Even people who weren’t a fan of parks before these “it’s not safe to hang out with almost anyone indoors” times have gotta hand it to the great, publicly regulated outdoors for being the COVID-19 social space MVP. The healing power of going outside and seeing a little green space? The fulfillment that comes from getting nice and sweaty in the sunshine? The chance to hold court on a blanket with a rotating cast of friends, like some kind of visiting dignitary? Can’t beat it! But parks don’t exist in a vacuum—according to Roxanne Sutton, director of communications for the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA), a ton of work goes into keeping our parks running smoothly.
During COVID-19, Sutton told VICE, “there was this recognition of how important these spaces are to our mental health and our physical health. When gyms closed, parks were open. I say it all the time: I wouldn't have made it through [the pandemic] without my local parks!” According to a May 2020 survey by the NRPA, 83 percent of adults polled said their local parks were “essential” for their well-being and two-thirds of all park professionals polled reported increased use of their agencies’ parks compared to the same time period in 2019.
Because they became so central to our lives, Sutton said the NRPA also saw parks departments shouldering more responsibilities than ever: Throwing virtual events for kids stuck at home; providing meals to seniors who couldn’t venture outside safely; beefing up services for unhoused people with nowhere else to turn during a volatile time; and keeping up with maintenance during periods of extremely high traffic.
This all means that even as we return to “normal,” with social spaces reopening and vaccine numbers in the U.S. ticking upward, parks deserve a hearty “thank you for… everything!” in the form of some good old-fashioned public service. Not sure where to start? Here are a few easy ways to give back to our parks and make our communities a better place to live—and to chill—in the process.
Reach out to your local parks department.
Maybe you just started thinking about how to give back to your local parks—that’s totally normal. Luckily, parks and rec departments are way ahead of most of us on this front. “Most local park and recreation departments have volunteer opportunities, from clean-up days to youth sports coaches,” Sutton said. “It's a huge part of them being able to provide quality park and recreation programming.”
Just do a little research to connect with local organizations. Googling things like “[your location] + parks and recreation department” or “[your location] + parks and recreation + association” should get you where you need to go and help plug you in to pre-existing volunteer opportunities.
Sutton also suggested seeing whether your local park and recreation department is on social media, and tossing them a follow to keep up with their programming and volunteer needs—and another chance to shout them out. “Tag them in your social posts to say thank you!” Sutton said. “That's another really fun way to engage.”
Help fund projects that are already in motion.
Another easy way to help parks continue to rule? Throw a little money their way. “A lot of Parks and Recreation departments have ‘Friends’ groups that specifically fundraise for the benefit of local parks,” Sutton said. “They host fundraisers, they do fun things—it doesn't have to be that you're just writing a check. It could be attending a fun event hosted by the Friends group.” That might look like a “Park After Dark” movie night, a concert, or even a bike ride with other park enthusiasts… sounds lit to be honest!
Again, a little Googling will probably be required here to make the connection, but searching “Friends of Parks + [your location]” should drum up what you’re looking for. If not, you could always reach out to your local parks agency itself and see if they can key you in to where it’s best to donate.
Organize a park clean-up.
If you and a crew of friends want to do some direct pro-park action, a clean-up is a great option. There are a lot of great, detailed guides detailing what kind of equipment you want to bring (think lots of trash bags, thick gloves, and some grabbers so you’re not doing too much actual touching). There are organizing guides written by everyone from outdoorsy retail brand REI to the Kansas City organization Bridging the Gap, and both of these are great places to start.
One important caveat: Before you start spreading the word before your event, make sure to clue in the people who actually run the park. “If you're interested in creating a volunteer opportunity on your own, just reach out to the park and rec department and work with them so that they can make sure it's successful,” she said. They can help you get info on things like permitting and make sure your event doesn’t clash with something pre-planned.
Push for pro-park policy.
Getting involved in local politics is hot right now, and parks are just another public service we need to let our representatives know we value. Sutton said that civilian participation community engagement exercises (e.g., town halls) is crucial at a local level, where budgets get hashed out—especially while it’s still possible to “attend” these events virtually.
Sutton also said it’s worth keeping an eye out for pro-parks candidates during election cycles: Who’s pledging to allocate more funding towards youth initiatives, build more green space in “park poor” communities, and maintain the parks your area already has?
Another way to show up for parks is to literally show up: “Seek out more park and recreation events and programming to attend,” she said. “The more attendance that they have at events and the more that they can show that people are using their programs, that gives them leverage to go back to the city government and say, ‘Hey, our programs are being used, we need more funding.’”
Basically, help parks put city money where your mouth is—sipping on something fruity and a little alcoholic, enjoying public life, and feeling relieved while you soak up the sun in your local green space.
Be a good park guest.
This is basic, but definitely bears repeating: Treat the park the way you’d want guests to treat your living space. Be respectful of your fellow park goers, just like you would be of neighbors when throwing a house party, and act like somebody will have to clean up after you… because someone will, whether or not you see them! “Someone trims the grass, someone comes in and inspects the playground, someone takes out the trash,” Sutton said. “But they tend to be invisible—you may not ever see a park employee.”
Speaking of the park employees who have to snag any White Claw cans you leave behind, Sutton suggested reaching out and thanking them like you would any other gracious host. “Last summer, I ended up writing a thank you note to my local parks and rec department,” she said. If you’re part of an organization—especially one that works with kids!—that could mobilize for a quick letter-writing campaign, just search up the address of your local parks department because they’d love to hear from you. And if you do happen to catch a glimpse of the elusive parks employee, say hi and tell them how much you appreciate them (and the park they work at!) face-to-face—a little “compliments to the chef” goes a long way.
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