Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Parks Using Technology to Engage and Inspire

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Parks Using Technology to Engage and Inspire

Article excerpt

Imagine a citywide system of smart parks. Visitors entering parks from their residences or urban work spaces, remaining seamlessly connected by Wi-Fi to their devices and, by extension, their families and work responsibilities, as they enjoy some sunshine and fresh air. Park users learning about, and registering for, park events and activities from smartphone apps or interactive digital displays. Children playing longer and more vigorously on smart playgrounds linked to gaming apps on their parents' phones, which have been fully charged on a solar-powered park bench. Other kids of all ages using Pokemon GO-like apps to engage with, learn about nd develop a connection with the outdoors, all while developing a lifelong love of parks and nature as they play.

It's anything but a futuristic vision. All these capabilities, and many more, exist today, and they may be more affordable and easily implemented than you might think.

But first, does technology even belong in a park?

The Great Tech Debate

There remains a contingent of purists among park professionals --those who believe that technology has no place in a park, which should be a refuge, a place to escape from the fast pace of our tech-driven lives. Edward Krafcik, director of partnerships and business development at SOOFA, makers of a solar-powered phone-charging bench, encounters the tech naysayers fairly regularly, but he believes they comprise an ever-diminishing minority. "Many others are starting to question what happens if we refuse to provide services that are expected or demanded by the connected generation. Do we miss out on engaging an entire generation with our parks?" he asks.

Mark Saferstein, of the American Park Network, which provides Wi-Fi services to parks, agrees. "I think the conversation about parks and technology is much like those we've had before as technology has encroached on other settings," he says. "There's an initial resistance to change, then a begrudging acceptance, then quickly comes the time when you wonder how you ever got along without it."

A.P. Diaz, executive officer and chief of staff for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, says, "Parks simply can't afford to stand pat and expect to remain relevant and competitive in today's fast-paced, technology-driven world. In L.A., we are quickly moving forward on technology and helping our visitors be more connected and engaged, and perhaps, we're challenging traditional definitions of recreation in what we offer. But, I think as long as we are mindful of not inappropriately crossing the line so that a park is no longer recognizable as a park, we'll be able to maintain the right balance and convert many of the naysayers by demonstrating that technology is a tool that can enhance the park experience."

Advantages--Obvious and Less So

Today's most common tech-based services come with fairly obvious advantages. Wi-Fi allows the always-connected consumer to maintain their online lifestyle inside the boundaries of a park, engaging with media--social and otherwise--and staying in touch with work and family. Charging benches are welcomed amenities that keep those smart devices up and running. Proprietary, park-designed apps can educate visitors about activities in a particular park, as well as others in the system that the visitor wasn't even aware of, and give them the opportunity to register for events or reserve space. A new app that has been proven to be successful in Los Angeles allows park visitors to alert staff to areas of the park that require immediate maintenance or cleaning. This helps the parks more efficiently handle these issues and demonstrates to visitors the responsiveness and dedication of the park maintenance staff.

A less obvious benefit of technology is the vast amount of data that many of these services can provide park agencies. Sensors on the SOOFA charging benches track smartphone hotspot searches, which can yield valuable attendance and usage data. …

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