Parks proved their value during pandemic; their worth should continue to grow, parks and recreation pros say

Nighttime shot of Civic Space Park in downtown Phoenix

Municipal parks and youth sports programs are gradually reopening as restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic continue to ease. Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, many users have discovered local, regional and national parks as a safe outdoor alternative to closed indoor public spaces.

Three parks and recreation professionals — each working for a different Valley city — joined Eric Legg, an Arizona State University professor who teaches sports and recreation classes, to talk about the future of parks and recreation and youth sports. They also offered predictions about job opportunities for students preparing for careers in these fields.

The three are among speakers in a virtual networking series organized by ASU’s student-led Sports, Parks and Recreation Club and the Arizona Parks and Recreation Association.

The series takes the place of a one-day, in-person spring event, the Sports, Parks and Recreation Conference, which features educational sessions, networking opportunities and a case-study competition. The series’ last virtual gathering of the spring semester is 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 19. Students may sign up to attend here.

Read on to learn the professionals’ perspectives on the changing role of parks in their communities:

Question: We know that over the past year participation in such activities as hiking and tennis have increased, while parents have been yearning to put their children in youth sports again. How has the pandemic demonstrated the value of parks to people as individuals and as a society?

Eric Legg, assistant professor in the School of Community Resources and Development at the Watts College of Public Services and Community Solutions: Over the past year we have heard the term “essential service” tossed around a lot. And though it gets used rather casually, I think the pandemic has demonstrated what is truly essential — and included on that list would be the ability to recreate, to play, to get outside and enjoy nature, to compete and learn in youth sports. We’ve recognized the benefit of these things for a while, but now we realize they are truly essential. Engagement in our parks, in recreation and sports programs leads to healthier individuals and ultimately healthier communities. They nourish our bodies, improve our mental health, help us develop physical, social and emotional skills, learn to value our environment and create bonds between us and our communities. Parks and recreation are essential.

Claire Miller, preserve/park supervisor in the Natural Resources Division/North for the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department: I come from the natural resources side of things, so we experienced a monumental increase on our trails throughout the pandemic. We spoke with many of the newer users, who were essentially “displaced” from their gyms, fitness classes, sports leagues or boot camps — and all were so grateful to have some exercise outlet when their normal routines were forced to change. The fact that they were also able to do so at no charge was an added benefit. If these folks weren’t believers in the value of parks, trails and open space prior to the pandemic, I would have to guess that they are believers — and hopefully new advocates and supporters — now.

Lacy Freeman, recreation programmer for the Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department: As with many things, we often don’t realize how important things are to us until they are taken away or restricted. In the case of parks and recreation, people have come to realize how incredibly vital they are to people’s overall happiness as well as mental and physical health. Parks and recreation can bring immediate enjoyment. The pandemic has demonstrated that we need to see our friends, family, neighbors and others in these settings. We as a society need to be able to visit parks and participate in recreation on a regular basis. There is an innate feeling that comes from these experiences that cannot be replaced.

Deanna Zuppan, senior operations supervisor and Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, human services, city of Scottsdale: I have seen significant impacts the pandemic has had this past year on recreation programming and services, but none as much as the effects on persons with disabilities. It has been especially difficult for many, as the social isolation and anxiety have been at an all-time high. Many of our participants have been at higher risk for COVID-19 due to preexisting conditions. Schedules and routines were displaced, causing extra anxiety for those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Adults living in group homes are wondering if their care provider may not show up to work, because they caught the virus, leaving them to wonder: Who will get their medication, help them make a meal, take them to the doctor? When our virtual activities began, then came the obstacle that many did not have a computer, Wi-Fi or a smartphone. That all being said, the pandemic has been instrumental in demonstrating just how vitally significant our programs and services are to our community. It has pushed us even further than we ever thought imaginable to figure out creative solutions!

Q: Now that so many parks have been reopening or dropping many use restrictions, what do you think will be different — or the same — moving forward?

Eric Legg, assistant professor, sports, recreation, School of Community Resources and Development

Eric Legg, assistant professor, ASU School of Community Resources and Development

Miller: The lifting of restrictions will not have a super significant impact on our trails and facilities — other than the continued increase of use. Historically, our areas have experienced a fairly steady increase in use year over year, but the pandemic has created a higher “bump” in use than past years.

Freeman: We will definitely see differences in the parks and recreation world. In order to protect the organizations, communities and patrons, new norms will be implemented. This could include capacity sizes, cleaning procedures, logistics, etc. But some things will remain the same, such as the commitment to providing services and space to recreate. The passion will be the same, if not even more so now.

Zuppan: We all like to have our alone time where we can curl up on the couch with a bag of chips and onion dip, shut off our phone and binge-watch Netflix. But as many of us have come to realize, even the least of the social butterflies can only do so much of that and there’s only so many Zoom happy hours you can pretend to like. So, as human beings, I think our natural desire to connect with each other will always stay the same. This past year has highlighted all too often the differences of what was then and what is now. I feel we have come to realize just how important our wellness is to us, physically, emotionally and spiritually. People understand and desire now, more than ever, a life of balance. As professionals in this field, each of us can make an impact.

Q: Will there, or should there, still be certain safeguards such as mask wearing or physical distancing in parks by 2022? Will some virtual options created during the pandemic still exist in the future?

Legg: I’ll defer to the health experts on the safeguards, but, as I noted above, I do think we will continue to see some virtual options continue.

Miller: I’m not sure that I’m qualified to dictate what safeguards should or shouldn’t be imposed into the future — but I’m confident that the medical and scientific professionals will provide the best information and guidance as we continue to navigate into the future. Being in an outdoor setting, the areas that I manage already offer the benefit of fresh air, breezes and a natural setting, as opposed to an indoor or enclosed facility like a community center or a gym. We were able to provide some virtual education programming during the pandemic. While nothing can take the place of being in the outdoor setting in person, I believe we may continue to provide the option of virtual educational programming, for those who may have barriers to participating in person.

Freeman: Caution is going to be at the forefront for parks and recreation long term. Adjustments should be made with capacity sizes, cleaning procedures, logistics, etc. Virtual options will be a new norm for a while. It is important to provide services that include all comfort levels of patrons. We have to be sensitive to all of the wide spectrum of patrons and do our best to provide services for them.

Zuppan: I think it is too early to say whether or not there should be certain safeguards in 2022. I don’t feel that our communities will ever go back to the “normal” that was pre-pandemic, which I don’t feel is a negative. We all were and still are in the same boat. During what felt like overnight, we had to change the way we thought of things. We had to look at our priorities and create a new and different way of service delivery. As we continue to come out of the pandemic, what we have learned and created will move forward with us as we once again, change and create services and programs to meet the needs of our community. There’s value in virtual options. I see a future with a hybrid approach of the old norm and the new norm.

Q: What general effect has the pandemic had on parks budgets? What’s your prognosis for post-pandemic funding?

Miller: Currently, the budget in my organization is reasonably optimistic. The pandemic-related emergency funding programs have been instrumental in the health of our budget status. Early concerns with the increased cost and decreased availability of personal protective equipment and disinfecting supplies seems to be somewhat alleviated. But these will need to be monitored closely, as many of the emergency funding sources have concluded. The impacts of tax-related revenues remain to be seen. With so much business and commerce shut down over the last year, we anticipate a much lower revenue stream from that source. I would note that my division is on target from an annual spending standpoint, since we have remained open, compared to some of our recreation programs and facilities. They have used very little of their normal budget because they’ve been closed for almost a year.

Freeman: Many parks and recreation budgets were hit hard as they are often deemed non-essential. The funds that were used to operate these services and facilities were re-allocated to essential services. This meant closures and cuts to resources. My prognosis for post-pandemic funding is that it is going to be slow. The changes to capacity sizes, cleaning procedures, logistics, etc., will affect the resources available.

Zuppan: Budgets for parks and recreation agencies in general have been an area where cutbacks happen when a community is in crisis. Yet communities look to their local parks and recreation programs, open spaces, playgrounds and community centers as having great value and with great expectations. This past year has had a large impact in every area of community services and programs. While budgets have taken large hits, at no other time in my tenure have I seen our outdoor spaces more utilized on a day-to-day basis than during this past year. With restrictions on other leisure pursuits, our parks, bike paths and trails have been some of the only places where people could still go and enjoy a walk, run, fish, hike or simply just shoot some hoops — 6 feet away from anyone else, of course! This past year’s experience has opened everyone’s eyes to just how important our parks and recreation areas are to each and every one of us.   

Q: Our students and recent alumni seek employment in parks management and other related fields. What do you think — or hope — the post-pandemic employment picture will be like?

Legg: We’re already starting to see some increased hiring as programs and spaces reopen. Though there are likely to be some lingering budget challenges, my hope is that as we realize the essential nature of what we do, we will also see increased funding directed toward them – and that in turn will lead to more jobs. Our students are passionate about making positive change in the world. Parks, recreation and sports comprise an area where you can make that kind of positive impact. I am excited to see what the future holds and excited to see the role our students will continue to play in it.

Freeman: The pandemic hit the parks and recreation world hard. Many individuals were laid off when resources were cut. I hope that over the next six to 12 months, agencies will be able to return to their pre-pandemic staffing numbers and hire people back. A lot of lessons were learned over the past year. I also hope that the pandemic showed the need for these services and there will be a bigger push to make sure full closure doesn’t happen again.

Miller: Luckily, the group I’m in is considered “essential” so we’ve been lucky enough to fill position vacancies throughout the pandemic. There is no reason for that dynamic to change. Frankly, our biggest challenge is being able to find enough qualified candidates to interview when position vacancies are opened up for hiring purposes. Given the increase in usage on our trails, we could easily justify additional positions to be added in future fiscal-year budgets.

Zuppan: I don’t think any business comes out of this pandemic unscarred or at least with some bumps and bruises. The future for careers in parks and recreation is bright for young professionals who are not afraid of day-to-day change, have a strong, creative skill set, never say never and who truly are not afraid. They should also be willing to imagine something different. A young professional must be open to looking at what may appear to be challenges and see opportunities. The pandemic has shown all of us this past year just how important and valued our community parks and recreation activities and programs are, whether that’s having a place to hike, getting your Hasselhoff on at an outdoor volleyball court or reading a book under a park tree. Parks and recreation departments are vitally important to our communities’ well-being and are here to stay!

Top photo: Downtown Phoenix's Civic Space Park. Photo by ASU