Cultivating Thriving Parks and Recreation Spaces: The Power of Community Engagement and Inclusivity
Parks and recreation departments can create thriving spaces that serve the entire community by prioritizing engagement and inclusivity.
Public parks and recreation spaces offer valuable opportunities for residents to rest and unwind, or participate in physical activities and socialize — but that doesn’t guarantee everyone in the community is taking advantage, or even able to. For many parks and recreation departments, providing inclusive spaces is a challenge.
Some departments are eager for resources and innovative ideas to make their spaces more welcoming to all, while others don’t fully understand the benefits of ensuring inclusivity or view it as a necessary part of their role. This can not only limit diversity, but also result in marginalized groups in the community missing out on the benefits of parks and recreation. This article explores the transformative power of community engagement and inclusivity, and shares steps parks and recreation department leaders can take to create thriving spaces that serve the entire community.
The Value of Parks and Recreation Spaces
Parks and recreation spaces matter to residents, but just how important are they? According to a recent report published by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), parks and recreation facilities play a vital, positive role in the lives of residents throughout the U.S.
From offering restorative green spaces for community enjoyment to providing year-round activities that bring friends and families together, parks and recreation facilities are essential for building strong communities with happy, engaged residents.
Proven Benefits of Parks and Recreation Spaces
Beyond mere enjoyment, thriving and inclusive parks and recreation spaces are proven to bring mental, physical, and environmental health benefits to communities. Amenities such as walking loops, sports fields, and fitness classes increase residents’ physical activity levels. Exposure to nature in a park setting provides a myriad of physical and mental health benefits. And by offering a place for both planned and informal interactions to take place, these spaces decrease loneliness and strengthen social connections.
Not only are parks in the U.S. highly trafficked and within walking distance of the majority of residences, they are valued as democratic spaces where people of all ages and backgrounds can come together. According to the NRPA report:
- More than 280 million people in the U.S. visited a local park or recreation facility during the past year.
- 88 percent of U.S. adults agree it is vital for local park and recreation agencies to engage with every member of the community to ensure offerings meet their needs.
- Visitors who find their parks and recreation facilities to be inclusive visit these areas nearly two times as often as those who do not hold this view.
It’s important for parks and recreation department personnel to understand how highly residents value not only the health and social benefits these facilities bring, but also that these facilities are inclusive for all. By supporting access for marginalized groups, parks and recreation department leaders support a better civic experience for the entire community.
Benefits of Recreation for Marginalized Groups — and Obstacles to Obtaining It
U.S. parks and recreation facilities are generally accessible and provide many low-cost or no-cost options for athletics, activities, and leisure. This makes these spaces crucial resources for people of lower socioeconomic status and limited means of transportation — factors that often affect members of marginalized groups.
One study in the Journal of Leisure Research found that people experiencing poverty greatly appreciated their leisure time, and that inclusive parks and recreation programs lead to a heightened sense of community and reduced social isolation. Study participants expressed they were eager for chances to connect with others, make friends, and exchange knowledge or resources. They also spoke about leisure activities providing much-needed respite from daily life and home environments.
However, opportunities to engage in leisure activities, such as attending concerts or painting, were limited by factors including intersecting stigma, lack of socially accessible environments, and assumptions around the relative value of work, survival, and recreation. Study participants expressed a desire for “judgment-free” spaces, indicating that a lack of social acceptance hindered their participation.
The ability of participants to learn when and where events took place also was identified as a barrier. While some found out about activities from large social networks or involvement in the subculture scene, others lacked access to any information about how to join activities they would enjoy and expressed hopelessness with the situation.
The lack of opportunity for marginalized groups to participate equally in parks and recreation spaces and programming is detrimental to the health and well-being of these residents. By providing more welcoming spaces and enabling wider participation, parks and recreation departments can take a monumental step forward towards uniting their communities, making them safer and more supportive for all.
Creating More Inclusive Public Spaces
For parks and recreation facilities to meet the needs of everyone in their communities, governments should conduct extensive outreach to gain a thorough understanding of all residents’ needs. When individuals who could benefit from these spaces are accounted for and their voices are heard, parks and recreation facilities afford a powerful opportunity to break down inequalities and foster inclusivity.
Collecting data on programming, use, and conditions can also help parks and recreation departments gain a better understanding of how equitable their facilities really are, to justify new investments. Some of the most critical investments parks and recreation departments can make to improve accessibility and inclusivity include:
Community Engagement Tools
Tools to streamline the process of gathering and analyzing input from marginalized community members are essential. With community engagement tools , parks and recreation departments can hear directly from the residents they serve about what they’re looking for, and implement a plan accordingly.
Inclusive Programming Resources
The right recreation management software can provide resources to help department officials develop more inclusive programming for diverse communities. Officials should also ensure the process of registering for these activities is fully accessible to all, for instance, by using software such as AudioEye to ensure people living with disabilities can easily register online.
Diversity and Inclusion Training
Prioritizing ongoing diversity and inclusion training for parks and recreation professionals keeps these important topics top-of-mind all year. By understanding the need for greater inclusivity in the world at large, staff can make informed decisions that better serve all residents.
Community Outreach Strategies
Having inclusive programs and facilities is excellent, but no one will benefit from them if they aren’t aware of them. Take the time to prepare effective community outreach strategies so people in marginalized groups can find out about your department’s offerings.
Accessibility Planning and Management
When ensuring the accessibility of parks and recreation facilities, it’s important to have a formal strategy in place. An accessibility management program plans for action at all levels of an organization, often activating community engagement through a resident advisory committee to ensure the enjoyment of public spaces by all.
Better Quality of Life, for All
The opposite of inclusion is exclusion, and no resident should be excluded from a community’s civic experience. All residents deserve equitable access to the green spaces and recreation facilities found in their towns, villages, or cities. Parks and recreation departments that embrace resident engagement and inclusivity gain valuable insight into the needs and wants of diverse community members and can start making impactful changes.
When thriving parks and recreation spaces serve the entire community, everyone benefits. These spaces help people live happier lives — making facilities and programming accessible to all is well worth the investment.
CivicPlus® solutions can help parks and recreation departments harness community engagement to realize greater accessibility and inclusivity. Tour our parks and recreation management solution now to discover how.