Leaders of recreation agencies in America's largest cities are changing their tone - from sensitive to sensible.
For years, recreation has largely been a matter of the heart. Parks are good for us, it has been said, because they help make for a healthier society. Parks and the organized activities held within put smiles on children's faces, and more - they help keep those children out of trouble.
The emotional approach has been successful in some communities, to be sure. Nevertheless, at any given time somewhere in America, there are constituents who can't be swayed by referendum campaigns proclaiming that parks and recreation facilities - and the funding of them - will make their communities fitter and improve their overall quality of life.
So at May's inaugural Urban Park and Recreation Summit, held in Chicago and sponsored by the National Recreation and Park Association, nearly 400 representatives of urban rec agencies adopted a new rhetoric. Fed up with decades of being charged to maintain huge park and recreation systems despite eroding population bases and financial resources, these leaders united to endorse the most assertive agenda ever in the name of urban recreation.
Referred to as both "historic" and "no-nonsense" by Mary Ann Smith, alderman of Chicago's 48th Ward and one of several Summit keynote speakers, this call to action urges federal, state and local government officials to "acknowledge through leadership, investment, and action the true value and robust return on investment that quality parks bring to cities and urban communities."
Noting the prominence on the two-day Summit's agenda of workshops discussing strategies for economic investment, NRPA executive director John Thorner wasn't surprised by practitioners' focus on statistics - from the explicit (counting the number of pedestrians who pass through a single park each day) to the comprehensive (measuring parks' ability to increase a city's property tax base).
"A few years ago, the editor of a strategic plan said that if we were to be successful politically, we needed to have the facts and figures," Thorner said after Smith's address. "In fact, after Hurricane Katrina we had a call from the Office of Management and Budget, which was trying to assess what kind of funds were going to be needed to rebuild New Orleans. They asked us, `Can you give us some sense of the athletic facilities that are in New Orleans?' We had no idea. We don't have those statistics. And that has hurt us."
But that has begun to change. Recent studies from researchers like Texas A&M University distinguished professor John Crompton, a leading advocate of parks and recreation for more than three decades, are helping rec professionals make up for lost time and lost political clout.
During his lunchtime keynote on the Summit's first day, Crompton reminded attendees that cities' parks and recreation facilities function just as much as tourist attractions as do private entertainment centers such as theaters, casinos, pro sports venues and shopping malls. But unlike the latter group - which cities' politicians and convention and visitors bureaus often credit for drawing tourist dollars, thus explaining their willingness to aid and promote the expansion efforts of such ventures - parks recoup little financial reward.
"Tourism is a nonprofit, public sector-driven business. And that is news to your political establishment," Crompton said. "They think tourism is about the private sector. It's not. If you write down in your community the major attractions, you'll find your best cultural events, your tournaments, your museums are [in parks and recreation facilities]. ... That's our money [private ventures] are stealing. We need to be making the case for it."
Adding more fiscal fuel to the fire, Crompton cited the origin of public parks in this country - New York's Central Park was primarily developed to generate revenues for city coffers, as it created premium real estate in close proximity to attractive greenspace - going so far as to say that parks are more responsible for adding to cities' treasuries than, say, residential real estate developments. In that vein, he also said that parks lure highly mobile businesses (which he calls "footloose companies") and new residents, particularly sought-after retirees and highly educated white-collar professionals employed by those "footloose" firms (think Boeing, which in 2001 moved its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago).
"Great cities are places [where these people] would like to live," said Crompton, noting that high on the list of amenities mobile businesses and their employees seek are quality parks and recreation. "The physical relationship between what we do and businesses' relocation decisions is tight, and our economic development people don't understand. The reason they don't understand is because we haven't told them. ... When you look back in our recent history, [they] always said, `If only you had the data to show us.' We now have the data. Is it complete? No. Is it emerging? Yes. Do we have enough to make a case? Yes."
For urban parks and recreation administrators, the next step in making that case involves their taking this message back to their communities and civic leaders, and refusing to stay silent until their call to action is heard.
Urban recreation professionals know that they have the ear of at least one high-profile politician. Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley - whose scheduled keynote address was replaced at the last minute when it became clear he would not be able to avoid a trip to China - is well known among urban parks and recreation officials as an advocate of their cause.
Daley raised eyebrows and the ire of local aviators several years ago when he closed little-used Meigs Field, located on an island just off the Lake Michigan shoreline near downtown Chicago, and turned the airstrip into a 75-acre nature preserve. Despite significant cost overruns, a year later Daley garnered press of a more positive nature when he cut the ribbon on Millennium Park, a landmark public-private venture that replaced a downtown eyesore (the rooftop park was built above an underground parking garage and an old railyard, which for more than a century separated downtown from the lakeshore) with a 24.5-acre space now used to celebrate art, architecture and music.
Daley's most recent pledge of allegiance to urban parks agencies involved presenting their call to action to his peers and a nationwide audience at June's 74th Annual U.S. Conference of Mayors. Daley's resolution to endorse the new urban park and recreation agenda was adopted by the conference of nearly 1,200 mayors.
Meanwhile, it's clear that the fiery dialogue created by NRPA's Summit isn't about to be extinguished anytime soon. "We're all really excited. This is the first time this has happened - people just talking about city parks," said Peter Harnik, program director for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence. "These are people who understand cities, who love cities and love parks. Very often, if you go to a cities conference the topic of parks hardly comes up because there are so many other issues such as transportation and poverty alleviation. But when you go to a parks conference, cities almost never come up. So these people here have this hunger. ... There's tremendous energy."
It's also evident the Summit helped renew this energy, inspiring urban parks and recreation professionals to continue their struggle, no matter the challenges inherent to their jobs. In response to a brief yet moving speech by Charles Jordan, the former director of parks for the city of Portland, Ore., and a renowned figure among his peers, one tearful attendee said, "You have revitalized me. When you're in the trenches on a daily basis, to come in contact with those who've gone before you, who are in touch with what you're doing - I want to say thank you. Clearly what we're doing is more than leisure services. I needed somebody to say that to me today."