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The New Demographics

2012-09-01, Feature, by Andrea Lynn

Park and recreation agencies around the country are finding success by catering programs to the needs of the changing demographics within their diverse communities.When Audree Jones-Taylor arrived at the Oakland Office of Parks and Recreation as director in 2004, she was ecstatic about the natural resources the California city provided for recreational activities. There was just one problem: The inner-city kids weren’t signing up for its great programs, such as sailing, swimming, and hiking. The solution involved recognition of the particular challenges posed by Oakland’s remarkably diverse population, with a demographic breakdown that includes 27 percent African-American, 26 percent White, 25 percent Hispanic, and 17 percent Asian.

Park and recreation agencies across the country are similarly confronting shifting demographics in their communities. They, too, find challenges in achieving sufficient levels of participation in their programs. NRPA, in fact, will address these trends next month at its annual Congress in Anaheim, California. Presenter Sylvia Allen, founder and principal of Allen Consulting Services, says that while U.S. communities are becoming increasingly multicultural, their parks and recreation departments struggle with different sets of perception.

“Even when what Americans consider to be the highest standard of service is provided, residents from these subgroups often rate it as less than satisfactory or report that they do not feel comfortable or welcome,” says Allen. “Americans don’t mean to be insensitive; many are simply unfamiliar with the ethnic, cultural, religious, and national differences of other parts of the world. We make mistakes without even realizing what we have done.”

For Oakland, the mission of its park and recreation department is simple: to expose, enlighten, empower, and encourage, Jones-Taylor explains. Instead of holding onto preconceived thoughts about the recreational likes or dislikes of certain ethnic groups, she urges exposure to everything and then focusing on the favorites. When Jones-Taylor took over, she found that certain outdoor activities weren’t being promoted because of assumptions about what Latinos or African-Americans would or wouldn’t enjoy.

“The kids don’t know what they want,” Jones-Taylor says. “You have to introduce them to it. Once we introduced kids to camping and non-traditional programs, our numbers far exceeded what they were. It is about that exposure.”

Such exposure extends to staffing, Jones-Taylor adds. When she arrived, many members of her staff couldn’t swim and didn’t enjoy hiking. She rectified the problem by holding staff meetings on boats or on hiking trails, as a way to introduce the staff to new areas. This prompted a trickle-down effect: Once the staff learned to enjoy these activities, they were more eager to offer them to kids. When the kids began to be heavily involved in these new activities, families began to participate as well. They saw the benefits of exposing their children to activities that weren’t common in the community.

The main way to know the needs of the changing community, Jones-Taylor says, is through outreach and focus groups. Her department does this annually. “We listen and hear, and we share information to keep up with the needs and changes,” she says.

One message that they hear constantly is that the community wants unity and consistency through a standard set of programs at each facility. Each center must have an art space, prevention program to keep kids engaged, and ESL classes, among other programs. Too many times, she says, people feel like other parts of the city (more affluent ones, in particular) are being provided with better services.

“The community may change, but desires and needs are the same,” she says. “Our challenge in our job is that the programs are consistent and that people are engaged and have the opportunity to have their needs met.”

Embracing Change in Seattle  

While almost 70 percent of Seattle’s population of more than 600,000 is white, the remaining percentage is extremely diverse, with significant numbers of African-Americans and Asians, plus one of the fastest- growing Latino communities in the United States. Because of its increasing diversity, the city has been working since 2005 on a Race and Social Justice Initiative. For its part, the parks department has a 20-member Change Team representing every level and line of business in an effort to make the programs as inclusive as possible. One of the keys to dealing with diversity in Seattle’s recreation programs is by responding to the individual needs of each facility.

“We don’t use a cookie cutter approach,” says Christopher Williams, acting superintendent of Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “The programs need to be responsive. One neighborhood may choose to recreate differently than another neighborhood.”

Seattle has also experienced an influx of Islamic immigrants from North Africa, which has posed a unique challenge in terms of the swimming facilities. “Islamic women can’t be in a bathing suit in the company of men,” Williams says. “One of our goals is to encourage people to get active and fit. A lot of these Islamic women like to swim, and they weren’t able to do so. Many had given up the sport of swimming.”

Communication between these swimmers and the parks department culminated in establishing the “Women of the World” program. A few times a week, gender-specific times in the pool allow Muslim women to swim with other females. The female-only swim times accommodate the Islamic women in a way that is culturally sensitive to their religion without total exclusion of other populations. “There’s not an unlimited supply of land. Our challenge is to find the right level of balance for new uses,” Williams says.

Seattle’s neighborhoods provide more examples of the ways recreational activities act as cultural centerpieces. Soccer and basketball are popular among many groups, but in Seattle’s Latino neighborhoods, the sports attract more than just the participants.

“You will see hundreds of families at the basketball court,” Williams says. “They eat, they socialize, they community-build around basketball and food. It is amazing. I had never seen that before.”

The city’s sizeable Pacific Islander population has also led to an increase in Samoan cricket, an event punctuated by food and drumming with a gathering of 200 to 400 people.

Increasing Diversity Across the Country  

The cultural demands of Oakland and Seattle offer just a glimpse of a growing national trend. In the last decade, the U.S. Census has reported a significant increase in the proportion of Americans from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. America’s racial and ethnic diversity is most prominent in the West and South, as well as in urban areas across the nation. According to the 2010 Census, four states (including two of the largest, California and Texas) and the District of Columbia are now “majority-minority” states, where less than half the population is non-Hispanic White.

Since recreation patterns are shaped by cultural influences, this creates a changing atmosphere in the country’s park and recreation programs.

“We must be responsive to the changing needs and interests of our constituencies,” says Jesus Aguirre, director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “Our agency has sought new and innovative ways to increase the level of programming required by our increasingly diverse city.”

The D.C. parks department created specific programs targeted toward various demographic groups, for example. To increase the number of minorities in the sport of swimming, the department hosts the Black History Invitational Swim Meet each February.

“Additionally, we created our first-ever Spanish immersion summer camp last year and have begun to grow this program in response to the high demand,” Aguirre says.

Two essential keys to mastering growing diversity are outreach in the community and a staff that is reflective of the community’s demographic makeup. Williams emphasizes flexibility and staying open to new ideas.

“Be willing to go into uncharted territory and hope that you are building relationships with communities all over your city and town,” Williams says. “Do outreach. Don’t listen to the same 12 people who show up to meetings.”

“We don’t know what’s best for that community until you go into the community or bring the community to you,” agrees Jones-Taylor.

Her program’s outreach in Oakland requires a diverse group: When they knock on doors, they need Spanish, Cantonese, and English speaking staff members. It is also important that spoken and written communication reflects the languages spoken in the community. In Oakland, there is an ordinance that requires communications in languages with a population of more than 10,000.

“We don’t wait for the 10,000,” Jones-Taylor says. “We know the communities who need materials in Chinese or Spanish. We look at the Census data and ask what that community needs and what is needed to ensure a clear representation of it.”

The key, says Williams, is knowing which questions to ask in various diverse communities. Are you serving everyone in the community? Are you allowing new and emerging communities to recreate in a way that fosters their cultural identity? By asking the right questions and remaining open to incremental change, every park and recreation department can successfully serve their entire diverse population.



Parks play a valuable role in prevention. Although most injuries and diseases are colorblind in terms of race, some health concerns disproportionately target certain ethnic groups due to differences in genetics, diet, lifestyle behaviors, socioeconomic factors, and more. To help prevent and reduce illnesses and injuries in their communities, many park and recreation agencies around the country are providing demographic-specific health programs that offer information, fitness opportunities, and alternatives to unhealthy and unsafe practices.

Learn-to-Swim Classes for African-American Kids—According to the Centers for Disease Control, the drowning rate of African-American children ages 5 to 14 is almost three times that of white children in the same age range. In many cases, the parents’ fear of drowning keeps them from putting their kids in swimming classes or allowing them near the water, which ultimately puts kids even more at risk to drown. USA Swimming, with the help of African-American Olympic gold-medal swimmer Cullen Jones, has developed the Make A Splash program to educate parents and provide learn-to-swim programs. Funded in part by grants, park and recreation departments nationwide are offering the program to children who may otherwise not have an opportunity to learn to swim. Visit for more details.

Diabetes Prevention for Native American Communities—According to the Indian Health Service, about 16.3 percent of Native American adults have been diagnosed with diabetes, and they are about 2.8 times more likely to have Type II Diabetes than white individuals of comparable age. In Elko, Nevada, the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada established a program focused on diabetes prevention and awareness. The initiative includes an inviting park with a playground for children, a center to house the diabetes program, a walking club, nutrition education, and more. Information can be found at

Hispanic Communities and Heart Disease—Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for all Americans, but due to language barriers, information about the disease is not being adequately shared with the Latino community. In Illinois, the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition worked with the American Heart Association, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, and the Chicago Park District to establish the “Cuidando su Corazón/Caring for your Heart” program. Free health education programs focused on heart health and targeted to the Latino community are offered at several Chicago parks and community centers. Learn more at



In Oakland, soccer is universally enjoyed, but the popularity of other activities is always changing. Types of ethnic dancing have become popular as a recreational activity because the entire family can be involved. “We serve 90 to 100 on a Friday night,” says Audree Jones-Taylor. “It’s inter-generational. Even if the grandparents aren’t dancing, they are there for support.” An increase in the Indian population has led to more use of park and recreation facilities for weddings. In Oakland’s Chinatown area, focus groups and door-to-door outreach discovered residents requesting more ping-pong tables and line-dancing classes. Now, Jones-Taylor says, the Lincoln Square Recreation Center is full of men playing ping-pong like crazy and more than 150 seniors participating in line-dancing. “We were able to meet that need through the focus groups and doing the door-to-door outreach,” she says.

In Seattle, Williams says the popularity of baseball has declined over the years. Newer forms of recreation that attract park users include dodgeball, bike polo, Futsal (indoor soccer), inline roller hockey, radio race cars, and handball. Some tennis courts have been converted for dodgeball and bike polo, while a new tennis arena is set to accommodate the entire tennis community. In the Asian and senior communities, pickleball is popular, and Samoan cricket is on the rise due to the increasing Pacific Islander population.

Building a More Diverse Staff  

Michele R. Potter, director of Parks, Recreation, and Culture in Gaithersburg, Maryland, believes a staff should be reflective of the community it serves.

“It is an employer’s responsibility to ensure that their workforce ethnicity reflects the general population,” she says. “Our staff is always looking at the diversity of our participants and tries to ensure that programs and staff reflect the population.”

A more diverse park and recreation workforce encourages more diversity from participants. In Gaithersburg, there was a realization that the hiring of a Spanish/Portuguese instructor for pre-K recreation and fitness programs (including international music, yoga, and tumbling) gave added relief to parents. “Having a Spanish-speaking instructor has been key for the comfort of the parents when they leave their young ones for their first class,” she says.

Developing a staff representative of a community ethnic diversity requires a number of steps. Oakland Parks and Recreation Department does recruiting for bilingual staff, while maintaining close relations with its personnel department. Job announcements are produced in English, Chinese, and Spanish. Staff is recruited from the surrounding area, and there’s an intensive training program for hiring.

Christopher Williams of Seattle Parks and Recreation advises taking the additional steps of constructing interview panels that are receptive to the idea of a diverse pool of candidates and active recruitment to make this a reality.

Idris Al-Oboudi, recreation services manager for Manhattan Beach, California, advises going into service clubs to recruit retired individuals, who have an abundant source of energy and experience.    

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***** and above - Well written and informative.


article is good- but where are the Figures (maps) for this article???