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Social Equity in Parks and Recreation (or Lessons Learned from Leslie Knope)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michelle L. Wade and Amanda M. Olejarski
May 24, 2016

“Why do I want to build this park so bad?  Maybe because a pit filled with garbage isn’t the best that we can do in America.”

Leslie Knope, fictional character on “Parks and Recreation” 

Leslie Knope, deputy director of the fictional Pawnee, Ind., Department of Parks and Recreation, is known for her passionate support of public parks and recreation in the hit NBC show, “Parks and Recreation.” Knope is an unfailing optimistic champion of the park system.

The show begins with a challenge facing municipal governments across the nation: how to turn an abandoned construction area in the community into a park that can be enjoyed by all residents. After collaborating with other stakeholders and hosting a town hall meeting, Knope is ultimately successful. Eventually, she goes on to work for the National Park Service (NPS), which, in the nonfictional United States, celebrates 100 years in August 2016.


Though parks and recreation are an important aspect of public service at all levels of government, funding is declining and it is becoming part of the political battle. Benefits, however, are widely known and broadly inclusive of environmental, preservation and health aspects, as well as economic growth. Social equity is implicit in the mission of the NPS:

“The NPS preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.” 

Social equity concerns extend beyond national parks to state parks and municipal locations because of equitable access and the ability to maintain parks and recreational facilities via staffing and fiscal resources. In 1965, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) was created when five organizations merged into one nonprofit organization. The NRPA’s mission is, “To advance parks, recreation, and environmental conservation efforts that enhance the quality of life for all people.” Social equity is an explicit goal of the NRPA: “It is a right, not just a privilege, for people nationwide to have safe healthful access to parks and recreation…regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, ability or age.”

Cities across the nation are beginning to incorporate the value of social equity into their parks and recreation planning. In Los Angeles, one project emphasizes “green access,” focusing on the health and economic benefits. President Obama issued a statement supporting the city’s efforts in 2014. New York City’s initiative calls attention to “recreating” parks in communities based on the need to foster an equitable municipal park system. Phoenix’s programming captures the social equity movement well: “Every investment we make in parks and recreation facilities is designed to ensure that residents in every corner of the city have the same access to parks, open space and recreation.”

These cities are not isolated examples of the social equity movement in parks and recreation. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA)’s Center for Sustainable Communities released a statement on the importance of social equity through parks and recreation in 2014. In addition to the environmental, preservation and health benefits for which the NPS advocates, as well as the NRPA’s economic growth, the ICMA also points to decreasing crime rates.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sponsored an ICMA webinar on “Advancing Society Equity to Achieve Sustainability Goals” in 2014. The presentation slides are still available. Because of staffing and fiscal capacity challenges to funding parks and recreation facilities, the ICMA provides a host of strategies: working with local businesses and community leaders, attending community meetings and festivals, and translating materials— strategies that are similar to ones Leslie Knope’s used.

On the NPS website is a link to a new Public Broadcasting Service film, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” The title is based on a historian’s quote that national parks are, “The best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best, rather than at our worst.”

Like Knope reminds us, we should be doing the “best we can do in America.” Hopefully, the social equity movement in parks and recreation keeps growing to reflect us at our best.

Authors: Michelle L. Wade and Amanda M. Olejarski are on the faculty in West Chester University’s Department of Public Policy and Administration. Olejarski serves as president-elect of the Central Pennsylvania Chapter of ASPA. They may be reached via email ([email protected] and [email protected]) or on LinkedIn.

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