Expanding Access

Inclusion & Diversity Outreach Boosts Participation


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.


Parks for New Portlanders (PNP), a program initiated by PP&R, works to provide recreation opportunities for immigrant and refugee communities. They work with city leaders and community partners to design culturally relevant programs, ensuring that services and spaces are welcoming and accessible to communities of color, new immigrants and refugees. They host sporting events like Portland World Cup Soccer and the Intercultural Basketball Tournament.

PNP also brings together 10 community youth ambassadors who are local leaders, community experts and speak 15 different languages besides English. They advocate, organize and engage families and assist PP&R in identifying barriers and challenges related to parks services for new Portlanders.

The program is having a tremendous impact in bridging a connection and increasing the understanding in refugee and immigrant communities, according to Hendricks. "In many ways, young refugee and immigrant people serve as an effective bridge to the parents, grandparents and extended family in their integration into our community," he said. "It's universal that parents have a keen interest in the well-being of their children, but given the gap in culture and language, it's difficult for the adults to navigate our system. The youth ambassadors provide a great entry into increasing understanding and connection."


Portland has also created an Office of Equity and Human Rights (OEHR), with which Hendricks collaborates. Their mission is to "provide education and technical support to city staff and elected officials, leading to recognition and removal of systemic barriers to fair and just distribution of resources, access and opportunity, starting with issues of race and disability."

Other groups within OEHR include the Portland Commission on Disability, the Human Rights Commission and Black Male Achievement Portland. Their Civil Rights Program is designed to remove barriers and conditions that prevent underserved groups from accessing programs and services.

Gender Equity in L.A.

More and more public agencies and community organizations are adopting gender equity as one of their core values. In Los Angeles, the Department of Recreation and Parks have adopted a gender equity policy with the purpose of involving more girls in sports and recreation programs by undertaking measures to encourage their participation. Other goals of the policy include improving the representation of women assigned to the administration of sports and rec programs, as well as on citywide and regional sports boards; increasing the number of female referees, coaches, instructors and mentors; ensuring the department is equitable in its distribution of resources for all youth; and subsidizing participation where economic barriers exist.

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.

Francisca Castillo, director of Gender Equity Affairs with the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, works to ensure that the department's policies and practices on gender equity are adhered to. She believes that the goal of recreation industry professionals is to enhance the quality of people's lives through the services they provide, transforming communities for the better and healing communities through recreation and play. "In underserved communities where crime and homelessness is prevalent and lack of resources exist, it's important to encourage participation and keep community members active."


California was the first state in the nation to implement a law (AB 2024) prohibiting discrimination against any person on the basis of sex or gender in community youth athletics programs or in the allocation of parks and recreation facilities and resources. Charles Singer, superintendent of Recreation Services at LA Parks, said that while gender equity is a state law there, he finds that the rest of the country is lagging. "Many female executives that have provided trainings in gender-inclusive sports, empowerment and career opportunities believe that there is a direct correlation between youth sports and executive careers," Singer said. "If true, the more gender-inclusive sports programs in youth might prepare women for leadership roles as executives."

Castillo said that while she's noticed more area parks departments embracing gender equity, it's not at the same capacity as Los Angeles, where gender equity is a core value not just for parks, but for the city as a whole. "When focusing on gender equity, it can reveal potential program gaps. These program gaps can provide opportunities for new and exciting programs for communities. It also increases community involvement and bonding."

One initiative that Castillo oversees is the Girls Play Los Angeles (GPLA) program, which is focused on girls' sports throughout the department's most underserved communities. The program fees are subsidized so that all girls can participate, regardless of economic inequalities or cultural barriers. Castillo said that the popular program has taken the city by storm, and is currently located at 100 recreation centers. "The program strives to get and keep girls physically active and living a healthy lifestyle, while making friends, building self-esteem and having fun."


Castillo also explained that while they recruit and train both men and women for leadership positions such as volunteer coaches and officials, they go the extra mile to recruit women, as research has shown that young girls gravitate to female role models. "In addition to GPLA, the Women Officials Recruitment Certificate (WORC) program trains women to become certified sports officials," said Castillo, citing a citywide shortage of officials. "Once a student graduates from the program, she is able to become an independent contractor of Los Angeles and officiate at any of our 120-plus recreation centers."

The Fair Play for Girls in Sports Information Toolkit, available for anyone to use, has also been a great resource, according to Castillo. Singer added that for any parks department interested in starting a youth gender equity program, the toolkit is the most user-friendly guide for success. "Francisca and her team have taken this show on the road to NRPA and CPRS (California Park and Recreation Society) with great reviews," he said.

Disability Outreach in Charlottesville

Individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities should also be a priority for parks and municipalities, whether that means making facilities more accessible or offering more adaptive programming. The Charlottesville, Va., Parks and Recreation Department offers an adaptive recreation program for individuals ages 8 and up with physical or mental disabilities whose recreational needs cannot be met by regular programs. Offerings include classes in exercise, hiking, swimming and water exercise, crafts, ceramics, cooking, social relationships, anger management and more. There are drop-in activities such as basketball, exercise and swimming, plus special events like dances, pool parties and picnics. Participants needing financial assistance can apply for scholarships.

Public parks and recreation services should be equally accessible and available to all people regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, ability or age.

These programs not only provide recreation, but also aim to improve self-esteem, social skills and independence for participants. Sarah Blech, program manager of adaptive recreation in Charlottesville, feels this is very important. "Our participants benefit on multiple levels; not only are they participating in activities that are healthy for them physically, but the interactions and group dynamics foster better communication and 'soft skills.'"

There are also day trips, including lunches, bowling, movie and theater, theme parks and the botanical garden, and overnight camping, adventure or ski trips. Their Supper Club program features monthly outings to local restaurants where participants learn communication and social skills, how to order and pay for a meal and leave a tip. Blech said the program is very popular, accommodating 50-plus people, and all their outings are typically filled to capacity.


Some participants in Charlottesville attend programs with an aide, but most come independently, according to Blech. She explained how they've adopted a "level system" for their programs, based on their experience and research into what a participant can expect physically and sensory-wise during an activity. Participants are rated in areas including mobility, personal care/hygiene, and cognitive and communication abilities. This helps participants choose programs that will be most enjoyable and beneficial to them.

Blech said she's seeing more adaptive programs, even in smaller communities. "There is also movement toward more inclusive programs—us as well—but we believe there are still individuals who would rather participate strictly in adaptive, and really need the supervision we provide."

She believes that fitness and recreation should be available to every individual, regardless of ability, to improve quality of life. "Aside from the health and wellness benefits, there are intrinsic benefits that come from participating in recreation, and it's our job as professionals to provide those opportunities and make the adaptions necessary so it can be accessible."

Park Equity for New Yorkers

At more than 100 years old, New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P) is an independent nonprofit organization conducting research, promoting advocacy campaigns and working for equity in parks for all New Yorkers. "We work to ensure that all communities have access to the physical, mental and environmental health benefits that quality, well-maintained open spaces bring," said Megan Douglas, director of communications for NY4P.


Douglas pointed out that different communities have different needs, and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work. While some things are universal, like adequate maintenance, other needs vary neighborhood by neighborhood. "Some communities tell us they need more recreational and after-school programming for young people, while others tell us they want more space for passive recreation. We have to tailor our advocacy, and encourage the city to take the same approach," said Douglas.

In fact, Douglas said they work closely with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. "As a watchdog organization, we may not always see eye-to-eye on individual issues, but we have a very open and honest relationship, and find many opportunities to work together to improve and protect our parks."

NY4P conducts meetings and discussion groups, like their annual Boro x Boro meetings and their monthly Open Space Dialogues. Douglas said these gatherings have been extremely effective for learning how to best serve New Yorkers and also as a way to share resources and bring local park advocates together. "Our panels have featured urban planners next to environmental justice activists, designers next to transportation activists, leaders of large conservancies next to community gardeners, etc. Participants may not always agree, but that's not necessarily a bad thing."

If park equity is our goal, it means that we must place special emphasis on standing up for those communities who don't have access to quality open space.

Conducting research is an important part of what NY4P does, as it empowers residents and helps them advocate on their own behalf, as do other advocacy tools, such as their "How Can I Improve My Park?" guide. "When a community group goes to their elected official or a government agency armed with numbers and data, we've seen time and again that it leads to real, positive change in local parks and neighborhoods," Douglas said. She added that the research also means they have the data to back up their own advocacy. "When the numbers show that a certain neighborhood doesn't have an adequate amount of parkland, or that their parks are in disrepair, we can make a very clear case for why improvements are needed."

"It's important for NY4P to listen to, work with and engage underserved populations in our advocacy because otherwise we wouldn't be nearly as able to speak up on their behalf," Douglas explained. "If park equity is our goal, it means that we must place special emphasis on standing up for those communities who don't have access to quality open space."

Access for All

Back in Portland, Hendricks said there are many reasons to make sure that underserved populations have access to parks, facilities and services. "The primary reasons are to create a greater sense of community cohesiveness, promote health and healthy lifestyles and develop key life skills."


He said he often gets inquiries from various jurisdictions wanting to know about their DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) practices. "It begins with mindset, beginning by taking a proactive approach. It's important for cities to understand that in many ways, parks and recreation departments are best equipped to help serve and engage underserved populations," Hendricks said. "By creating multicultural events, providing low-cost services and ensuring that you're communicating with the diverse language groups in your community, you help strengthen the fabric of the community."

"Everyone deserves access to parks and recreation opportunities, regardless of ZIP code," said Portland Parks Commissioner Nick Fish. "I'm proud that Portland Parks & Recreation and the community we serve recognize that parks are a key part of thriving neighborhoods and have prioritized equity and inclusion in our system."