Sustainable Maintenance

In 2012, Minnesota parks and rec employees sorted 300 pounds of garbage from six recreation centers and determined that 40 percent was compostable and 22 percent was recyclable. This is the type of empirical data that can be used to guide future maintenance and operational practices for a more sustainable operation.

With one of the largest parks networks in the nation, New York City published a 56-page document titled “A Plan for Sustainable Practices for NYC Parks” in 2010, with a goal to enhance 21st-century park design and reduce consumption of fuel, energy, and materials in the maintenance and operations cycles.

In one section, “Measuring Sustainability at Parks,” the planners noted: “With our acute focus on sustainability, we are developing indicators to quantify our greening practices, measure progress, and highlight strengths and areas for improvement. We recognize that sustainability is more than a goal to check off.”

Ultimately, sustainability should be more than a slogan; it involves good stewardship of the environment, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.

Sustainability really can’t be separated from economics and work efficiency; each supports the other. Developing sustainable practices ultimately saves money and reduces the workload.

Xeriscaping is a good example, since landscape maintenance is a major task for most parks and rec departments.  It uses low-maintenance materials that don’t require irrigation to landscape certain areas, such as common areas in sports facilities or low-traffic areas around park facilities.

Xeriscaping conserves water and reduces the manpower and labor needed to constantly trim, weed, and otherwise care for high-maintenance areas with bushes, flowers, grasses, and routine landscape materials.

Implementing Sustainability

Sustainability can extend to any aspect of parks and rec maintenance and includes all staff, not just maintenance crews.

In fact, sustainable practices are generally more effective if they are generated, actively supported, and promoted by department leaders. They must be a part of the department culture to be successful in the long term.

Technology can help drive sustainable maintenance, though it will mean investing in updated equipment.

For example, there are systems that enable a parks maintenance manager to remotely monitor irrigation systems, lights, locks, security, and a number of other functions–all from a computer, laptop, or smart phone, anywhere, any time.

These systems can help save money and resources with early detection of water leaks, waste involving expensive sports lights, unsecured facilities prone to vandalism, and a host of other uses.

The task for managers is to find the right system to suit their needs at a cost they can afford or for which they can budget. The cost of these systems has steadily decreased as the technology has become more available, so it’s definitely something worth looking into.

Recreation-programming staff can also get into the sustainable picture. The members can ensure that recycle bins are available at all parks and rec events or activities, and have agreements with local volunteer or commercial recycling organizations to administer them. They can further promote recycling to attendees to ensure the bins are used.

This can help reduce work for cleanup crews after the event, get recyclable materials headed in the right direction, and keep them out of landfills.

Some recreation departments even hold events that focus solely on sustainability to further embed the idea into the cultural practices of recreation-facility users.

Sustainability is perhaps a new term for an old concept–conservation–which has been a founding principle of parks and recreation since Boston Common “shed its cows in 1830 and became the largest municipal green space in America dedicated entirely to passive recreation.” (Eden on the Charles, Michael Rawson, 2010)

But in the modern world, conservation–or sustainability, or going green–or whatever term you want to use, can be a critical element in the long-term success of a parks and rec maintenance operation.

As resources and funding become scarcer, maintenance managers are wise to find new, more sustainable ways of performing old tasks.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration and now lives in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email



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