Feature Article - February 2019
Find a printable version here

Expanding Access

Inclusion & Diversity Outreach Boosts Participation

By Dave Ramont


Whether in cities, suburbs or small towns, people from all backgrounds utilize our parks—and park facilities and programming—for many different reasons. Access to public parks and recreation can yield many benefits, including simply enjoying quality recreation time with family or friends. These activities strengthen social bonds, and studies suggest that where there are plentiful parks and robust recreation services, residents are more engaged with their communities. Many studies have also indicated that time spent in parks and open spaces can improve mental and physical health, and reduce the impact of chronic diseases, particularly in vulnerable populations and underserved communities.

It's also been shown that well-managed parks and recreation services can help communities become safer and lead to decreases in crime and other detrimental activities. Additionally, park access is often related to higher physical activity levels for both youth and adults; adolescents with easy access to parks and rec facilities are less likely to be obese than their counterparts without access to such facilities.

And yet, discrimination still exists for some populations when it comes to access to public parks and park programming, including minority groups and immigrants, low-income populations, LGBTQ communities and those with physical and cognitive disabilities. So what are some ways that cities and parks departments are working to close this gap and make our public spaces beneficial to more residents? How do we engage underserved populations and encourage their participation in recreation, sports and fitness programs and facilities?

Social equity is one of the three pillars of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), along with conservation, and health and wellness. They believe that "public parks and recreation services should be equally accessible and available to all people regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, ability or age." Access to parks and recreation services, including the maintenance, safety and accessibility of parks and facilities, should be provided on an equitable basis to all citizens. The NRPA's Parks for Inclusion initiative supports built environment enhancements, model policy development and best practices for program implementation to increase access to health opportunities for underserved populations.

Equity Goals in Portland

In Oregon, Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) believes that race should have no detrimental effect on minority, refugee and immigrant communities when it comes to accessing parks and natural areas or benefiting from park services. Portland created a five-year Racial Equity Plan (REP) to assist in implementing racial equity goals adopted by the city council, which wants to help all citizens satisfy their essential needs and achieve their full potential.

Art Hendricks, the equity and inclusion manager for PP&R, said REP is a result of valuable input from staff at all levels or the organization. "Two years into the plan, we've seen tangible results in some key areas, such as workforce hiring practices, training, minority contracting, language access, outreach and other key areas."

But Hendricks said they've also seen barriers to making progress in some areas, so it's important for organizations to look at REP as being flexible and adaptable. "It's critical to track progress since this is still an emerging field. REP can't and shouldn't be seen as a cookie-cutter approach."

One part of REP involves hiring practices, and Hendricks said that one key goal is to make the workforce more reflective of the diversity of the community. "We find that underserved groups are more apt to create a connection to our programs and services when they see members of their community employed. It sends a strong and visible commitment that, as an organization, we care and are a part of the diverse communities within our city."

PP&R also provides mandatory staff training outlining the historical role that governments at all levels have played in creating institutional racism, since it's important for staff to know the historical injustices resulting from intentional and unintentional policies and practices, according to Hendricks. "Staff are also provided the opportunity to be grounded in how to reverse and remediate the adverse impacts that government policies and practices can have on communities of color and other marginalized communities. We also offer training to staff on a voluntary basis on a range of topics related to equity," Hendricks said.