Parks & Recreation Departments’ Role in Protecting the Environment

Parks & Recreation Departments’ Role in Protecting the Environment

Parks & recreation professionals wear many hats. One of the most important “hats” is being a steward of natural areas. This stewardship is a vital responsibility impacting current visitors and future generations.
As we’ve undoubtedly noticed, people need places to escape from the frantic pace of modern life. Studies show spending time in nature has been proven to reduce stress, irritability, symptoms of anxiety & depression and provide other health benefits.

Our natural areas are one of our most important assets enjoyed by people of all ages. Many kids first learn to connect with nature at our parks. Teens and adults find a quiet respite to reflect, a scenic backdrop for exercise, or a brief return to a simpler way of living. Parents and grandparents happily watch their kids (or grandkids) first discover the joys of nature.
You likely have cherished memories of visiting parks and natural areas--probably one of the reasons you chose this profession.
Developing areas where people appreciate beauty allows us to lead by example and respect the environment. Caring for our parks inspires others to do their part to help the environment.

Recreation Facilities & Areas Impact on the Environment

Unfortunately, when natural areas are developed for recreational purposes, it affects the existing environment. Your team may have to manage:

  • Solid waste disposal
  • Ground/soil compaction
  • Destruction of vegetation
  • Water pollution
  • Soil erosion
  • Disruption of native plants and animals

Luckily, good management can mitigate many of these concerns. Here are some things to consider when acquiring, developing, planning usage, and maintaining these areas.

Careful Design and Planning

Areas created for intensive recreation--athletic fields, campgrounds, picnic areas--that destroy the environment due to poor design are an embarrassment to the profession. Our responsibility is to preserve natural resources--not cause more unnecessary stress on the environment.
The environmental impact of a new development needs to be one of the leading decision-making factors when designing and planning. Also, the quality and appropriateness need consideration.
These may be hard decisions to make. There are often many people involved in deciding how to develop an area. Each person probably has their own agenda.
As a parks & recreation professional, you are the voice in the room that supports creating spaces that blend with--and support--the environment. Your input about the design, materials, and construction of an area or facility advocates for the most responsible use of the land.

Minimize Environmental Damage

Luckily, we have access to resources to protect the environment while developing land for recreational use. Being proactive during development can save time, money, and unnecessary damage in the long term. Minimizing damage could include installing:

  • Trail bars on walking trails
  • Riprap or rock toes on shorelines
  • Porous parking lots
  • Native plants
  • Rain gardens

Sometimes changing how we approach tasks can help with the environment. For example, your team can reduce stress and improve the root systems of turf by determining areas that do not need mowing as often.

Create Natural Beauty

Land set aside for parks & recreation offers the opportunity to bring natural beauty to the area. Open spaces can be transformed into beautiful, sustainable assets.
For some departments, creating natural beauty is both challenging and necessary. Space, workforce, and budgets may be limited. Even relatively minor changes can make a noticeable aesthetic and environmental impact.
Small areas can be transformed by:

  • Formal gardens
  • Native plant gardens
  • Removing invasive plants
  • Playgrounds that blend with natural surroundings
  • Planting more trees

Set a High Standard for Area & Facility Maintenance

Your maintenance crew are the eyes and ears of natural areas. They care for the landscape, keep it clean, and ensure sites are safe. They are likely to be the first ones to notice a problem before it becomes so evident that a park visitor complains.
Train your crew on particular ecological processes and how visitors may impact these processes. Set up procedures detailing any necessary ecological tasks. Be sure your staff has a standardized way to complete the work effectively and efficiently.
Also, scheduling and assigning regular inspections, preventative maintenance, and other tasks related to land stewardship is a great way to ensure your natural assets remain in excellent condition now and for years to come.