“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
Just as conceptual tools presented in university textbooks and classrooms sometimes are not integrated into professional practice, wisdom discovered in the field is not always incorporated either.
Three decades ago, a group of professionals gathered to proactively address this dilemma. The American Academy of Park and Recreation Administrators (AARPA) was established in 1980 as an “organization of distinguished practitioners and scholars committed to the advancement of the park and recreation field” (www.aapra.org/index.html), and dedicated to promoting the best professional practices and educational methods.
Membership is limited to 125 individuals, and election to the academy “recognize[s] outstanding leadership in the parks and recreation field from those who have made major contributions during their career,” not simply to honor years of service.
California’s San Francisco Bay Area is fortunate to claim two AAPRA members, Joe Schultz and Barry Weiss, seasoned veterans who rose from the front lines to lead their agencies to various accomplishments. During a recent interview, they shared their views on parks and recreation’s past, present and future, along with a few of the tools needed to achieve success.
From Direct Service To Problem-Solving
Among the most dramatic shifts has been from the straightforward offering of direct services to complex problem-solving. In the past, agencies concentrated on offering a wide range of activities, and operated under the “If-you-build-it,-they-will-come” philosophy. Today, as funding becomes scarcer and new social issues emerge, parks and recreation departments have become partners in confronting crises such as obesity, gang activity and environmental degradation.
Weiss describes a tool (see the Figure) highlighting the importance of simultaneously accommodating the needs of individuals and the larger community that may not currently be using agency services when making program decisions. Rather than seeking a compromise in which neither party is completely satisfied, solutions that fully benefit both constituencies likely will draw broad support. For example, an after-school study-play program can contribute to reduced obesity, which benefits the individual user. It also can contribute to reducing juvenile crime and raising student test scores, both of which are seen as benefits to the community, even for non-users.
With regard to reaching consensus among stakeholders, Schultz relies on a mnemonic device–FORM–to focus program design:
He uses a second device–5210–to guide healthy activity programming:
· Five servings of fruits and vegetables
· A two-hour limit on TV time
· One hour of exercise
· Zero soft-drink consumption.
An Essential Public Service
Taking problem-solving to the next level, Weiss notes that individual departments within governmental entities need to see themselves as part of the larger picture. He cites a matrix used by the city of San Carlos (located near San Francisco) that shows how a reduction in park maintenance eventually reduces the property values of homes situated near parks. By quantifying outcomes, this tool emphasizes parks and recreation’s importance as an investment that pays measurable returns, in contrast to a donation that drains the city budget.
One positive result of the current recession has been the repositioning of parks and recreation as an essential public service that “makes lives better” in partnership with other departments and organizations. The community’s perception of an agency’s effectiveness is crucial, and continued support therefore becomes a political matter. As Weiss states, politics is simply a group of people working together to accomplish a goal–serving the community.
The Future Is Bright, And It’s Coming Fast
While acknowledging the impact of the present economic climate, Schultz and Weiss maintain positive outlooks that have served them well in the past. Although reluctant to predict precisely when finances will improve, Schultz feels that when that moment arrives, better times will return quickly. To prepare for this shining future, the California Park and Recreation Society Vision, Insight, Planning (VIP) Strategic Action Plan remains the “tool” of choice for these two professionals. The plan is a guide to position parks and recreation as an essential service, not only in response to present circumstances but also in anticipation of the rebound.
Demographically, Weiss expresses concern that the proportion of younger people compared to the United States’ overall population is declining, just as the baby boomersw are retiring, so managers who have planned ahead for the turn-around will be poised to hire the best people from a diminishing pool of applicants. Schultz and Weiss reiterate that despite changing times, parks and recreation remains a people profession, and future employees must be motivated by a passion for the field as well as possess interpersonal and facilitation skills.
Other trends in the field include:
· Increasing relevance of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
· Maintaining a perception of parks as outdoor wellness centers
· Continuing the development and interconnection of trail systems, not only for fitness but for transportation purposes
· Continuing to mix free and user fee-supported programming, along with the possibility of implementing a “Nordstrom approach,” whereby participants pay a premium fee, but only if satisfied with the experience.
Regarding the balance between practical experience and formal education, “They made me think,” Weiss says, reminiscing about his college days at Hayward (now California State University, East Bay). “Our class projects forced us to think about the big picture, to imagine how our project’s outcomes would influence–and most importantly, benefit–the community.” Schultz agrees that being able to think strategically, while at the same time learning to adapt those strategies to reflect the needs of different constituencies is invaluable.
Both Weiss and Schultz continue to be impressed with college students. “They’re phenomenal people,” Schultz says. “They do care,” echoes Weiss, “and they’re just as bright, or brighter, than we are.” This praise notwithstanding, the theory-practice gap will require universities to produce people who write well, possess leadership skills, understand how to form partnerships, and think strategically. In other words, these professionals, through a combination of practice and education, can competently wield a wide variety of tools, even if one of them is a hammer.
Joe Schultz earned an M.S. in public administration and a D.B.A. in business administration, while managing several agencies in both Illinois and California. More recently, he was a deputy director for the county of Santa Clara, Calif., and now serves as Director of Parks, Open Space and Cultural Services for the county of Santa Cruz, Calif.
Barry Weiss has a B.S. in recreation (also holding a social sciences teaching certificate), and rose to leadership positions in several agencies, including General Supervisor for the city of Oakland, Calif., and Recreation Superintendent for the city of Palo Alto, Calif. Barry retired last year, after serving as Director of Parks and Recreation in San Carlos, Calif., for the past eight years. He continues to be involved in strategic planning initiatives with the California Park and Recreation Society.
Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.