Sustainable Maintenance

By Randy Gaddo

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.

As the world’s population grows, more emphasis is being placed on “sustainability” in every aspect of life, from the types of fuel we use to the food we eat; parks and recreation professionals are in a particularly unique position to promote sustainability, especially in maintenance.


What exactly does “sustainability” mean? Like so many words, it can mean different things to different people in different circumstances.

Globally, sustainability refers to the long-term ability to maintain an ecosystem or human society, according to Vanderbilt University Professor John C. Ayers, writing for the website “Best Thinking.”

In the article, the professor of earth and environmental sciences notes the importance of not only stopping unsustainable practices, but also creating new, sustainable ways of doing things.

Most parks and rec maintenance managers probably aren’t thinking globally each day as they go about the business of caring for sports fields, keeping facilities running, and dealing with trimmed budgets and diminished staffs.

However, they still face constant challenges to do more with less, to conserve limited assets, and to demonstrate conservation of public resources. So for them, long-term concern for the good of the earth can be synonymous with short-term diligence in their daily duties.

In fact, engaging in sustainable maintenance practices helps do the job more effectively.

Add It Into The Master Plan
Many parks and recreation departments in recent years have begun making sustainability a building block in the overall master plan. For example, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board identified sustainability as one of its core values for 2013.

“Throughout the organization, we strive to incorporate sustainable practices into the work we perform every day, in our parks and recreation centers and in our offices,” they declared on their website in a document titled “Sustainability 2013.”

“We know that our patrons value sustainability, and so do we,” affirms the board.

The board has actually been working toward this goal since 2007, when the members made it a priority in their 2007-2020 Comprehensive Plan. Along the way, they have formed work teams to make buildings more energy-efficient, developed urban forestation, re-organized waste-management strategies, and created events to promote “green” operations.

Looking at maintenance in terms of sustainability can cut your department's costs.

In 2012, Minnesota parks and rec employees sorted 300 pounds of garbage from six recreation centers and determined that 40 percent was compostable and 22 percent was recyclable. This is the type of empirical data that can be used to guide future maintenance and operational practices for a more sustainable operation.

With one of the largest parks networks in the nation, New York City published a 56-page document titled “A Plan for Sustainable Practices for NYC Parks” in 2010, with a goal to enhance 21 st -century park design and reduce consumption of fuel, energy, and materials in the maintenance and operations cycles.

In one section, “Measuring Sustainability at Parks,” the planners noted: “With our acute focus on sustainability, we are developing indicators to quantify our greening practices, measure progress, and highlight strengths and areas for improvement. We recognize that sustainability is more than a goal to check off.”

Ultimately, sustainability should be more than a slogan; it involves good stewardship of the environment, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.

Sustainability really can’t be separated from economics and work efficiency; each supports the other. Developing sustainable practices ultimately saves money and reduces the workload.

Xeriscaping is a good example, since landscape maintenance is a major task for most parks and rec departments.  It uses low-maintenance materials that don’t require irrigation to landscape certain areas, such as common areas in sports facilities or low-traffic areas around park facilities.

Xeriscaping conserves water and reduces the manpower and labor needed to constantly trim, weed, and otherwise care for high-maintenance areas with bushes, flowers, grasses, and routine landscape materials.

Implementing Sustainability
Sustainability can extend to any aspect of parks and rec maintenance and includes all staff, not just maintenance crews.

In fact, sustainable practices are generally more effective if they are generated, actively supported, and promoted by department leaders. They must be a part of the department culture to be successful in the long term.

Technology can help drive sustainable maintenance, though it will mean investing in updated equipment.

For example, there are systems that enable a parks maintenance manager to remotely monitor irrigation systems, lights, locks, security, and a number of other functions--all from a computer, laptop, or smart phone, anywhere, any time.

These systems can help save money and resources with early detection of water leaks, waste involving expensive sports lights, unsecured facilities prone to vandalism, and a host of other uses.

The task for managers is to find the right system to suit their needs at a cost they can afford or for which they can budget. The cost of these systems has steadily decreased as the technology has become more available, so it’s definitely something worth looking into.

Recreation-programming staff can also get into the sustainable picture. The members can ensure that recycle bins are available at all parks and rec events or activities, and have agreements with local volunteer or commercial recycling organizations to administer them. They can further promote recycling to attendees to ensure the bins are used.

This can help reduce work for cleanup crews after the event, get recyclable materials headed in the right direction, and keep them out of landfills.

Some recreation departments even hold events that focus solely on sustainability to further embed the idea into the cultural practices of recreation-facility users.

Sustainability is perhaps a new term for an old concept--conservation--which has been a founding principle of parks and recreation since Boston Common “shed its cows in 1830 and became the largest municipal green space in America dedicated entirely to passive recreation.” ( Eden on the Charles , Michael Rawson, 2010)

But in the modern world, conservation--or sustainability, or going green--or whatever term you want to use, can be a critical element in the long-term success of a parks and rec maintenance operation.

As resources and funding become scarcer, maintenance managers are wise to find new, more sustainable ways of performing old tasks.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration and now lives in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email