the same mix of subdivisions and strip malls, often with a similar lineup of stores and restaurants in each one.
That’s why I found Jackson’s Teton Boulder Park and the Scioto Audubon Park in Columbus, as covered in April’s climbing wall article, so refreshing. Here are two unique parks—specialists if you will—that are designed to meet the specific needs of their particular community ecosystem. Jackson has a long, rich climbing heritage and this new park brings that legacy down from the mountain peaks and celebrates it right in town, within reach of everyone. Columbus wants to draw young professionals to its downtown and hence has incorporated park features that specifically appeal that demographic, such as a climbing wall, dog park, and environmental education center.
Without getting into a debate on the theory of evolution, such as the one that recently derailed a park educational sign project in McAllen, Texas, what do you think about generalists vs. specialists when it comes to parks? Parks are an obvious opportunity for communities to distinguish themselves from all others. Do you have an unusual feature at one of your parks that helps make your town unique? Please feel free to share it here or at NRPA Connect.
Elizabeth Beard
Managing Editor
Parks & Recreation

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Singing the Budget Blues...and Spotlighting Brilliant Improvisations

Lean times can make for some very creative thinking.  That is the biggest lesson I took away from our April cover story, “Budget Blues.” The deep budget cuts that parks and rec agencies across the country have been confronted with since 2008 have created tough challenges for simple, day-to-day operations.  In researching the story, Editor Phil Hayward, Managing Editor Elizabeth Beard, and I heard tales of skeleton crews, closed parks, and vanished programs.  We talked with agency heads, rank-and-file employees, and foundation directors who are trying to carry on with budgets that simply will not sustain the infrastructures they must steward.

So was the news all bleak?  Far from it—because agencies are adapting, changing, streamlining, and creating new streams of revenue.  In researching best practices for adapting to the budget woes, I began by talking with Bill Koegler of the Oglebay Institute.  Bill had a long list of contacts for individuals at municipal, county, and state levels who are rising to the challenges in front of them with new ways of thinking.  Their methods  help parks to do more than just survive these lean times.

Before talking with Bill, I wondered if the best practices I’d be presenting would amount to a series of fundraising ideas.  The talk I had with him, however, was not about band-aid solutions or appeals to the public to reach deeper into their pockets.  Bill outlined for me the ways in which parks and rec leaders are thinking in new ways about the services they provide—and creating effective partnerships while adopting sustainable financial practices.

What are some of these transformational practices?  If you take a look at our April cover story, you’ll get snapshots of some very creative financial solutions: the nearly limitless revenue-generating potential of park naming rights, the state university model of putting foundations to work, and the kinds of user access fees that simply make sense…just to name a few.  We hope this cover story will be a springboard for further conversation about what is working and what is not.  Look for more posts from Phil, Elizabeth, and me over the next week and a half about lessons learned and questions raised from the “Budget Blues” April cover story.

Maureen Hannan
Senior Editor

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Private Routes to Public Good

Boston Common: a recent beneficiary of corporate dollars
Photo courtesy Kelsey Ohman
So, you’ve sorted your views on working with private corporations for helping in the funding operations of your park and you’re ready to shop for partners. Even if the benefits of the new revenue didn’t outweigh perceptions of loss of control and the “privatization of parks,” the reality of the worst economic conditions since World War II all but makes it mandatory. But how to pursue?

In a profile in the March 2011 issue of Parks & Recreation, Dan Biederman lays to rest the myths he sees thwarting the private partnership approach. After all, Biederman explains, “Why not let the private sector pay?”

“Corporations want to introduce products,” says Biederman, who led the restoration of Bryant Park in New York City and is currently working with the City of Boston to refurbish Boston Common. He’s become a master at monitoring the pulse of corporate giving for public spaces. “If you are lucky enough to have an attractive space for them to do that, then you can get their sponsorship dollars.” 

There hasn’t been a better time in the past five years for park agencies to pursue corporate sponsorships, he says. “It took a couple of years after the recession hit for things to pick up again,” he says, but the funds are now flowing toward “place-based marketing opportunities.” In other words, Biederman explains, companies are looking to channel marketing dollars toward “identifying a product with a much loved space.”

In addition to a number of suggestions in the March issue of Parks & Recreation, Biederman has concrete advice for administrators and advocates alike for pursuing private dollars.

1.       Resolve whatever ambivalence you may have about seeking corporate dollars.  Remember that businesses that partner with parks usually aim to blend corporate branding and promotion with philanthropy. Corporations are willing to negotiate, and park directors who enter into dialogue knowing what they want can reach mutually beneficial sponsorship agreements.
2.      Start approaching locally based corporations. If you need direction or coaching in this effort, try reaching out to another agency that’s already had some success in landing corporate sponsors.
3.      Try approaching corporations that may not be locally based—but that are promoting new products or services in your area. Biederman suggests reading the Wall Street Journal’s daily reports on new products being introduced.
4.      Remember that banks, in particular, are almost always eager for opportunities to gain new accounts by setting up tables and displays in public places.
5.      Reach out to the event producers in your area. Most cities have at least a few well established event producers—professionals who have been retained by corporations to coordinate gatherings, product introductions and testing, and other kinds of promotions. “They are useful people to get to know.".

Philip Hayward                                            Maureen Hannan
Editor                                                            Senior Editor
Parks & Recreation                                 Parks & Recreation 

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Numbers Game (RedGate continued)

I scooped up the free weekly Rockville newspaper from the end of our driveway, before it could get run over yet again. Optimistically hoping to find a part-time job for my teenager, instead I winced with disappointment when I opened the paper and read one of the front page headlines: “Golf Course Study Correction Paints Darker Financial Picture.” Despite the warming weather, suddenly things weren’t looking so sunny at RedGate Golf Course again.

Due to a spreadsheet error (and when haven’t we all been betrayed by Excel at one time or another?), the projected $100,000 profit at RedGate after five years of outsourced management was now forecast to be a $1.5 million deficit.  Certain members of the city council went ballistic, and abruptly the conversation shifted from whether or not to outsource management of the course to whether Rockville needed a golf course at all.

This time attending the city council meeting in person would be particularly onerous due to a very full agenda including the entire 2012 city budget, which promised to drag on late into the evening. So I tuned in the next day to the online video, which is helpfully bookmarked to the meeting agenda, allowing you to click right to part you want to watch. Pretty slick!

To make a long story short, a motion to close the golf course within a month and “return it to nature” was quickly quashed by a 3-2 vote. No doubt the debate was colored by an earlier vote to cut the entire parks and recreation budget and raise athletic league fees. But the discussion still brought up an interesting point—under what circumstances should we expect that park facilities like golf courses will be self-sustaining? Is $400,000 out of a $7.5 million annual parks and recreation budget (or $108 million overall city budget) really that unreasonable? Isn’t it possible that the golf course provides at least $400,000 in benefits to the city, both economically and in quality of life? (See our January issue for more on this.)

I asked these questions of Richard Singer of the National Golf Foundation, author of the RedGate study (and subsequent mea culpa). He said that it is difficult to gauge the proportion of municipal golf operations which are self-sustaining due to so many differences in accounting and comparing expenses. RedGate’s operating overhead seems particularly high, which is why NGF recommends outsourcing the management. There is also no way to put a dollar figure on the quality of life issues, or even the economic benefit to the city. Fortunately, NGF is working on a major study of municipal golf courses that he hopes will provide some more quantitative data to answer these questions, with the results to be presented at the NRPA and NGF sponsored Municipal Golf Institute at Oglebay this September. Hopefully this apples-to-apples comparison will demonstrate when muni courses are on par with their peers and help them to avoid those financial bunkers.

Elizabeth Beard
Managing Editor
Parks & Recreation

Monday, March 28, 2011

Afternoon at the Capitol: The Congressional Recognition Reception

NRPA Congressional Recognition Reception
 It was St. Patrick’s Day, so how fitting that we would get held up on our post-lunch walk to the Capitol by the Irish Prime Minister’s visit.  We all stood waiting on the presidential motorcade to cross the street for the Congressional Recognition Ceremony that afternoon, and as we waited, we enjoyed the March sunshine and took in the mix of tourists, protesters, vociferous street preacher, and impatient Hill staffers.  The street was buzzing with murmurs about what the President’s schedule had been and when the motorcade would pass through. 

It had been a long time since I had been in Washington on a regular work day, and I remembered part of what I’d loved about the city as a fresh-out-of-college paralegal.  People in D.C. may be over-scheduled and tightly wound, but they do get excited about being close to world events—and to the President himself.  And the friendly chatter on the street fed into my excitement about the awards reception I was heading to—in the Atrium of the Capitol Visitor Center.

For me, a writer who is often conducting interviews by phone or sitting behind a desk, it was a treat just to mingle with NRPA members and colleagues.  But in that setting—and in between stirring speeches by the award recipients—it was a grand and lovely experience.  An afternoon of going back and forth between, for example, chatting with Wyoming’s state parks director about skiing with his kids, and taking in sound bites from lawmakers passionate about parks and the outdoors.  Here’s a pastiche from the various acceptance speeches:

From Georgia Congressman John Lewis: “Parks bind us together. They get us outside…get us moving. They create community. They serve all races, all ages and all abilities. They are sacred; they are special.” 

And from Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Congresswoman: "I’m deeply grateful that you gather and that you represent the interests of parks and recreational opportunities for people all over our country, who have differing abilities to enjoy the outdoors, and you make it possible for so many to do that."

And, finally, this very personal reflection from New Jersey Congressman Albio Sires: “When I look back on my life on the things that were important…I realize that’s [in parks] where I made my friends, that’s what got me through college, that’s where I relaxed, that’s where I spent a lot of my time."

I looked around at my NRPA colleagues, most of whom have been working on behalf of parks a lot longer than I have—and I saw smiles of appreciation and enjoyment. And some standing on tiptoes to get a better view of each of the speakers.  It’s wonderful when anyone really understands the value of what you are advocating for day-in, day-out—and even better when people with the power to make change understand.  Acknowledging and commending the work of those legislators was encouraging, I think, for the recognizers as well as those recognized. Despite the fatigue that was setting in at the end of that jam-packed day.  Despite sore feet from standing on marble floors and traipsing all over Capitol Hill.  

During the two-hour commute from downtown D.C. back to Loudoun County that evening, I thought a lot about how worthwhile this work of preserving and protecting parks is.  And, in a time when our nation is so polarized over what is worth spending public monies on, how good it is to see some agreement right inside the Capitol dome on the value of our open spaces, our trails, our health, our community bonds, and our children’s play.

Maureen Hannan
Senior Editor