Joining Forces

How to “be green” and promote the environment is not only an appropriate issue for parks and recreation, but one that our profession should lead! Who better than parks and recreation to identify and communicate the importance of environmental awareness, education, conservation, and sustainability—not only for today’s residents, but for future generations? Some of the earliest experiences children have can be traced back to parks--going to a playground, participating in an athletic activity, or taking a school field trip to a nature preserve. By leading the effort to teach current and future generations about the significance of the environment, limited natural resources, and sustainability, as well as offering relevant education and recreation programs, we help encourage behaviors that will respect and preserve the environment in the long run.

The city of Cape Coral Parks and Recreation Department recently received the Florida Recreation and Park Association’s “2015 Agency Excellence Award for Environmental Sustainability,” the highest honor at the state level. The department demonstrated how it successfully integrated an environmental focus into its parks, programs, administration, marketing, and community involvement. Enhancements to the city’s environmental parks, such as the addition of a new boardwalk for manatee viewing, and an ADA-accessible fishing pad, were factors contributing to the award, as were more conventional “green” initiatives such as energy-savings measures and water-conservation efforts. Additionally, one of the most important successes highlighted was the implementation of environmental-education programs and eco-friendly activities thanks to strong citizen and community involvement and collaborative partnerships.

Improving Existing Programs

The city of Cape Coral is a large peninsula, 120 square miles, located in Southwest Florida and surrounded by mangrove forests and environmentally sensitive land. It was developed as a master-planned, pre-platted community with over 400 miles of canals, more than any other city in the world. The Recreation Department’s Environmental Recreation Division serves as the backbone to the community’s education efforts and was formed to instill an appreciation of the outdoors, to raise consciousness on local wildlife conservation efforts, and to encourage residents to conserve natural resources as well as reduce, reuse, and recycle. In 2010, city council sought to bring more eco-tourism and environmental activism to the area, which forced the question, “How could we improve existing program offerings, facilities, and resources, without additional funding, to further environmental education, health, and activism to meet council’s goals?” As a result of this challenge, we discovered that one of the major resources at our disposal was local citizens and environmental groups, as their passion for the subject matter already exists!

Utilizing Partnerships

Cape Coral collaborates with volunteer resources in a multitude of ways to bring new and exciting programming and environmental education to the area. An idea is penned and a task force works to determine the best way to reach the target audience and achieve the desired environmental goals. Volunteers are primarily utilized as community stewards and advocates, assisting with programs, projects, and events that foster public understanding and appreciation of our ecosystem and local wildlife. Among the volunteer groups that work with our Recreation Division on a regular basis is the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, one of the largest and most active organizations. This group was responsible for funding and installing a butterfly house, and volunteers offer free tours to educate the public about native butterfly species. In addition, the group presents programs and conduct guided tours of ecological and wildlife interests in the community, as well as co-sponsor the city’s annual Burrowing Owl Festival, which attracts thousands of visitors each year to learn about local wildlife and environmental sustainability.

Area Rotary Clubs have also been instrumental in the city’s environmental efforts by helping to fund park projects. For example, an observation tower was erected along a nature trail between a shallow pond that is home to many wading birds and a deep pond where turtles and fish can be viewed. Thousands of people visit this area annually for nature study and bird watching.

Additionally, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have performed community-service projects, such as park and canal clean-ups, trail creation and marking, map making, bench building, and the construction of bird-viewing platforms, bat houses, and picnic areas.  Local high school and university students provide hundreds of volunteer and service hours by working in the native-plant gardens, assisting with trail maintenance, acting as aides for Eco-Adventure Nature Camp, and helping to facilitate special events such as the Burrowing Owl Festival and native-plant sales. Furthermore, the Master Gardeners Program, made possible through one of the state universities, offers free programs related to gardening, including the Florida Yard and Neighborhoods Program, which teaches sustainable landscaping methods and the importance of eliminating non-native plant species.

Strong community partnerships have also been formed to encourage physical activity and eco-friendly behavior. Thanks to a public/private partnership, Cape Coral recently established seven dedicated bike routes covering 90 interconnected miles that border nature preserves, canals, marinas, and landmarks throughout the city. Each route is marked with distinctive signage, as well as informational maps and kiosks highlighting the various facilities and recreational activities that can be found on the route. This project was accomplished in just six months, thanks to the support of nine local businesses that contributed a total of $95,000, as well as the Bike Ped volunteer group that initiated the effort and worked hand in hand with the city’s transportation department and the parks and recreation department.

Another successful environmental collaboration was between the city and a local middle school. For the past several years, Cape Coral has partnered with local businesses and the school by donating fruit trees to the Student Garden Club. To date, over 70,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables have been produced and donated to a local soup kitchen. Helping feed the hungry helps children understand the value of giving back to the community and to those less fortunate, as well as teaching how caring for a tree or garden can feed many.

Internal Partners

Programming and partnering with the public isn’t the only opportunity to promote environmental friendliness within one’s city. Other city departments are often allies when it comes to advancing environmental agendas. Cape Coral’s Environmental Resources Division within the Public Works Department works with Parks and Recreation on projects throughout the year, including monofilament and canal cleanups, invasive-plant and tree removal, native-plant restoration, and environmental-education programming. Several of these efforts allow the community to actively participate in making their world a cleaner place while learning about the environment.

Small Steps

Whether your community is large or small, one topic of universal concern is the health of our environment. As members of parks and recreation departments, we are in a position to educate while drawing attention to activities that will promote healthy activities, not only for our bodies, but also for our planet. While we can and should continue to implement traditional “green” initiatives, such as using energy-efficient light bulbs and motion light sensors, using reclaimed and well water to irrigate athletic fields, and maintaining system-wide recycling programs, we can also use community partnerships. By joining forces with volunteers, schools, businesses, and other departments that share a common goal, and encouraging, embracing, and nurturing those relationships, we can more effectively address environmental issues and educate the public about how small steps can make a big difference in protecting and preserving our natural environment. 

Michelle Dean is the Marketing Manager for the city of Cape Coral Parks and Recreation Department in Cape Coral, Fla. Reach her at