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Feature Article - September 2017

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Parks

Planning, Programming and Staffing to Better Serve All Residents

By Chris Gelbach


As park managers strive to better serve their communities, the need for planning, programming and staffing that engages all constituencies equitably and inclusively has never been clearer.

For park districts, effectively achieving these goals often involves applying a broad definition of diversity that includes considerations such as race and ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, language, culture, national origin, religious and political beliefs, age and disability status.

Ava Holliday is a founding partner of the Avarna Group, which helps park districts, outdoors organizations and other clients develop and implement equity, inclusion, diversity and relevancy efforts. She often sees organizations, state parks and municipal parks start with this focus on diversity because they desire to both diversify their staff and appeal to a broader swath of the local populace.

"That's all well and good, except that it often comes from a place where they're not compelled to think about why historically—and today—there haven't been as many people of color or queer folks or disabled folks in their parks," Holliday said. "Leading with diversity isn't very effective, and we ask folks instead to lead with equity."

While recreation managers should certainly work to understand and welcome the diverse audiences they serve, understanding and dismantling the barriers preventing people from accessing and using their parks and programming is even more critical. "And then, once they get into the parks and start working for the parks, how can they feel included?" Holliday said. "And then diversity often follows."

Bringing Equity to Park Planning

Achieving equity in parks is impossible without effectively collecting and considering the input of traditionally underrepresented communities during the park-planning process. In many cases, this may require park districts to conduct dedicated outreach to learn the views of groups that may be less likely to respond to a general survey.

For instance, Houston conducted a Master Parks Plan Survey in 2014 that produced results indicating that most respondents wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The city has since embarked on an ambitious Bayou Greenways 2020 project that will ultimately create a 150-mile network of continuous hiking trails, bike paths and green space running throughout the city.

The 2014 survey received criticism, however, since Houston is a highly diverse and segregated city, yet roughly two-thirds of respondents were white and had household incomes of at least $75,000. In response, the parks and rec department funded a study by researchers at Rice University that surveyed African-American and Latino neighborhoods on their priorities for the city's parks. The results found that park users in majority-minority neighborhoods were most interested in better maintained, safer local parks with more and better infrastructure, and less concerned about the improved connections between parks and neighborhoods that the greenways project will ultimately accomplish.

According to Holliday, because gathering community information for park planning is a long process, there are many steps along the way at which people can either be shut out or invited into the conversation. To make sure that all voices are represented during the public comment period, Holliday recommends that you:

  1. Make sure that you truly know the community you serve and the demographics and history of the community. This will help you craft an engagement process that makes sense for those community members.
  2. Understand the other barriers different populations in the community are facing, as well as the diverse ways in which different communities have historically wanted to be outside.
  3. Create engagement tools that are culturally relevant by making sure the public comment period is clear and gives people multiple ways to engage in the process.
  4. Disseminate the information about the project in a culturally relevant way.

"You want the information to be available not just online, not just through words, but if you can talk about it through pictures, different people talking about it, through the mail, through community meetings, that can be really helpful," Holliday said. "To whatever extent different languages are spoken in the community, make sure you can translate the materials. All of that is really important."

To make the public meetings themselves more accessible, Holliday recommends:

  • Making sure they're not during business hours so people who work 9 to 5 can attend.
  • Allowing families and children to attend.
  • Providing a meal if budget allows in return for asking people to give up their dinner and family time.
  • Being clear about next steps and how everyone's feedback from the meeting will be used.
  • Giving attendees a way to stay informed as the process moves forward.

Holliday noted that her organization is currently working with The Wilderness Society on a community and stakeholder engagement toolkit that will be free and publicly available soon, and is specifically focused on ways to successfully get a broader range of people engaged in these public comment periods.