Webinar Recap & Transcript | Programming While Social Distancing: Creative Strategies to Engage Communities

Webinar Recap & Transcript | Programming While Social Distancing: Creative Strategies to Engage Communities
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With the park and recreation landscape changing every day in response to COVID-19, many cities have closed recreation centers, park facilities, and in some cases, even parks and trails in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Park staff are adapting to this new environment in creative ways, taking traditional programming online and creating new programming to engage adults and children alike around physical activity, connection to nature, and mental wellness.

On April 9, 2020, City Parks Alliance hosted a webinar with park professionals focused on using social media, live-streaming, signage, and other communication and engagement strategies to connect residents to physical activity, nature, and each other.


Caryn Ernst
Director of Strategic Initiatives, City Parks Alliance


George Abbott
Director of External Affairs, Memphis River Parks Partnership
Helen Hope
Program Associate, Memphis River Parks Partnership
Whitney Hoshaw
Community Engagement and Public Relations Supervisor, Willamalane Park and Recreation District
Mike Riley
Director, Maryland National Capital Parks

City Parks Alliance is striving to adapt its programming to be responsive to the changing needs of park professionals during this challenging time. Support from our members is critical to enable City Parks Alliance to continue offering this type of programming. We hope you’ll consider joining City Parks Alliance if you aren’t already a member.

The full webinar can be viewed here. The following Q+A has been edited for length and clarity.

Caryn Ernst, Director of Strategic Initiatives, City Parks Alliance:

Welcome, and thank for joining City Parks Alliance for this discussion about how parks organization are adapting their programming in this time of social distancing. I’m Caryn Ernst. I’m the director of strategic initiatives for the City Parks Alliance, and I’ll be moderating this discussion. The parks and recreation landscape is changing every day. Over the last few weeks, some cities have chosen to close all parks and recreation facilities in response to local conditions, while others have left parks and trails open, encouraging the safe use of these resources to help residents maintain physical activity levels and mental wellness.

Our presenters will share ideas and strategies around such topics as adapting existing programs and adding new programs to meet community need, virtual programming that addresses physical activity for people of all ages, educational and nature-based programs and opportunities for kids, and communicating the latest information about the safe use of parks and trails.

Thank you to Whitney Hoshaw, the community engagement and public relations supervisor at the Willamalane Park and Recreation District in Oregon, George Abbott, the director of external affairs for Memphis River Parks Partnership, Helen Hope, the program associate at Memphis River Parks Partnership, and Mike Riley, the director of Maryland National Capital Parks.

Whitney Hoshaw, Community Engagement and Public Relations Supervisor, Willamalane Park and Recreation District:

Hi, I’m Whitney Hoshaw, the community engagement and public relations supervisor at Willamalane, and this is a little bit about what we’ve been doing for programming while social distancing. Willamalane is a special tax district based in Springfield, Oregon right next to Eugene, Oregon, which is Oregon’s second or third largest city, so quite a lot of people that we serve here. Like many of you, we’ve had a rolling response to COVID-19 restrictions. We’ve had to navigate rapidly changing circumstances, rolling closures, but at this time now our district is fully closed with only trails and open spaces and parks available for the community.

The overview that I’m going to present is the result of district-wide collaboration. We quickly had program teams jump to creative solutions and ideas to continue our programming. The fitness team filled their full-length classes with their actual instructors, classes that were getting canceled before our crisis communication had even finalized. Our educational team developed craft kits for local students, and our adult activity center realized that seniors weren’t going to be able to get their regular meals that they were getting during the day, so as soon as we close the next day we were able to offer drive-up service instead of sit-down senior meals. Things like that really made all of the programming possible. Our community engagement team’s role was to tell the stories and help strategize content delivery, but again those program teams were really essential, collaborative, and willing partners in anything that we have been doing.

Other essential partnerships that we’ve had have been throughout the two cities, so the city of Springfield, Springfield public schools, and Springfield utility board has been really collaborative. We have several times a week meetings with them over the phone to kind of communicate and talk about what we’re doing. We’ve also been working with other local parks and recreation districts, so the City of Eugene, Eugene YMCA, and River Road Park and Recreation District, and working together to make sure that we have unified messaging there, and then our nonprofit partners like seniors disability services, food for Lane county, and other organizations making sure that we’re doing everything that we can with those partners, and then our business sponsors, we have been faced with obviously a lot of closing programs and lots of revenue. We have a lot of business sponsors supporting us through those endeavors. Jumping creatively to figure out how we might be able to continue to support them and then also making sure that we’re keeping that revenue.

“Willamalane at Home” is the campaign name for what we’ve been doing. We really see it as a continuation of our mission statement, continuing to deliver exceptional park and recreation services to enrich the lives of everyone we served. Even though our facilities are closed, the programming can go on. I’ll go over the goals, the content strategy, some examples, and then the results that we’ve seen. There’s a lot of information here, so it’ll be available later too.

First, our goal for the campaign was really to engage our community and our staff. We wanted to add value and serve the community through these free recreation experiences. We wanted to drive engagement, bring awareness, understand how people are responding to digital programming, and really how that might inform us going forward and explore some new topics and passion areas because this is kind of an opportunity to do things that we have never done. The way that we decided to do that was to provide access and community or consistency for our community. Making sure that there is some semblance of consistency in programming and there is still that connection to their instructors, things that they have come to know and love from Willamalane. Like I said before, it’s completely reliant on being collaborative because you can have the greatest marketing people on the planet, but without engaging your entire district, you’re not going to be able to deliver great content.

The first thing that we wanted to do was generate ideas from staff for how can we creatively provide programming? And leaning on their expertise in each of their departments and programs to figure out what they wanted to do. Our role was to identify appropriate content delivery and making that accessible to staff, so leveraging our in-house expertise and skillset and being able to provide a variety of content and creative tools to them. Not everybody needs to be in a video. Not everybody needs to have that kind of technology at their disposal. We can do shareable graphics, photo stories, coloring sheets, infographics. Basically just give us your ideas, give us the programs that you’re thinking of, and we’ll figure out how we might be able to make it happen and how quickly we can do that.

The other thing that we’ve been doing to kind of integrate everything is aiming for one park post, one family post, one fitness post per day, and that might fluctuate to fewer or more based on what we have going at the moment. We’re really focusing on leveraging our existing channels to get information to patrons in a familiar avenue and create less workload for us. We’re not adding new websites or programs or anything like that. We’re really reworking our existing website, adjusting our email newsletters, things like that.

One example of that is the website. When you reached our website just a few weeks ago, you would see a video of our pools, and the first few buttons were driving you to registration, visiting the pools, doing these things with different facilities. We’ve changed all of that and we’re making sure that we’re driving to these content areas that are actually accessible to people, and then the video upfront is mostly the same, but the first thing that you do see is this great image of people practicing safe social distancing upfront. We’re providing some kind of consistency messaging there.

The first area of content has been fitness. We’ve been doing a variety of things, but the full-length videos on our website and YouTube of the actual instructors have been really great. We’ve been doing little previews of those on social media, which I have some examples on the next slide. We also have these shareable graphics with fitness tips, so again not everybody needs to do a video. We can get these quick things that people could do that even if they might not want to watch a 25 to 45-minute video. And then housing all of those things on one landing page, so if people are interested in getting more or see something and they want to reference it later, they can find it in one place, Willamalane.org/fitness. Then we are also working to do some virtual events and livestream classes, and we’re hoping to get those up next week.

This is an example of the resources available on the website and the library on YouTube. As I said, we’re trying to get everybody back to the website so they can access all of those different resources and know where to check if they need more, but we’ve been posting just quick previews on social media and then our YouTube page has the full list of classes available so you can just go through a playlist and have basically a full day of exercise if you wanted.

Then the second area of content is for families at home. This is a really good example of complete cross-collaboration across the district. We have coloring sheets of our parks, one version for adults, one version for kids. Read-along stories and sing-along stories for videos in Spanish, so the image here is a sing-along story of our actual community engagement team here singing, and we’re getting skillsets from all sorts of people who just have musical talents and are able to do that for our preschool group. We have educational activities that we’ve been sharing from our team, and then from partners, shareable graphics with activity ideas, an alternative to singing happy birthday to wash your hands, things like that. Our athletics team came up with tips for kids athletics at home in replacement for my first sports. Just getting really creative with the things that we can provide our community. Again, we have that one-stop resource landing page, Willamalane.org/family for people who are looking for more. And then we’re also considering some virtual and alternative events for our families since we’re coming up into event season and everything in the near future has been canceled. Here’s the example of the coloring sheets. We were able to do this in-house with our super talented community engagement team. We have one version of our coloring sheet for adults and ones for kids. Here are two examples. We plan to do these weekly as time allows.

And then that third area of content is Power of Parks. We really wanted to feature our parks, and this is the third area of focus. As I mentioned, we were doing a rolling closure of our district. So the parks were the last ones to kind of get reduced down, but they are still accessible. Not everybody feels comfortable going out, and we wanted to make sure that we are getting the park content to our patrons, and then also encouraging social distancing. We have these one-minute moment videos of parks and sounds. We have those coloring sheets that I showed. We have these no-touch scavenger hunts that we’ve been doing this week, and then here is another one that we did a little while ago. Those have just been photos, so no actual activation in parks yet. And then we issued a joint statement with local agencies reminding people about safe outdoor use as we were coming up on spring break. Here are some examples of those serene moments. It’s just a still shot of the park, but it goes on for a minute so you can hear all the birds chirping, the water rushing, and things like that. They’re really, really nice moments of tranquility in all of these stressful times.

So the results that we’re seeing from this collaborative effort have been really, really strong. We went into it identifying two metrics for success. We wanted to increase social media engagement scores, and then we wanted to maintain traffic to the website via social media and email, understanding that a lot of our traffic is going to decline. The social media engagement that we’ve seen has just been unprecedented. Individual channel engagement rates have been up from 300 to 1000%, and that’s not taking into account the last week of data. Web traffic is very engaged also. We wanted to maintain the traffic from social media. We’ve seen almost a 500% increase, a double increase on our email click rate, and overall traffic is down which is to be expected. We are coming up on the registration date and that’s been postponed. But the traffic to the homepage is only down about 15%, which is really strong. The time up and the exit percentage metrics are looking better, so we really feel like our content is resonating with people and people are interested in returning and seeing what we have to say. That’s it. My contact information is here, and I think it’ll be sent out afterward too, so I am happy to help with any questions or more information if anybody is interested.

Caryn Ernst:

Thank you, Whitney. That was great, really creative ideas and impressive how quickly you’ve been able to pivot. All right, let’s turn to George and Helen now from Memphis to talk about what they’ve been doing.

George Abbott, Director of External Affairs, Memphis River Parks Partnership:

Good afternoon. Thanks so much for having us. Helen and I work with Memphis River Parks Partnership. We are a nonprofit that manages five miles of city parks alongside the Mississippi River under a management agreement with the City of Memphis. As such, we are not a municipal park district, and that influences our approach to programming. We’re very lucky in that we do not have to become a service provider in times of emergency, and I think the location of the parks that we manage also influences what we try to do. We very much try to create programs that draw together a broad spectrum of people from different backgrounds. Because we are downtown, we do have riverfront parks. They’re very unique. We focus on programs that can only take place there, so programs with a FOMO factor we call them, and then finally we also make an intentional effort to draw businesses from around the region into Memphis in order for them to spend money in our downtown economy, in hotels, et cetera.

Now, obviously I just mentioned a lot of gathering people from different places together and encouraging them to mix and that’s absolutely not what we want to be doing right now. We’ve been under a state of emergency since March 18th, and safer at home order since March 24th. But throughout all of those orders, the progressive tightening of lockdowns, our parks have stayed open and they have become especially a place for Memphians to relieve the stress and anxiety that everybody is feeling right now. These are a few examples of what we do during better times, but I think our communications have really focused on what you can still do, rather than what you can’t do. So we have done a number of things like deployed all of our office staff out to the riverfront as social distance ambassadors. This is a fellow in community engagement, Jamal. We’ve kept the tone of our communications kind of very optimistic, positive. I think it’s important to remember that we will emerge from this and what’s becoming more and more evident is the importance of parks and public spaces to community health through this pandemic.

One of the things that we’ve learned as we’ve been out as ambassadors is that social distancing really is not a broadly understood term. We created some of these fun little videos, pushed them out through social media to remind people you still can come to the park. We want you to come to the park. We want you to stay fit, to stay healthy, to keep your mental health strong, but you must do it safely, and here’s how you do that. That’s why we say visiting the park keep six feet apart rather than push social distancing as it really isn’t that broadly understood.

For our larger organized programs, things like our skate nights and our kayak events, we sat down as a team to review what could still continue, what could move virtual, and what could be done at home. I’ll let my colleague Helen speak a little more about those programs.

Helen Hope, Program Associate, Memphis River Parks Partnership:

Like George said, we took our programs that we couldn’t do, like skate night and kayaking, but also focused on the ones that we could still do, modifying them to be done at home. The screen you see here is from one of our nature weeks, which is a week of environmental education activities, focused on our native plants and critters in River Garden, one of our parks. What we did is we took those activities and compiled them into one asset that people could do at home. Basically bring nature to you wherever you are. We really want to continue to promote the connection between well being and being in nature, and one of those ways we usually do that is through this our yoga downtown class that we host in our parks with our great partner, Downtown Memphis Commission. Usually, it gets over 100 people each week that it runs from April to October. We have people from the other 30 different zip codes come every week, and it’s one of our strongest programs for exercise. We’ve pivoted and done as many people have but live stream. We go live now on Downtown Memphis Commission’s Instagram every week. It’s great because this community has gathered by the river every week, but now they are still gathering, just online for the temporary time.

Our parks are still open for exercise, for jogging, for walking. As George said, we’ve put a lot of signage out there about keeping six feet apart. But we did want to provide some structure around that, so we’ve created a fitness challenge. You can see here there’s plenty of space to walk and run, and so we’ve basically created this challenge to encourage people to help us meet a goal of walking or running 500 miles in two weeks’ time. There’s an online Google Form where you can say here’s how many miles I ran on this date. There are prizes for the winner.

This is actually Riverside Drive. Usually, this is a really bustling traffic way with cars. It’s four lanes. But the mayor of Memphis closed it and as you can see there’s a cyclist down there. A lot of people have shown great joy I guess in having this space closed for more space to social distance. Cyclists literally … One said that they went back and forth just all day because it’s kind of the perfect way to socially distance right now.

We’ve also done some recess texts that are really great daily … They’re basically a text you get every day around noon for your recess. They’re little daily joyful reminders of stepping outside and looking at a tree that’s blooming. It’s spring. There are still things happening. That’s a fun little bit we’ve created too.

Those are some of the ways that we’re working to pivot our programs, continue to encourage people to use these spaces for their physical and mental well being in a time where we all kind of need that.

Caryn Ernst:

Thanks, George and Helen. We have one more presenter, Mike from Montgomery County.

Mike Riley, Director, Maryland National Capital Parks:

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you to Caryn and City Parks Alliance for having me today to hopefully share some useful information during these incredibly difficult times. I want to just start with a little bit about my agency because it is fairly unique. As you see there’s no particular city in my agency’s name, so let me just tell you a little bit about who we are of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. This is a state-chartered by county agency that surrounds the capital of Washington, DC. It’s Montgomery and Prince George’s county. We serve a very diverse population of over about two million residents across the two counties. Just to give you an idea of our demographics, as of the last census we were 44% non-Hispanic white, 19% Hispanic Latino, 18% African American, and 15% Asian, so a great amount of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and income of the residents we serve. Also in terms of population mix, we are a significant mix of urban, suburban, and rural. We have urban areas of high population such as Bethesda and Silver Spring. We have very large established suburban communities, and then in Montgomery County, we also are proud of our 93,000-acre agricultural reserve, which compromises a third of our county’s landmass, so a really good mix of city and rural living in our county.

Our park system includes 422 parks that cover 37,000 acres. That’s about 11% of our county’s landmass. We have an annual operating budget of 110 million and a six-year capital budget of about $280 million. It’s largely funded by property taxes, and personally I’ve been with the agency for 35 years and I’ve enjoyed serving as director for the last 5 years.

My next slide is infographics. Going into this, you might not think that a graphic artist would be at the top of your essential staff list when you go into a crisis like this, but for us it absolutely was. You’re looking at a sampling of infographics we’ve used over the last several weeks for communications that include onsite signage, social media, and on our website. All of our messaging is in English and Spanish due to the demographics I just discussed, and all our analytics are showing higher levels of engagement across social media platforms when we use infographics as opposed to just text or photographs. Just what you’re looking at in the upper left are several dos and don’ts based on our governor’s and CDC guidelines during the pandemic, dealing with issues such as social distancing, avoiding playing on playgrounds or participating in team sports. I do want to add that we have a park police division in both counties. In Montgomery County, it’s comprised of other 100 sworn officers. They are enforcing these rules and they’re getting voluntary compliance when we have problems. They’re getting voluntary compliance over 99% of the time. On the lower left, we have an infographic specific to trail usage. We’re going to talk quite a bit about trails in a subsequent slide. And on the top right, we have infographics specific to tennis and our attempts to get people to distance on our trails.

This is very briefly just some examples of social media we’ve been putting out on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. We have a very heavy following in all of those platforms of the community we serve. So we feel like it’s a very good tool to get the message out. On the left, you’ll see messaging specific to problems we were seeing on our most popular trail, the Capital Crescent Trail. It runs from the heavily populated areas of Bethesda, Maryland into Georgetown in the District of Columbia, and we’re encouraging people to consider other venues for their walking, biking, and jogging. During peak times, typically this trail can serve over 500 users per hour on the nicest days of the spring, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays, so we’re trying a whole variety of methods and some which I’ll talk about later to encourage distancing on the trails. In the center, again the dos and don’ts infographic, trying to promote what you can and what you can’t do in parks. I’ll echo a previous comment that we started out very heavily on the don’ts to get people to understand what they should not do, and now we’re shifting our messaging mostly to the dos because we know people have to get out for their own physical and mental health and recreate in our parks. And then the third, I’ll get to that a little bit more in-depth in a future slide about what we’re doing with our parkways.

Okay, this is just one strategy to try to encourage distancing on our very popular trails. We have experienced very high volumes of users, particularly on weekends, on our most popular trails. In an effort to spread out the use, we’ve encouraged residents to visit other trails in our 277-mile trail network. We’ve created on our website an interactive map of all trails, showing where the trailheads are with the various features, and we’ve tried to steer people to consider doing their walking, biking, jogging on some of the less used trails. It’s been very well received on social media, and in one week since we got this map up, we had 8,000 page views and the map was downloaded 3,900 times.

This is something that’s been in the works for two weeks. We consciously called this initiative “Opening Parkways to People” as opposed to closing roads to cars, although that’s the way some people interpret it. Three of our busiest trails run in linear stream valley parks, north-south, out of the District of Columbia. There are vehicular parkways that run parallel to the trail. We have the seven-mile Sligo Creek Parkway and Sligo Creek Trail. We have Beach Drive, which is an extension of the Rock Creek Parkway out of the District of Columbia and Rock Creek Park along the 14-mile Rock Creek Trail. And we have Little Falls Parkway, which parallels the 11-mile Capital Crescent Trail. We’ve historically opened a little over a mile of one of the parkways in Sligo Creek on Sundays for biking and walking, and we’ve been getting a lot of community input that we should open additional sections of Sligo and the other two parkways. Just starting today, we opened up another mile and a half on Sligo Parkway. There’s a lot of people out there right now, even though it’s a fairly cool, blustery day. I just got some video showing people enjoying that. Now we’re working on opening up potentially sections of the other two parkways.

Again, our main purpose of opening up these roads is that the trails are so popular, it’s very challenging to practice safe social distancing so you just give people the room to spread out is much easier than they can on an 8 or 10 foot wide paved trail. This isn’t always easy. I know this is a discussion all over the country about opening county streets or residential streets to people and closing them off to traffic, but there are things you have to consider. You have to consider the political will because there will be people who don’t agree with it. Some of the feedback we will get is that people are supposed to stay inside. Why are you opening up a recreational amenity that actually encourages people to go outside? Our answer to that is people need to go outside and exercise for their mental health and we’re creating a venue where they can do it safely.

Mayor Bowser in the District of Columbia was just on the news yesterday, and she was saying in DC and her area she’s not sold on this concept because she doesn’t want to answer that question about why is the city actually encouraging people to come out of their homes. It is controversial. You obviously have to consider traffic impacts to the neighborhoods, but my answer to that right now is there’s very little traffic and people are not supposed to be out driving around in our state unless it’s for essential services, so traffic is way, way down. You have to consider access to homes, businesses, and hospitals, fire and EMS response, bus routes, and then again of course access to trail head parking so that people can actually get there to use the trail. It’s a little bit more of a complicated discussion than people might guess, but we’re going down the route of trying to open up as much roadway as possible for people’s recreational venues, and our feedback so far has been 95% positive.

Okay, next slide, explore parks from home. This is along the lines with what some of the other agencies are doing. We’re promoting fun and educational activities for families and children to do at home on our website. It was created by our Nature Center staff. You can see some of the categories of animals, arts, and craft, health, and exercise, and the like. A couple of examples I’ve had fun with are identifying birds and insects in your backyards with graphics and links to pertinent resources like Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, which allows you to identify any bird in North America. We have a program for identifying differentiating native plants from invasive plants, either in your property or the park next to your property, which is a great educational thing for kids. And things as simple as finding shapes in nature for the little ones has been very popular.

And then my last side, as I indicated we are a bi-county agency in Montgomery and Prince George’s County. My friend and colleague Bill Tyler who’s the director of parks and recreation in Prince George’s County gave me permission to share some of their fine work. They’re running several innovative programs that allow residents to enjoy their programs at home. This one is called Wellness Wednesdays. They offer a weekly fitness program that patrons can do in-home at live, or they can do it later at their leisure after it’s posted on Facebook and YouTube and they’re experiencing very high levels of participation and lots of positive feedback. That’s it from me. Thanks again Caryn and City Parks Alliance for inviting me. Congratulations to George, Helen, and Whitney for great presentations and sharing such good information. I’ve been spending my whole career trying to convince people that parks are essential public services, and I think what we’re seeing right now is clear evidence of that. Everybody be safe and stay well.

Caryn Ernst:

Thanks, Mike. That was terrific, and kudos to your agency for taking the lead on the road closures and making sure people have safe access to that. On to questions from viewers. How are you reaching residents with limited access to technology? Just by design, you have had to use online resources to reach people which is great and it’s an opportunity, but also a limitation. How are you reaching people both around communicating what they can and can’t do in parks? And then how are you reaching people with creative programming who don’t have access to technology and the internet?

Mike Riley:

So one unique thing about my agency is we lean heavily towards in-house specialties as opposed to contracting. We have a lot of tradespeople, we have graphic artists, we actually have an exhibit shop that makes our own signs. It was extremely helpful as soon as we started preparing messaging related to the pandemic. We had signage out in parks in both English and Spanish the next day because we were able to make it ourselves. I think that is probably the most effective way of getting to people who are not online every minute or connected to social media. We have 422 parks, 278 playgrounds. We had signs out in all 278 playgrounds I think 3 days after we came up with the messaging, similarly with basketball courts and other facilities. So that was probably the most effective thing, but we have a pretty sophisticated communications team. We tie it into ethnic publications and media right away and got them the coverage. Our elected officials do a great job if we have messages we want them to get out on their own newsletters and accounts, just a whole variety of mediums that we use. I would say for us, the signage was probably the biggest game-changer.

Caryn Ernst:

Great, thanks. George do you want to talk about how you’re handling access to people with limited access to technology in Memphis?

George Abbott:

Yeah absolutely. I agree with Mike in that there is really no substitute for being in the parks where people are. That’s why we actually moved staff out of our office just to be a face, a recognizable face in the parks, as well as added the signage. But the other thing I’ll say is that moments like these really bring to light the value of the community building work that we have been undertaking for the past couple of years. Our name is Memphis River Parks Partnership, so it stands to reason that partnerships are kind of in our DNA. I want to give a shout out to our local funder, the Hyde Family Foundation, who enabled us to create a position, a fellow in community engagement about 18 months ago. That role is specifically tasked with making connections and finding partnerships with other community groups who all have their own constituencies.

What we’ve found is that those relationships that we created during the kind of quote-unquote good times, we’re now able to use those to be in direct touch with someone who runs a community center where people come every day to pick up meals, for example. I think it’s a reminder to all of us that when we get out the other side of this, and we will, let’s think about how we are positioned in our communities and how we’re connected to other agencies in our communities. I think the more we are, the stronger we will be.

Whitney Hoshaw:

I think that everything that everyone said so far is spot on. We also have been able to make our own signage for parks and things like that, and change those messages as the regulations have changed. So that’s been essential for sure. But our traditional ways of reaching the community through non-online methods would be through direct mail. Our registration date was this week. Our rec guide was supposed to go out this week. So we haven’t been able to communicate that way, and the other activation we usually do within our facility is really relying on our park staff in the parks to educate about that and talk to people who have questions in addition to the signage. And then working with our community partners again, working with the schools to get information out about programs available to families in English and Spanish, and then working with our city partners to get those messages out. The mayor of Springfield is on a weekly address and she shares some of the messages sometimes. Having those key partnerships, even if they were not … Like we didn’t have biweekly phone calls with all of the city of Springfield team, but now we do, and so having those things and leveraging those partnerships has been really essential.

Caryn Ernst:

Attendees are wondering about your ability to pivot so quickly and where are you getting your inspiration for your creative programming ideas? And are you charging fees for any of these programs and classes like fitness classes?

Helen Hope:

First off, all of the programs that we do in Memphis on the riverfront are free, and that is through one of our partners and funders, the reimagining the civic commons initiative. They’re also where we get a lot of our ideas from. It’s a learning network, so we get a lot of inspiration from that.

George Abbott:

That is I would say there are a lot of resources on civiccommons.us, and the social media channels for the civic commons as well.

Mike Riley:

I think we’re blessed in the park and recreation field with having very passionate, dedicated employees. The starting point for me is that everybody that I asked to change how they work and still be effective, whether they’re teleworking or under other circumstances. We’ve just had tremendous teamwork. I probably had been on 10 Microsoft Teams meetings in my life before this started. Now, I’m on 10 a day. It’s been very effective for us. My agency starts at 8:00 every single morning with all the senior leadership on an 8:00 team meeting to see what’s changed from the day before. I found it to be very effective. The technology has been holding up 95% of the time. But we’ve just paid very close attention to our public health officials. We’ve watched all of our governor’s press releases. We’re just trying to stay attuned to the day to day changes and make the best decisions we can with the health and safety of our patrons at the front of the line.

There was some knee jerk reaction weeks and weeks ago from some arenas saying you’ve just got to close all the parks. That’s the only answer. And I’ve never agreed with that because people need to be out recreating safely for their own mental health and physical health. So we’re keeping as much open as we can as long as we believe that it can be kept open safely.

Caryn Ernst:

Mike, I want to get back to that point in one minute about the pressure to close the parks, but before we do that, Whitney can you talk about how you’ve been able to respond quickly, where you are getting your inspiration, whether you’re charging? In particular, a couple of people have also asked about your scavenger hunt and how you set that up.

Whitney Hoshaw:

I think the pivoting quickly piece has been key for what Mike was saying is just that collaboration, that constant communication, and then to build on that, the other thing that has allowed our community engagement team to pivot quickly is to give up some of the creative controls and have less focus on having the most perfect product go out there and just really making sure that we are getting the best information we can, the best technology we can in terms of video and things like that. If the audio is not perfect, then we’ll still go ahead and get that out. Giving the creative controls over to our programmers, and then working together to figure out how we might be able to do that has been really helpful and has allowed us to put out so much stuff so quickly.

As far as charging for programming, right now we’re not doing any charging, but we are looking into ways that we might be able to work with our Willamalane Park Foundation to generate some revenue and do some alternative funding there. Similar to how a local radio station or like an NPR affiliate would say, “If you like listening to this content, please donate,” we’re kind of trying to take that approach and have been really working closely with them. We’re just starting that this week and we’ll see how that goes, but basically just trying everything we can and then creating some specific programs that will help fund our things. We have a virtual 5K coming up to help fund senior meals and if we get enough registrants there we’ll be able to do that for two more weeks. Getting really creative, just trying a bunch of different things has allowed us to do that, but our intention is to keep as much open for as long as possible as we can and get as much content out there as we’re able to.

Specifically, on the virtual scavenger hunt, those have been mostly on social media. We haven’t activated them in parks but just again trying a lot of different stuff. This week instead of we have an egg hunt that as scheduled for this weekend, so we’ve been doing that online. We’ve hidden an egg throughout our website and people can find those and click on them and get a little surprise and then we’ve been posting pictures of golden eggs in the park, so one person went out, put a golden egg, took a picture, and then we’ve been asking people to guess where that is. So just trying to be as creative as we can with integrating that consistency with our community and creating some activation there.

Caryn Ernst:

Returning to the question about how to respond to the pressure to close all parks. I think a lot of park departments are struggling with this right now. The pressure either comes from the public, just out of general fear that it can be spread there or from departments of public health, in particular in concerns about crowded conditions. Mike, you talked about really pushing back around the road closure and that you’ve had 95% approval rate from that. How are you approaching it generally?

Mike Riley:

One way is to stay in close touch with our public health officer. We want to make sure we don’t get out of our lane as a park and recreation agency. When we have things that are on the fence, we have good conversations about whether we believe people can utilize the facility safely.

I’ll give you an example of a particular situation. Tennis, we didn’t close tennis right away because we were fixated on our governor’s order that gatherings of 10 or less were okay. I know enough about tennis to know even if it’s two or four people, they’re touching the same ball with their sweaty hands. We said, “No we’re locking up all the tennis courts.” I had to spend a few days with tennis players dissecting our governor’s order telling me why I didn’t have the authority to close tennis courts, trying to approach it from a legal perspective. It kind of has been a facility-by-facility, case-by-case issue, but we feel very comfortable where we are now with the parks and trails are open. But distancing, avoid contact, don’t touch things unless you have to. If you touch something, watch your hands. We just keep pounding that same message home.

George Abbott:

You know, I think that this is really a time that I never predicted that I would experience. I think that’s true for a lot of people. This is a time when really everything that we do, most things that you do in your city you can’t do anymore. You can’t go to watch your favorite sports team play. You can’t go to watch your favorite bands play. You can’t go to the theater. Can’t go to your favorite restaurant. Can’t go to your favorite bar. But the thing that remains is the parks and public spaces that exist in each community.

I think it is so important that people are able to get outside, and they’re able to find a little bit of a release, whether that is by working up a sweat and running, or just finding a moment of peace away from your family or whoever is in your quarantine with you. We have been very much keeping our communications focused on what is possible. Of course, the parks must be used safely and that’s why we’re really grateful that the mayor did make the decision to close access roads to the park, as Helen showed in her slideshow. We do take that seriously, that we’ve closed basketball courts, we’ve closed restrooms, but in terms of ensuring that access is maintained, I think it’s so important that people are able to get out there and to access the parks and to use them in a safe manner. We’ve set up everything to try and facilitate that.

Whitney Hoshaw:

I think what everybody said was exactly what we’ve been doing too. I think the health and safety of our patrons and our staff are the first priorities, so making sure that we can provide safe access. We had rapidly rolling circumstances and orders from our governor, so we were closing a lot of things really quickly but the one thing that did remain open was parks and trails. We had to close playgrounds recently, and things like that, but we were getting a lot of community questions. It was pretty unfortunate timing because spring break was happening and kids were already planning to be out, and then parents were adjusting to this. Lots of kids were out on playgrounds. We have closed those now, we don’t have the authority to cite people if they aren’t following regulations, so we’ve been getting a lot of questions about that.

We’ve been trying to get our park staff the right information, the right talking points, things like that, and then working with our public health officials to understand what is and is not allowed and to align our messaging altogether with them and with the Eugene parks department so we have consistent messaging no matter where you are across the community. We really have been trying to focus on local usage too, so making sure that people aren’t coming to really far areas and really encouraging those local parks, and like I think Mike was saying that trail less traveled is going to be key for us.

Caryn Ernst:

As much as everybody is still trying to focus on how to adjust to this current situation, people are already looking to the future. We’ve been getting a lot of questions from webinar attendees who are asking about a couple of things future-oriented. I’m going to try and combine two slightly different questions, but related. In particular, we have a lot of questions about what the status is of your summer camp programs at this point. Are you still planning on running them? Are you making any adjustments? How are you handling that since summer camp signups are generally happening now if they haven’t already? And then the other one which is a little bit broader than that is just do you have any thoughts about how to start implementing modified recreation programming when parks and recreation programs start to open up again to the general public?

Mike Riley:

So our summer camp registration, it’s happened. They’re full. We’ve not made a decision yet. That’s the answer to the question everyone wants to know, which is when are we going to be safe to start resuming normal activities that we’ve curtailed, and nobody knows the answer to that yet. We’re on a day-to-day basis with our summer camp decision. Eventually, the day will come where we have to make decisions, but I mean it’s possible not to do June but to do July, or not to start until August. We’re on a day to day basis. We have not made a final decision.

On the modified programming, I’ve just begun to hear those discussions from my programmers about particular ideas about how they could still have certain camps that would be safe with adequate distancing, but I haven’t really got into the details on what those specific ideas are. But I know they’re starting to really think through them.

Helen Hope:

Like George said, we have had some team meetings about what do we do with our programs this summer. While we don’t have specifically summer camps other than that nature week I mentioned, our strategy is we are evaluating each program or event three weeks before it happens to keep updated with CDC guidelines and such, and then we also have basically a slew of programs that once the gates open and we can do programs and events again that we can pop off just like that, like our skate nights or our full moon kayaking. Those are things that we can quickly mobilize so if something does change we can provide some sort of program.

Whitney Hoshaw:

Yeah so this week we had the order from the governor that all schools were going to be closed through the end of the school year. That puts a little bit more space I guess between when we have to make a decision about summer camps, but our registration date was scheduled for today. It’s been postponed a few weeks now. We are doing the same thing as evaluating as it comes up, but also encouraging the program teams to think really creatively about what we might be able to provide to our community. We’re already providing modified recreation and we hope to be able to provide some kind of summer activities for kids in a safe way, but that’s going to be … Any idea that we’ve had so far for modified programming, for example, we’re hoping to do movie nights, and maybe doing like drive-ups instead of actual in the park, set out a picnic blanket kind of thing. Any idea that we have like that, we’re putting together a plan and then trying to get in contact with Lane County public health right away to evaluate, see what kind of modifications we might be able to make it really safe, what considerations we want to do, and then work with our city partners to make sure that everything is safe.

Doing things like that I think is going to be the most helpful going forward, and it provides us a way to give something back to the community and then also maybe a chance to generate a little bit of revenue or support just to see kind of how it goes. It’s a rapidly changing situation, so we’ll just see how it goes.

Caryn Ernst:

I want to thank all of our speakers for joining us today. This was really great information that hopefully will be helpful to other folks as they navigate these issues around programming, so thank you so much for your time and to everyone out there, thanks for joining us and keep up the great work you’re doing in our urban parks.

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