Focus On First Impressions

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.

A little spring cleaning goes a long way toward making your park a pleasant place to visit. Photos Courtesy of Dale Westrick

No matter the region of the country, the transition from winter to spring is a busy one for parks and recreation maintenance workers.

Although the big-ticket items are obvious—getting sports fields in shape for the inevitable pounding they will take, checking irrigation systems, and ordering supplies—it’s actually the lower-priority areas that serve the most people. And while these areas usually receive less attention and take less time, the impact they have on the perception of a well-oiled maintenance machine can be enormous.

Refresh Flower Beds

Several simple things get overlooked in March maintenance madness.

For instance, park patrons are often attentive to landscaped beds if they are attractive and well-groomed. Patrons tend to gravitate to the grounds to picnic, talk, toss a ball, or read a book, so starting with flower beds might be a good plan; even if you don’t do more maintenance than that, it will have an impact.

It’s a simple matter of raking away fall leaves, trimming shrubs, and reapplying mulch. Those who want to go further can plant some colorful flowers to really make an area pop.

Dale Westrick of Watertown Charter Township, Mich., suggests using “culvert planters” to brighten up otherwise dull or even ugly bridge railings.

Simple containers of flowers are an inexpensive way to beautify a fence.

“They are made of 12-inch, double-walled culvert material I get at no cost from our local Michigan Department of Transportation,” he explains, noting that the culvert is test material remnants that would have been thrown away.

He cuts the culvert in half lengthwise, attaches wooden end caps, and then installs them on railings using coated cables and turnbuckles. He uses an 18-inch version to separate different areas of the parks, such as parking from play areas.

“Our bridge planters are funded through donations from organizations and dedications of loved ones from family members,” he says.

Combat Erosion

Snow, rain, and wind often cause erosion in areas such as driveways. This is typically the first area patrons see when entering a facility, so be sure to provide a smooth road, which leads to a positive perception of the park department.

George DeTellis, executive director of Camp Woodhaven in West Boylston, Mass., estimates he spent $5,000 replacing the washed-out driveway that leads to the family-owned summer day camp that caters to working parents.

“I had an excavator rip it up then a bulldozer regraded it,” he relates. “Then we brought seven truckloads of Perk-Pak, which is stone dust mixed with ¾-inch stone. It packs hard and we rolled calcium-chloride pellets right into the Perk-Pak.”

This container is made from culvert scrap.

The inexpensive trick worked like a charm, DeTellis says. “The driveway stays moist and keeps the dust down throughout the summer.”

Erosion issues not only are unsightly, but can also present safety hazards in areas where spring sun-seekers might be active.

On playgrounds, for example, wood-based fibers often break down over the winter and wash away, exposing the bare ground, or worse, rocks and roots. These areas are unattractive, and parents may be reluctant to allow their children to play in what is perceived to be unsafe conditions.

Ordering ground covering for play areas early will ensure you won’t experience shipment delays in the spring rush. Scheduling staff members or even volunteers ahead of time to spread the material will make sure there’s enough manpower to get the work done. Consider even involving kids to give them ownership in the playground.

Water Features

For parks that include water features—ponds or lakes—some spring-cleaning might provide safety and accessibility.

Before the leaves start budding is a good time to trim shrubs and bushes—particularly those around bodies of water. Bushes that hang over the water are often hiding places for snakes and other animals that may be dangerous to unsuspecting users.

This is also a good time to clear out any trash, branches, limbs, and other debris that has accumulated during the winter. Bare trees make it easier to see broken glass, sharp metals, or any other objects that might pose a safety threat.

These tasks and others like them appear small in comparison to the high-value maintenance targets that manifest themselves in springtime. But these minor items are often more visible and are more appreciated.

So, if anybody has other great spring-cleaning ideas, email me or the editor, and we’ll get them posted on the PRB website to expedite their use by fellow parks and rec professionals.

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