Urban Sprawl -- Tips and Tricks

Urban sprawl happens, and it seems to happen quickly. Here in Chandler, Ariz., just outside Phoenix, the population is rocketing past 245,000 citizens and keeping all of us in parks and recreation working double-time to keep up.

So far, we’ve built 50 parks, four community centers (a fifth is currently under construction), and are reviewing plans for more projects, all with an eye towards keeping our service satisfaction rating at or above 95 percent.

Sound like a tall order? It is, but in trial by fire, we’ve learned a few things that keep us pointed in the right direction. Maybe these lessons apply in your town too.

Create Synergy

Synergy is a law in nature. Like the geese that take flight in V-formation, enabling the flock to fly longer and faster than one goose flying alone, the City of Chandler’s Community Services Department (which oversees Parks and Recreation) strives to incorporate that high performance mentality into each workday, where staff input from every level is encouraged and expected. “We invite pro-active thinking,” says Mark Eynatten, Director of Community Services. “The culture inside our department encourages staff to think freely, to question why we’re doing something. We need to support each other and all those perspectives to really create that excitement, that ‘wow’ factor. It can’t just come from one person and be truly effective.” Creating that synergy in the workplace is a priority for Eynatten, who believes that without it, success is not truly achieved.

Keep an Open Mind

Chandler’s Parks and Recreation staff is passionate and experienced. But, they are not above input from outside their circle. “It just takes that small spark,” says Recreation Manager Barbara Young. “It can be an idea from staff, the public or a city council member. We will explore it and who knows, it could be great.” Taking chances and not being afraid to fail are key components to the strategy. “We will take a risk,” says Eynatten. “Saying ‘Well, we tried that and it didn’t work’ isn’t acceptable. Even if we tried that, we may try it a different way.”

Foster Relationships

Team Chandler includes the community. Because they are the City of Chandler’s biggest stakeholders, no project is complete without input from its residents, which has helped cement a positive relationship. “Residents know our public meetings aren’t a waste of their time,” says Mickey Ohland, Parks Development and Operations Manager. “We go the extra mile and make every effort to ensure that the input they provide us during public meetings is incorporated into the project. The concepts that are agreed to during the public meeting process are identical to those in the final product in the field. We don’t change anything without discussing it with them. We are proud of the trust that we have built with our citizens. This trust has been built over time, and we consider it to be priceless.”

It’s because of that confidence that Chandler residents passed the largest bond referendum in the city’s history: $451,435,000 with $81,350,000 of that money going to new parks and recreation projects, including the improvement of existing facilities. “We are not willing to compromise quality,” says Eynatten. “We have a very involved and demanding public, and they have helped us raise the bar. We make a concerted effort to provide opportunities for citizen input. It’s not a half-hearted effort, and they know this. There is no way that we would take a project forward to the city council where we could not provide information that showed citizen input and support. It’s an expected part of how we do things.”

Forget the Box

This city has taken “thinking outside the box” to a new level. Yes, there are the standard administrative procedures in place when executing a project, but that is where it ends with the City of Chandler. Here, there is intentionally no step-by-step manual to reference when tackling projects. The approach is as varied as the projects themselves. “We make a conscious effort to not get bogged down in the early stages by the process,” says Eynatten. “The process is dictated by the nature of the beast. Having too many processes stifles creativity.” Because of the corporate culture established in this organization, there is rarely a concern something may falter. Young adds, “We have creative and passionate staff.They are always willing to help out and get the job done right. There are no concrete boundaries or lines, and that’s a good thing.”

Continue to Learn

Whether it’s keeping up with the latest trends or enhancing one’s personal development, education is an important ingredient to the City of Chandler’s game plan. But for those in Parks and Recreation, everyday exchanges are an opportunity to strengthen their impact. “The more dialogue we have with each other, the more ideas we produce,” says Eynatten. “We can’t start something without being truly open to learning from one another. We all have something to contribute. The point when we stop listening is when we should clean up and quit.”

Erica Ramos-Guevara works for the City of Chandler, Ariz., in its Community Services-Recreation Division. She can be reached via e-mail at Erica.ramos-guevara@chandleraz.gov.