The Problem with Underestimating Fun

My 7-year-old niece recently spent the week us “in the big city” as a mini-vacation and a chance for us all to spend more time together since we’re only able to see her family a few times a year. I asked her what she wanted to do while she was in the Chicago and her answer was “go to a park and ride a train.”  I’m not going to lie – the urban planning geek inside of me was a little proud that the two things that she mentioned were open space and public transportation.  But, in order to fulfill her wishes, I happily promised that we’d make sure that we crossed both of those items off of the list that week.

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Scandinavian Design meets Parks & Recreation

One of the benefits of travel is the opportunity to see things from a new perspective, often reinforcing that for all of our differences, we’re really all the same.  And while most people like to leave work behind when they take a trip, visiting parks and spending time outdoors is something that both my husband and I really enjoy, so luckily traveling to new destinations means that this park nerd gets the chance for both work and play.

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A Lesson in Government Transparency from an Unlikely Source

Working in local government, I can't think of a buzzword that currently holds more weight with the public than "transparency."  And the funny thing is that despite its seemingly semi-recent rise to importance, it's really nothing new.  In 1913, Louis Brandeis, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice, famously said "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants..." referring to bankers at the turn of the century when financial reform was demanded after the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. He believed that by educating customers and investors through transparency, the public could best regulate bankers through the open market (i.e. poorly performing or corrupt bankers would no longer have customers and would go out of business on their own) and the government wouldn't need to regulate the types of deals that bankers made, nor the potential size of their profits.

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Park & Rec's Perception Problem

"These people are members of the community that care about where they live. So what I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me." - Leslie Knope,  Parks & Recreation

"These people are members of the community that care about where they live. So what I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me." - Leslie Knope, Parks & Recreation

It seems like anytime that someone working in the field of parks & recreation talks about the state of our industy, inevitably the conversation turns to the fact that despite all of our best efforts, we haven't made much traction in educating the public about the value of what we do.  As an industry, we have spent a lot of time, money, and resources towards promoting the benefits of parks & recreation.  We've adopted sort of a vague mantra - "Parks and Recreation - the benefits are endless!" We even have a television show (albeit fiction, and a little far-fetched at times) featuring the most passionate parks & recreation professional on earth, but haven't seemed to budge too much in recent years.  It doesn't help that our own marketing messages to our communities describe how "we're all about fun!"

The data and research that's been done in the name of better understanding and promoting parks & recreation as a public neccessity is actually incredibly interesting and valuable.  And in Illinois, the fact that hundreds of communities accross the state have voted to form separate park & recreation districts goes to show that the public does value these services on some level.  But when push comes to shove, as an industry, we still seem to feel a bit inferior to other government services like police, fire, health, education, sanitation, etc.   So despite our best efforts, it continues to be a hot topic and even ended up as part of the conversation at the keynote of the 2014 National Park & Recreation Association conference.  In fact, the question (and I'm paraphrasing here), "Why can't we seem to influence the public on the value of parks and recreation?" was posed.

Earlier this week I was asked to lead a StrengthsFinder workshop at a local park & recreation agency.  I have been a huge proponent of StrengthsFinder since I first read the book and took the assessment 8 years ago and have it to thank for putting me on the path towards my current position which is geared specifically to my strengths.  Without going into too much detail, StrengthsFinder consists of an assessment to inform a person of their natural talents and then explains why we will be happier, more productive, and more successful if we focus on improving our strengths instead of trying to fix our weaknesses. Each person is given their top 5 talent themes out of a possible 34.  Each of the 34 talent themes falls into one of four categories:

  • Executing:  People with talents in this area are those who you turn to to implement a solution.  They work tirelessly to get something done with speed and precision.
  • Influencing: People with talents in this area are innately good at influencing are always selling big ideas inside and outside of the organization.  When you need someone to take charge, speak up, and make sure your group is heard, look to someone with strengths in this area.
  • Relationship-Building: People with talents in this area have an innate ability to take the human component into the equation.  They look at how individuals fit into the big picture, make strong connections, and are the glue that holds groups together.
  • Strategic: People with talents in this area are constantly thinking about the future and help keep people focused on what "could be."  They absorb and analyze information to help make better decisions.

After compiling the results of professionals across the country, including park & recreation staff, special recreation staff, and board members, a pretty significant trend has surfaced.  Although not scientific in any stretch of the imagination, no matter where I go or who I work with, the overall results are the same - the talents of park & recreation professionals fall pretty consistently in the folowing order:

  1. Relationship-Building: 35% of our talents are in this area
  2. Executing: 31% of our talents are in this area
  3. Strategic: 21% of our talents are in this area
  4. Influencing: only 13% of our talents fall in this area

If we were perfectly balanced overall, our talents would all fall squarely at 25% in each area.  However, it's pretty clear that people who have chosen parks & recreation as their career are not as balanced as you might assume they'd be.  If you think about it, it actually makes total sense.  I think we'd all agree that to be drawn to work in parks & recreation, most professionals probably are concerned with relationships and care about the connections to their community and to the environment and nature.  And I don't know anyone that wouldn't say park & recreation professionals aren't hard workers.  Our entire field literally revolves around working while everyone else in playing.  So does that mean when it comes to influencing the public about our value that we're completely hopeless?  Is the only way to accomplish this goal to completely change the make-up of those working in our field?

Thankfully, while the StrengthsFinder results pose the question, I think the StrengthsFinder teachings also present the answer.  While it's important to be aware of our weaknesses and how they may be holding us back, the key to being successful is to find a way to use our strengths to solve the problem.  As one of the few "influencers" at my agency and in the field, I think that we need to change the way we appeal to our own members.

Ironically, Gallup, the group that conducted the research that led to StrengthsFinder, also found that people who live in close proximity to parks have fewer headaches, lower obesity rates and even as many as 25 percent fewer heart attacks in their Well-Being Index.  Just like the graphic above and other research that's been conducted, it's all incredibly valuable information.  So why isn't the message getting through?

Ironically, Gallup, the group that conducted the research that led to StrengthsFinder, also found that people who live in close proximity to parks have fewer headaches, lower obesity rates and even as many as 25 percent fewer heart attacks in their Well-Being Index.  Just like the graphic above and other research that's been conducted, it's all incredibly valuable information.  So why isn't the message getting through?

The StrengthsFinder results show that being influencers in a more traditional way isn't natural to the majority of our professionals.  But, if we know that our professionals care deeply about personal connections and building relationships, maybe it's time to change the message to our members about promoting parks & recreation.  Instead of encouraging professionals to do it because we need to fight for funding and increased stature among other social services, we need to appeal to our professionals in the area that matters most to them.  The message to our professionals should revolve around how it will help us build better connections in our community and serve more people.  We need to convince our professionals that spreading this message is priority number one and then challenge them to use their "executing" skills to making it happen on a local level, across the country. It might seem like an impossible sell, but it's exactly the route that I've had to take at my own agency to reinforce why focusing on data and numbers is one of the best ways to help our customers.

It may only seem like a slight change in semantics, but having coached others on using their own strengths for years and seeing the impact that these small tweeks can have, I think that it's an important distinction to think about.  And of course, the cliche is that "it's easier said than done."  But remember, according to my StrengthsFinder results, we're really good at the "getting things done" part.

What do you think?  Have you or your agency taken the StrengthsFinder assessment?  What were your results?  Would you agree that a change in strategy is needed?

Running Towards Data

Being a data geek and a runner, it's probably not that surprising that I wear a watch for each run.  By downloading the data, I have information about my speed, my distance, my heart rate, and even GPS information about where I ran.  I noticed a really cool feature on my GarminConnect account (the website I use to log all of my runs) using that GPS data.  Not only could I see a map showing where I ran, but one that compiled all of the data into a heat map showing where other users had run as well.  

For users, this feature is really cool if you think about it creatively.  If you're looking for a new place to run in your area, just zoom in to a nearby area to see where other runners are going.  Also cool, you can zoom out further to get a quick glimpse into the best running cities in the USA.  And even better, when you're in a new city, you can use websites like these to figure out where the most popular running paths are.  This came in incredibly handy when I visited Europe last fall.  It turns out that not many people run in Sarajevo, but luckily my hotel was right next to the most popular street in the city.

This got me thinking though....if I can look at this data to find out where people in my area are using their walking, running, and biking paths, couldn't local governments also use this data to help determine the popularity of those paths that they maintain?  Data like this could help set priorities for capital improvements and additional amenities like water fountains, signage, and bike racks.  It could also help local govnements determine where they need to focus on installing new paths, especially ones that may connect two well-used paths.

Strava runners in Chicago

Turns out my hunch wasn't that far off.  Last fall, the state of Oregon actually paid Strava, a well-known app used by cyclists, $20,000 for a one-year license of a dataset that includes the activities of about 17,700 riders logging 5 million miles on their bikes.  Interested in seeing an overview of data in your area without the pricetag?  Strava has now posted information online for advocacy groups and the public to view at http://labs.strava.com/heatmap/.  On this site, you can view biking, running, or both.  Strava is generally more popular with cyclists than runners and walkers, so you may want to also look at Garmin data, and other popular websites like MapMyRun.

Of course, it's important to recognize that the data that these maps show is not representative of the general public.  In fact, many of these data points come from more serious runners and cyclists than the majority of your users.  However, knowing how hard it can be to get any sort of data on these types of user groups in your parks, it may be an important first step.  What do you think about this opportunity for local governments?  Has your agency ever used data like this before?  And if you're a user of apps like Strava and Garmin, what do you think about your data being sold?