Optimize park operations with intelligent infrastructure

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Park departments have a lot of ground to cover, from sports fields and public lawns to playgrounds and hiking trails. With budgets shrinking and labor in short supply, agencies need fresh ways to keep parks running and deliver a positive community experience. Intelligent infrastructure may be key to the answer — by providing real-time insights that bring newfound precision and responsiveness to park operations.

The National Recreation and Park Association’s 2023 Agency Performance Review. says the typical U.S. local park department oversees about 11 acres of parkland for every thousand residents, roughly 15 miles of trails, and — in many cases — community and recreation centers. Nearly half (46%) of most departments’ budgets go to park management and maintenance and another 41% to recreation, with park operations carried out by just under nine full-time equivalent employees for every 10,000 residents.

That seems fairly lean and efficient. Yet many agencies are under pressure to streamline further, faced with falling budgets even as park use is on an upswing. Two-thirds of park and recreation leaders surveyed in June 2020 reported budget cuts of 10% to 30%.

Labor shortages are compounding departments’ financial challenges. One recent blog post described how cities such as Raleigh and New Orleans have had to reduce pool hours because of difficulties staffing lifeguards, while Toronto, Canada cancelled 5% of its recreation programs in fall 2022.

Smaller budgets mean park departments are less able to compete with employers in other sectors for talent. In many cases, they have more to catch up because parks are part of the leisure and hospitality sector, where as many as 60% of open positions are unfilled.

To deal with these realities, park departments need two things: one is the ability to do more with less so they can continue to deliver an excellent park user experience, and the other is to make a compelling case to funders about where investment is needed — and why.

Both depend on access to data that many park agencies today simply don’t have.

“Most park departments dedicate nearly half of their budgets to park management and maintenance and carry out park operations with just under nine full-time equivalent employees for every 10,000 residents.”

Knowledge empowers park operations

“Without benchmarks and measures, it is impossible to know whether a department is meeting the needs of its community members or whether it is doing better or worse, from one year to the next,” wrote the authors of one study on the use of neighborhood parks.

Beyond measuring performance, the lack of detailed information about park use prevents agencies from effectively identifying maintenance priorities, planning for the future, and knowing where spending is truly paying off.

Given their budgetary and labor constraints, staffing up to gather this kind of data isn’t an option for most park departments. Deploying connected technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, centralized controls, and data analytics is a highly scalable and cost-effective alternative — and has the potential to transform park operations.

Distributing technology across the park system provides a real-time view of conditions and how parks are being used. At the same time, it builds up the baseline data and measures needed to guide future decision making.

Digital video cameras are a good example of how this is so, with a wide range of applications. They can make park operations more efficient by observing where maintenance and repairs are needed most — where grass needs cutting, trash bins are full, or graffiti needs to be removed, for instance. This allows crews to be dispatched according to real-world priorities, makes the best use of their time, and helps keep the entire park system in generally good condition even if teams are short-staffed.

“The lack of detailed information about park use prevents agencies from effectively identifying maintenance priorities, planning for the future, and knowing where spending is truly paying off.”

Toward intelligent park operations

Cameras can also be used to gain much more precise insight into how parks are being used. Instead of relying on spot counts or anecdotal reports (“We heard the splash pad was packed on Saturday...”), departments can use livestreamed video and sensors to know which spaces and facilities are busiest, counting cars, bikes, people traffic and more. Analyzing this data can reveal which types of amenities should be invested in going forward — play structures, bike paths, basketball courts, for example — and which could be discontinued without affecting the community experience.

With these kinds of tools and insights, parks become ‘smart parks’, and departments can bring an evidence-based approach to park operations. Resources can be allocated where they will deliver the greatest value, the park system functions more efficiently, and park quality is maintained to a standard that keeps residents coming out to use them.

How to make smart parks a reality

While connected technologies have clear benefits for park departments, the question is how to deploy and pay for them. Using the lighting infrastructure as a platform for deployment offers compelling advantages because it already exists, is connected to a power supply, and is usually well distributed for coverage. All of that makes it fast and easy to roll out intelligent devices: they can be simply plugged into existing luminaires.

Funding-wise, a number of federal programs are actively looking to support projects that involve expanding parkland, including ‘rail-to-trail’ initiatives that convert old rail lines into paths and trails, as well as projects focused on energy efficiency and lighting technologies. These can significantly offset the upfront costs of deploying intelligent infrastructure, while the efficiencies gained in park operations help keep costs down over time.

Given the vital role parks play in communities, keeping them in good, safe condition is a must. With the right tools, park departments do so even when resources are constrained.

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