From creating bike paths to protecting green space and implementing water diversion tactics, parks and recreation agencies across the U.S. have a deep and long-standing place in the fight against climate change. However, despite their natural role as builders of environmentally friendly infrastructure and stewards of ecology, few agencies have a formally documented sustainability plan.
In many ways, that divide is just a matter of semantics according to a new survey from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Still, there are barriers you might well guess (lack of funding, staff) that keep some agencies from implementing more rigorous environmental practices.
The survey comes from the NRPA’s research team, working closely with the association’s conservation team. It generated responses from 377 agencies across the U.S. Key findings include that parks and rec work on sustainability goes beyond good for the planet; it’s also about educating visitors and saving money. Yet, most agencies do a less than perfect job tracking cost savings from sustainability measures.
Regardless of whether they have a sustainability plan in place, agencies engage in many environmentally beneficial practices, according to the NRPA, including providing contact with nature, protecting wildlife, reducing landfill waste through recycling and composting, and implementing green infrastructure in the form of bike and hiking paths and also rain gardens, bioswales, and wetlands. Some agencies are even working on strategies like carbon sequestration and mitigating the local impacts of sea level rise.
“In their role as stewards of the environment, virtually all park and recreation agencies support activities that improve sustainability in their communities,” the report states.
Many agencies are measuring these practices, linking investment with desired environmental outcomes — like quantifying connectivity in miles of trail, quantifying water and waste stream usage and even, to a lesser extent, quantifying air quality benefits.
But that doesn’t mean that the language of sustainability is part of the agency’s internal guiding principles. Of all the agencies surveyed, only 23 percent have a documented sustainability plan, although another 11 percent want to put a formalized plan into place within the next year.
And the implementation of more rigorous sustainability goals does meet some definite obstacles, the survey found — most notably, a lack of funding. Another biggie: Lack of dedicated staff. To a lesser extent, the survey notes political obstacles like local leadership, internal leadership and lack of support from the community.
But with so many environmentally focused practices already in place (whether branded that way or not), local parks are already poised to help combat climate change. As the national parks system struggles (and occasionally decides to go rogue) with climate-denying federal officials, local parks could take on leadership in a smaller and more distributed — but ultimately impactful — way, much like mayors.
“The need for local government agencies to take a leading role in addressing the effects of climate change is increasing,” said Barbara Tulipane, NRPA president and CEO, in a release about the survey. “Thankfully, the field of parks and recreation is willing to accept the challenge — helping communities adapt and thrive by protecting public green space and the environment.”
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.