Feature Article - January 2017
Find a printable version here

Go! Tech-Enabled Parks

From Pokemon GO to Geocaching and Beyond

By Dave Ramont

Whether you reside in a city, suburb or rural area, it's likely that at some point last summer you noticed a group of folks milling about in a distracted state, staring at their phones. No, these were not tech-savvy zombies, but likely people who were playing Pokemon Go. The monstrously popular location-based augmented reality game enables players to use their mobile device's GPS capability to locate, capture, battle and train virtual creatures called Pokemon. These creatures appear on the screen as if they were in the same real-world location as the player. Pokemon, Pokestops and Pokegyms—all part of the free-to-play game—can be located, well, virtually anywhere.

This includes parks, forest preserves and nature refuges—places that one might typically consider a technology-free oasis. But in this article, we'll look at how parks agencies are embracing today's tools of technology, adopting an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality when it comes to getting people outdoors. And it turns out—in many cases—that nature and technology can exist in harmony.

Go! Play

Sure, some complaints have been lodged against Pokemon Go players concerning trespassing, trampling flora, blocking trails and visiting sites after hours. But by and large, parks and city personnel have reported relatively few problems and have been mostly supportive of the activity. After all, around 58 percent of players are between the ages of 18 and 24, and parks agencies would love to see this elusive demographic visiting their facilities more often. The mobile game app has been downloaded more than 500 million times worldwide, and if some of these users visit a park to find Squirtles and Charmanders but are also taken by the song of a cardinal, the smell of wildflowers or the feel of the sun on their face, then all the better.

Often, Pokestops—where players can collect virtual items useful in the game—are located at historical sites, landmarks and monuments. The Great Smoky Mountain's Mountain Farm Museum hosts three Pokestops, and when located, historical text pops up on the screen and players can tap an icon to learn more if they should choose. Many other state and national parks have gotten on board as well, though tree canopies and mountains can certainly hinder cell reception and Wi-Fi. But some visitor's centers, which have Wi-Fi, double as Pokestops or Pokegyms, which are places where players can battle each other and level up.

Many local parks agencies have gone the extra mile to encourage players to visit. In Johnson City, Tenn., parks officials held a three-day event where Pokemon Go players could ride a transit bus to three city parks to hunt for Pokemon. The rides were free, and portable battery chargers were provided, plus lures were placed at various Pokestops. Lures can be purchased for under a dollar to place at a site, lasting for 30 minutes and enhancing a player's chance of catching coveted Pokemon by attracting them to a fixed location.

In Arkansas, the North Little Rock Parks Department created and posted maps of all the Pokestops and Pokegyms in their parks. In Oklahoma, Tulsa hosted a Pokemon Go 5K Run. Parks personnel in Nashville, Tenn., organized Poke walks. In New York City, there was a Pokemon Go safari—a two-hour tour of the hottest Pokemon sites in 843-acre Central Park. A co-guide on the tour was well-versed in the history of the park, and explained historic areas and landmarks during the tour, which ended at the Museum of Natural History. And some parks extended their hours on certain days well into the night, with some even bringing in food trucks or providing free charging stations.

In Arlington, Texas, children and adults alike were flocking to parks to catch Pokemon, so the Parks and Recreation Department compiled a list of the best parks to visit Pokestops to stock up on game items or battle it out in Pokegyms. The list not only detailed where the hottest Pokemon activity might be happening and tips on playing the game, but also contained information on the parks themselves, in hopes that players would want to discover new places to enjoy, with or without technology.

Phillip Rogers, who works for the Arlington Parks and Rec Department, said they were fortunate to have early Pokemon adopters on their staff. "Once we realized the potential viral aspect of the Pokemon craze, and the outdoor nature of the game itself, it was a natural fit for our department."

He said they had a tremendous response to their "Parkemon" campaign, purposely promoting some of the larger parks to combat any issues of overcrowding, while also highlighting recently installed park features such as their Sculpture Trail at Richard Greene Linear Park, which features numerous sculptures along the walking path from various national artists.

"With many players being first-time visitors to our facilities," he said, "there was an accommodation and educational process that had to take place both with our staff and our customers." For instance, many players were walking onto a golf course during play, so they created signage for certain locations, asking players to check-in with the front desk. They also advertised food and beverage discounts at Tierra Verde Golf Club for Pokemon Go fans through a hashtag social media campaign. "We didn't see any increase in damage or complaints associated with increased traffic from Pokemon Go," Rogers added.