Guest Column - February 2021
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inPERSPECTIVE / PARK PROGRAMMING

Wi-Fi-Enabled Parks: Activities and Possibilities

By Katie Boutwell


Wi-Fi-connected parks are on the verge of taking recreation to new interactive heights. Imagine your parks providing unique experiences that make them destinations in your community not only for local citizens but for tourists and travelers too.

In a world that's rapidly becoming more digitally involved, it's advantageous for the entire community if parks are also evolving and keeping pace. Advancements in tech-driven park activities were already in progress before the COVID-19 crisis and have become even more relevant as we learn to adjust to new lifestyles. Individuals and families are heading outdoors not only to seek relaxing, healthy activities, but also to find ways to remain connected.

Everyone with a mobile device is a candidate to enjoy a park experience that is not only more immersive but also more inclusive. While most people do have a mobile device capable of connecting to Wi-Fi, far fewer have a mobile data plan that allows them to stay connected away from home.

A connected park ensures that more citizens have access to valuable information and the types of distinct activities that can positively affect the well-being of an entire community.

Geocaching

Think of it like a large-scale treasure hunt, one in which you utilize a GPS-enabled device to locate "caches" that have been hidden at a particular coordinate. Typically, the cache contains a log to mark your achievement, but can also include items to swap, a piece to perpetuate the game or ways to connect with other players. Geocaching is an activity with growing popularity, and while there's already an existing global community surrounding the hobby, plenty of folks are looking for new ways to get out and experience their community.

Scavenger Hunts

Much like geocaching, a scavenger hunt is a great outdoor activity that allows people to set out on an adventure, following clues and solving riddles in the safe and fun setting of a local park environment.

As opposed to geocaching—which is more of an impromptu, individual activity—a scavenger hunt's parameters are a bit narrower and more controlled. They can be scheduled and coordinated via social media or existing municipal websites. The interactive experience can be communicated and updated in real-time via social media feeds and stories, or through text message notifications, subscriber lists and more.

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality or AR gaming is a relatively new activity, but one with significant potential due to the popularity and viral nature of some of its creative applications. You may have heard of these types of games that also follow a scavenger hunt type of format. Some have caught the world by storm as they allow people to utilize the camera and GPS of a mobile device to allow a user to merge their real environment around them with a digital one on their phone screen.

Geospatial Visualization

Maybe you've seen videos of youth on field trips in a museum or tourists in an art gallery using their phones as an educational tool. Using QR codes or custom apps, a person holds up their phone to an exhibit and can get an "X-ray" of sorts, allowing them to uncover details and information that may otherwise go undiscovered. Think of this technology applied to a park:

  • What can citizens be taught about historical landmarks, monuments or memorials through this virtual/real-world hybrid visualization?
  • What can park patrons learn about the environment and nature by identifying plant life or animal habitats?
  • How immersive could a walk in the park be with the ability to scan your surroundings with your phone? Participants could identify a type of tree or flower or read the life story and achievements of a person memorialized by a park bench.
  • Imagine putting on your headphones and going on an audio-visual tour of your local park.

Interactive Maps & Activity Mapping

Citizens can only participate in activities and programs or take advantage of services offered if they are aware of them. They're often made aware through exploration or word of mouth, but interactive maps could be a shortcut. Many existing recreation management systems have mapping features built into them, and plenty of other applications exist, so how can they be used outside of the traditional sense? The map can serve as a tool in the experience instead of just a resource to be referenced.

Consider the possibility of a birdwatcher locating his social group of fellow watchers via an interactive map. They drop a pin where a rare sighting took place and then upload an image to share with the community. In the process, they amplify the appeal of the park and what people's expectations of it might be.

Targeted Messaging

Get important, relevant messages to citizens when and where they need them. Transportation information about your park could be beneficial for many visitors. Where is the nearest bus stop, reservable community scooter or bicycle rack, and what's the fastest route there? What community events can be promoted? Are there park sponsors that can be spotlighted or advertised? Are there important weather alerts that need to be communicated, and if so, where is the nearest storm shelter or follow-up safety measure?

Real-Time Feedback

Public input can be a great tool in the planning of new activities or the maintenance and upkeep of existing facilities and park features. Who better to poll on these issues than those regularly spending time in the park? With users being able to tap into a park network, providing feedback can be a potential activity while they go about their experience.

  • Is there an adequate number of water stations?
  • Where do sidewalks or trails need to be repaired?
  • Are any trails too dark and require additional lighting to increase safety?
  • Is a doggie clean-up bag dispenser empty?
  • Does a trash and recycling receptacle need to be emptied?

Endless Possibilities

Some challenges go along with implementing creative, next-generation park plans and activities; don't let them stop you from dreaming big. Though the technology or processes might not be there yet for all pursued ideas, continue pushing the limits of your recreation management systems and search for ways to integrate with other dynamic solutions.

If you envision a holiday light display or a fireworks event where a citizen can become an active participant in the experience via their Wi-Fi-connected mobile device, explore what it would take to make that a reality.

Consider the positive impact when citizens see their local government actively working to find unique solutions to improve the community's quality of life, especially in a challenging time. RM



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Boutwell is a solutions manager for CivicRec.