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A Wide Open Field for Conservation

2013-02-01, Department, by Timothy Gallagher

Think comprehensively about sustainability programs.In an era when buzzwords come and go, few are as important—and confusing—as “sustainability.” Do a quick web search and you will see how widely this word is used: sustainability in design, integrated sustainability, sustainable development, sustainable solutions, sustainable living, sustainable environment, sustainable buildings, corporate sustainability, sustainable products, and more. Sustainable Christmas trees? Two are planted for every one cut.

Typically, discussions of sustainability center on ecological concerns. But, a comprehensive discussion on sustainability must also include the other two legs of the three-legged stool: social and economic sustainability. Sustainable design and practices not only promote environmental responsibility, but also enhance our communities and address management and costs associated with resources.

The basic concept of sustainability and parks and recreation is to make the world a better place today and for future generations.

• Ecological sustainability promotes the efficient and responsible use and management of resources to provide long-term benefits to communities. To achieve environmental sustainability, the rate of renewable resource harvest, pollution, and non-renewable resource depletion must be reduced to the point of being sustainable over the long term. A sustainable park should function within the ecosystem rather than independently. Healthy ecosystems provide direct benefits to communities: water purification, clean air, groundwater recharge, food production, and viewsheds.

• Social sustainability characterizes parks that serve as valuable places for shared social activity and public interaction. A socially sustainable community must have the ability to build and maintain park facilities serving residents of all ages, abilities, and economic statuses.

• Economic sustainability reflects the government agency’s capacity to maintain public infrastructure and continue to achieve its public purposes. It involves government spending and its impact on the economy as a whole.

Last year, the State of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD), a strong proponent of sustainable parks, included as a component of the 2013-2017 Oregon Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan a chapter on “Developing Sustainable Park Systems in Oregon.” The overall goal of sustainable parks, according to the chapter, is to promote the use of sustainable practices, maximize the useful life of buildings and park facilities, and enhance the natural environment. It provides state and local park and recreation providers with a better understanding of sustainability practices and recommends steps to create sustainable parks.

OPRD proposed revising the state grant program’s evaluation criteria to emphasize sustainability for land acquisition, new facility development, major rehabilitation, and trail projects. These important, new sustainability criteria award applicants additional points for the use of sustainable design, practices, and elements. A well-designed park and recreation project utilizing sustainable design, elements, or practices would likely receive the maximum points under the new evaluation criteria.

Secondly, Oregon developed a self-assessment tool kit to help park and recreation providers evaluate their current levels of sustainable practices. The assessment tool (Sustainable Park and Recreation Practices Scorecard) will also assist in establishing a statewide baseline and tracking future improvements.

Grant recipients throughout Oregon are already incorporating sustainable elements into projects. Some examples include installation of green roofs on buildings, use of pervious surfaces for parking lots and trails, installation of rain gardens to treat storm water on site, irrigation controls adjusted for rainfall, and automatic lighting controls to minimize electricity use.

Why Should We Care about Sustainable Parks?
A commitment to sustainable management practices provides an opportunity to address many of our most pressing challenges, such as balancing the design and construction of parks with long-term maintenance requirements, enhancing community living, and reducing consumption of resources.

Sustainable parks are designed, constructed, and operated to address issues facing communities and their surrounding regions. They can significantly decrease water use by reducing irrigation needs through the use of rain gardens and recycled water. Sustainable (green) buildings can save up to 60 percent in annual energy costs when compared to conventional building designs. Studies have also shown substantial increases in employee productivity (2 to 16 percent) in green buildings designed with careful consideration to natural lighting and improved air circulation.

Where to Start?
Agencies should first conduct a self-assessment and determine a starting point. Next, they need to establish benchmarks and track the use of resources over time.

To get started:
• Educate and engage staff and the public. This represents a critical step toward conservation savings. Everyone needs to be aware of conservation goals.

• Keep your ears open to good ideas that may come from unexpected places. Accounting staff may notice unusual variations in utility bills. Community center staff can ask useful questions, such as, “Why heat areas that are not in use?”  Maintenance vehicle trips can be shortened or eliminated to save fuel. Grounds staff may have innovative ideas about stormwater runoff.

• Define a conservation education strategy, and don’t assume it has to be implemented via live meetings.

• Build alliances with community organizations dedicated to conservation and environmental missions. Conservation organizations bring different strengths to the table. Working together, great things can be accomplished.

All residents will support reductions in municipal budget expenses when they derive from real savings. But they need to know about conservation and sustainability initiatives. Share your park department’s valuable expertise—your horticulturist, for example, can recommend native species that require less water and fertilizer. The advocacy benefits related to the sustainability mission can be substantial. Most community residents support the stewardship mission. Our responsibility is to build and maintain sustainable communities.

Sustainability a buzzword?  Maybe so. But let’s ensure it endures as a pillar in how parks improve the quality of life for all people.

Timothy Gallagherof Gallagher Consulting is the former Director of Parks and Recreation for Los Angeles County and the City of Seattle. He was hired by the State of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department to write the sustainability chapter. Gallagher also works with RJM Design Group as a senior associate (

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