Surviving And Thriving

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

I read with great interest the article in PRB June by Sandra J. Gonzalez, titled “Is There a Future for the Past--Keeping a public treasure alive in hard times.” It is an excellent example of the importance of parks and recreation in the historical fabric of our society.

Gonzalez is the manager of the Planning & Development Bureau for the Parks, Recreation and Marine Department in Long Beach, Calif. In the article, she laments the possible future of Rancho Los Cerritos, a national, state and local landmark owned and operated by the city as a public museum and historic site since 1955. The site’s heritage is traced back to the late 19th century when it was part of a 27,000-acre cattle and sheep dynasty.

The well-founded concern is that this historic and culturally important part of American history will be a victim of budget realities. The story of this landmark is important, but what really caught my attention was a paragraph that described a looming $52-million budget deficit and the choices Long Beach policy-makers will have to make between “optional” and “core” services.

Prioritizing Services

“Optional” is a kind word; I’ve also heard the term “non-essential” applied, and one may extend that to mean “dispensable.” Call it what you will, I call it short-sighted.

Gonzalez opines that decision-makers rationalize that, “With public health and safety as a priority, fire, police and health services should take precedence. Libraries and parks are further down the list. How important are the cultural and historic resources to overall city operations and function?”

I say they are equally as important because without them, there wouldn’t be much of a city, and people wouldn’t want to live there, so there wouldn’t be a need for safety and health services.

She then humanizes this historic site, telling the story of a 130-year-old Moreton Bay fig and wondering how many people have beheld its beauty over the decades. She writes of the early Native Americans, ranchers and families that lived their lives, raised children and grandchildren, died, and were buried in this soil. And she describes what parks and rec professionals and volunteers are doing to keep this heritage alive.

A Push-Pull Effect

This real-life drama made me realize, once again, that parks and recreation and the vast array of things we do across the nation are not only as essential as health and public safety, but indeed further the causes of these areas. Though public libraries aren’t always grouped with recreation, I include them in this discussion because a well-educated and literate populace will be more apt to stay healthy and be involved in their community.

Good health is at the very core of what recreation professionals do. The healthier the citizens, the fewer emergency calls made to EMS, the fewer trips to the emergency room and the fewer expensive hospital stays. It is a widely held belief that a vibrant and involved parks and rec program helps local police by keeping kids (and young adults) off the streets, giving them a wholesome outlet for their energy. Libraries enrich the mind, so the better informed and educated a citizen is, the better he or she can understand their government and be able to participate in maintaining an orderly society.

I could go on and on. Our Library Administrator, Jill, just came up with a phrase to define the synergy of parks, rec and libraries (drum roll, please): “Exercise Your Body; Exercise Your Mind.” I think it perfectly describes the raw materials provided by these “leisure” services that are used to weave the very fabric of a community.

Equal Importance

I believe a community’s history and culture fit hand-in-glove with recreation and libraries to create a community that people are proud to call home. A culture that ignores or minimizes its history and traditions is doomed to repeat mistakes of the past, if it survives long enough to have much of a past.

The contributions of parks, recreation and library professionals are not always tangible; this is likely why bean counters and number crunchers often don’t think about including them in an analysis--in fact, some of them disdain even considering these services because they don’t fit neatly into an Excel formula. These services make humans, well, human.

This might sound like my waxing philosophical, but it is important. Let the reader tell me: If parks and rec and library professionals aren’t speaking up for what we do and why it’s important, who will? To be honest, I’m really tired of hearing people refer to what we do as “non-essential.” If these services weren’t essential, citizens wouldn’t demand them, use them, and support them as much as they do. Whether they’re enjoying the beauty of a passive park, playing an active sport, or researching and writing a resume to find a new job, people benefit from these services.

Make no mistake--I am an ardent supporter of public safety and public health. They are critical elements of a well-ordered society. But I also think that there is a breaking point where, if too many resources are shifted away from other equally important public services such as parks, recreation and libraries, a city can backslide, and become so dysfunctional that people, and businesses that employ them, begin to look elsewhere.

But opinions are like belly buttons because most everybody has one, so what do you think? Agree or disagree, share your opinion with PRB readers. Write or call me or the editor.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail