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Urban Directors and Advocacy

2012-06-01, Department, by Joel Pannell

Federal advocacy is important for communities of all types and sizes.  NRPA’s public policy team works to ensure that federal policies and resources work in the best interests of all our members, agencies, and the communities they serve.  Advocacy is particularly important to cities and urbanized counties, where nearly 80 percent of Americans currently live and whose parks and recreation departments face distinctive challenges in allocating limited resources and navigating multiple levels of politics.  NRPA formed the Urban Directors Network to serve as a resource for urban agency leaders to share ideas and solutions to common problems.  The NRPA public policy office recently spoke with five of these directors to get a picture of what advocacy means to them—and how federal advocacy helps them overcome their unique challenges.

“The challenges for urban park systems are just like rest of urban issues,” notes Mark McHenry, director of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department.   “Lack of green space, blight, vacant lots, crime, education, improving the quality of life—these are urban challenges that become problems for the federal government as they relate to larger federal issues.”  Undeniably, the federal government is currently struggling with many larger issues—a stagnant economy, the childhood obesity epidemic, decreased global competitiveness in the classroom, and increased congestion on our roads and highways, just to name a few. 

While these issues have become federal in scope, they began as local problems, one neighborhood at a time.  The solutions, in turn, must come at the local and neighborhood levels—and it is critical that our federal government leaders direct solutions to localities.  “The federal government is uniquely poised to establish and support programs, even seed programs, that can be leveraged at the local level,” states Mary Bradford, director of the Montgomery County Department of Parks, Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, just outside of Washington, D.C.

What most elected officials don’t realize is that parks and recreation departments--because of their rich combination of lands, facilities, and programs—are positioned to address our most stubborn national problems as no other local agency can.  Studies like one conducted by the University of Massachusetts show that investments in parks and green space create jobs at a higher rate than sectors such as new highway construction and traditional energy.  Access to green space and recreational opportunities has been proven to impact public health positively.  Trails and bike paths are increasingly being used as modes of non-motorized commuting.  In many cities and counties throughout the country, parklands absorb millions of cubic feet of rainfall—saving localities tens of millions of dollars annually in stormwater management expenses. 

“Our key challenge is how to convey the number of people we impact each day and throughout the year.  Last weekend we had over eight different events with close to 100,000 in attendance.  This number does not even touch the park and greenway users, visitors to our nature preserves, organized sports, etc.,” states Jim Garges, director of the Mecklenberg County (North Carolina) Department of Parks and Recreation.  NRPA advocacy plays a key role in educating and reminding elected officials of the role that parks play in communities across the country.  Bradford points out that “NRPA advocacy can help keep federal decision-makers informed about the need for parks, trails, and essential recreational services in cities and urbanized counties, as these officials plan aid and policies for housing, transportation, and other urban support programs.”

Joe Turner, parks and recreation director for the city of Houston, notes that, “the only way to influence decision-makers is to educate them.”   The general public and elected officials view parks and recreation only as amenities—a view that makes parks and recreation one of the biggest targets in annual budget cycles.  According to Los Angeles parks and recreation Director Jon Kirk Mukri, advocacy is, “crucial in keeping legislators aware that money they appropriate is critical, not just to urban parks, but to the community.  They think of [us] as just recreation but do not think about impact—anti-crime, gang, public health, childhood obesity.”   Mukri adds that he considers funding for parks critical “people dollars.” The difficulty in conveying this message to legislators is that the impact of parks on a community is sometimes hard to measure because, as Mukri points out, “youth development, community development—these things take time.”

The impact of parks and recreation on communities is, however, profound and real.  And park agencies look to the federal government for more than just funding assistance.  Policy changes can be just as important as dollars and cents.  McHenry notes that there are “revenue neutral” policy positions that elected officials can make that can benefit parks and recreation agencies and entire communities.  He cites recently passed ordinances in Kansas City that have made parks safer and friendlier for families.

Ultimately, Turner says, advocacy efforts are about, “trying to provide good parks—that’s it.”  In Houston, Turner is well known for putting aside personal politics to get things done.  “It takes red and blue to make green,” is one of Turner’s trademark phrases (referring to the traditional colors associated with the Republican and Democratic parties).  His point? Bipartisan cooperation results in both green space and increased funding for urban parks. “When someone uses a park, they aren’t interested in the political battles that were fought; they just want a good park.  The citizens, the families, the kids, the neighborhoods just want a good park to go to that is safe and well maintained.”

NRPA’s advocacy efforts are focused on this ultimate goal of influencing federal policy to direct as many resources as possible to states and local communities—all to the end of enhancing quality of life through parks, recreation, and environmental conservation.  This is NRPA’s organizational mission—and it is a mission that requires daily advocacy from our smallest towns to our biggest cities.


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