Feature Article - September 2019
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Looking Back, Moving Forward

Celebrating 20 Years of Recreation, Sports & Fitness

By Dave Ramont

When you consider the year 1999, it may seem like an eternity ago, or perhaps it feels like it was just yesterday. Bill Clinton was president, and mobile phones and the internet were just gaining a foothold in the mainstream. A gallon of gas was $1.22, and the average new car cost about $21,000. Sci-fi fans flocked to see "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," the New York Yankees won the World Series, and people everywhere were obsessed with Y2K and its ramifications. And the first issue of Recreation Management was published in the fall of 1999.

To commemorate the occasion, we've checked in with some longtime contributors to gain insight into what's changed over the past 20 years.

Parks, Playgrounds & More

Over the past two decades, community leaders have increasingly recognized that parks aren't just nice-to-have amenities—they're actually solutions to many challenges that cities are facing, according to Nette Compton, deputy director of the Parks for People program at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a nonprofit with a mission to create parks and protect land for people. "Be that public health, access to recreation, community building or managing climate change—whether flooding, storms or urban heat island challenges. I think leaders are really seeing the power of parks to serve their constituents in a number of positive ways," Compton said.

Compton mentioned a current TPL campaign where they're working with mayors nationwide who have committed to ensuring that all of their residents are within a 10-minute walk of a park or open space. "We're talking to mayors in big cities, small cities and towns, and they're really getting how important parks are. What's evolved is that now they're asking us, 'OK, what do we do next?' They're looking for solutions to unlock funding, unlock resources and engage the community in the process."

Social Equity is one of the "three pillars" of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), along with Conservation, and Health and Wellness, and more cities and parks departments are prioritizing equity initiatives. Portland, Ore., has an Equity and Inclusion manager while Los Angeles parks has a Gender Equity Affairs director. Additionally, many nonprofits, such as New Yorkers for Parks, are working closely with local parks departments to better serve all communities.

"We've seen how parks in underserved communities can be so catalytic to bringing communities together, giving a sense of pride and belief in government," said Compton. "Minneapolis, San Francisco and New York all come to mind where they're looking at how they've invested in parks in the past. They're challenging themselves and having tough conversations around investment, listening to what underserved communities need and planning their investments accordingly."

Landscape architects and playground designers have been working together more closely to create more dynamic play spaces over the past 20 years, according to Scott Roschi, creative director at a Minnesota-based manufacturer of playground and park equipment. "Playground components are being integrated into topography more than ever before. One of the top trends in playground design are hillside slides and hillside climbing challenges. Additionally, playgrounds have integrated new materials like rope and belting to enhance the play experience and make it more fun and challenging." Roschi said these types of designs encourage children to use their minds while exercising their bodies.

Playgrounds are now better integrated into the park environment, added Roschi, with more splash and water play areas being combined with playgrounds to encourage families to stay longer. "Larger destination playgrounds are also being developed in communities where more amenities are being offered in a single space." He mentioned Central Park in Maple Grove, Minn., where there's a community center, a dynamic and diverse playground and splash pad activities plus an ice skating ribbon for year-round fun.

Flexible use and using spaces creatively continues to be a goal of park designers and operators, particularly in urban areas where space is limited. "Parks are city dwellers' backyards, so you see things like dog parks becoming more common, and multigenerational fitness," said Compton. "Thinking about how you integrate playgrounds for little kids, basketball courts for older kids, a fitness zone for parents and caretakers—so everybody gets to be active in a space."

Off-leash dog parks are one of the fastest growing park amenities, expanding by 89% since 2007. The NRPA reports that in 2018, 55% of parks agencies had at least one dog park. And outdoor fitness areas are spreading. TPL has a program providing free outdoor fitness equipment to local parks, often in neighborhoods where pricey gym memberships aren't practical. Roschi explained how some stationary fitness equipment has evolved to ninja-style active fitness for children and adults alike. "Additionally, more traditional fitness equipment now offers the ability to attach your own exercise bands, which means group classes are being held outdoors and not just in a gym."

Community gardens have also increased, growing by 44 percent since 2007, when TPL first started tracking them. And while they were once used for beautifying vacant lots, cities are now realizing that they're great motivators for getting people outdoors and active, according to Compton. Another trend she's seen is how important garden plots have become to immigrant communities. "We've done work in the Bay area, in Denver—all over—where communities that have recently emigrated from Ethiopia, from Asia, are able to grow the food they know and love and miss, and can't find in the grocery store."

Cities and parks also continue to evolve when it comes to offerings for those with special needs. A 2018 NRPA report stated that 74% of parks agencies offered programs and activities for individuals with physical disabilities, while 62% had programs for those with cognitive issues.

The number of inclusive playgrounds continues to increase, and Roschi tells us that inclusive and sensory play are being designed into parks because communities are demanding it. "Many parks are now including new playground products that allow children using mobility devices and their friends to play side-by-side."