Webinar Recap & Transcript | Planning for Summer and Beyond in Our Parks

Webinar Recap & Transcript | Planning for Summer and Beyond in Our Parks
Back to Blog TOPIC: Emergency Management & Planning

As the weather warms and our thoughts turn to the summer months, this is the time when park organizations of every kind begin to prepare for their regular summer programming and events. But what will the “new normal” look like this summer and beyond? With uncertainty over what public health guidelines will allow, budgets affected by the pandemic, and questions around future public demand for programs and park amenities, park professionals are forging ahead to strategically and creatively plan for various contingencies.

On April 24, 2020, City Parks Alliance hosted a webinar to explore how park professionals are approaching such summer camps, volunteer management, communicating with residents, scenario planning and risk assessment, and data collection in parks that both informs the ongoing safe use of parks and makes the case for the importance of investing in this critical infrastructure in the future.


Caryn Ernst, Director of Strategic Initiatives, City Parks Alliance


  • Justin Hellier, Strategic Advisor, Seattle Parks and Recreation
  • Lakema Bell, Get Moving Initiative Strategic Advisor, Seattle Parks and Recreation
  • Allison Watkins, Chief Strategy Officer, Austin Parks Foundation
  • Dave Hutch, Director of Planning and Park Development, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation

City Parks Alliance continues to adapt its programming in response 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. Consider joining if you aren’t already a member and take advantage of members-only networking opportunities and additional members-only webinars.

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:

Hi, welcome and thank you for joining City Parks Alliance for our discussion on how park organizations are planning for the summer and fall activities. I’m Caryn Ernst. I’m the director of strategic initiatives at the City Parks Alliance and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion. As the weather warms and our thoughts turn to summer, most park professionals are already well underway with planning summer activities, summer camps, movie nights, festivals, but with the current uncertainty, many organizations find themselves wondering how they’re going to adapt their programs or whether they can hold them at all. Today, we’re going to hear from three park organizations who are practically and creatively planning for contingencies for their summer programs and beyond.

Though the summer may look different this year, they aimed to provide the best possible experience for residents as well as the services that people most need. Today we’re going to hear from Justin Hellier, who’s the strategic adviser at Seattle Parks and Recreation, Lakema Bell, the get moving initiative strategic adviser at Seattle Parks and Recreation, Allison Watkins, the chief strategy officer for Austin Parks Foundation, and Dave Hutch, the director of planning and park development at the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.

For our speakers, what we’d like you to talk about are issues such as scenario planning and risk assessment, summer camps, volunteer management, communication with residents, and data collection and parks to inform ongoing safe park use and to measure the impact of parks. Justin and Lakema from Seattle, how about if we start with you?

Justin Hellier, Strategic Advisor, Seattle Parks and Recreation:

Great. Thank you so much everybody for having us here. We’re like you trying to figure out exactly what the future looks like for us, and I just want to step back and start by saying a lot of what we’ll share today is still in thinking mode, still in planning mode. Not a lot of this has been formally blessed by our elected officials, and so we’re really sharing that thinking and planning mode. I also want to say this represents the work of a lot of folks throughout the department who’ve worked really hard to figure out this puzzle. I wanted to start just by presenting a conceptual model for how we’re thinking about the reopening.

It started with the current state of an unprecedented closure of all our operations, our significant number, right? We’ve got community centers closed, pools closed, most of our programs canceled or suspended, and you’re hearing from two folks who work on the recreation side of the house. There’s a lot more going on outdoors, but we’re not going to talk too much about that. At the same time of this closure, we’ve also got a significant number of emergency services that we’ve ramped up in response to COVID-19. We’ve got several homeless shelters operating in closed community centers. We have hygiene sites, so places with showers in a bathroom where folks who don’t otherwise have access to those can get access.

We’ve opened up emergency child care focused on first responder families and other transit workers and things like that, and a variety of other emergency services that I think other folks will speak to social distance ambassadors and park outdoor folks. That’s where we’re at now, right? A significant amount of our energy is consumed on providing these emergency services. We know at some point that this lockdown phase will come to an end, and we’ll start to slowly reopen, that some of these emergency services will slowly ramp down, but we know that when we reopen, it’s not going to be like flipping on a light switch. We’re not going from zero to 100% instantly for a variety of reasons.

One, public health restrictions really won’t let us do that. Two, we’ll still be using some of our staff capacity on some of these emergency services and three, we’re not sure what the public demand is going to be and four, there’s likely to be some savings targets for the year given the economic condition, right? Less than thinking of it as reopen, we’re thinking of it as ramping up. How do we ramp up to what is actually our normal operations? Rather than going from zero to 100, we’re slowly ramping up over the course of the year. We also know that the next year may look different than the current year because of potential long-term public health restrictions and the potential for long term budget cuts.

The new normal we’re ramping up to is going to look different than we started this year. This is really a high-level concept, but how we’re approaching this planning that as we move from this closure and emergency fades to over the long term, what the new normal is, we’re going to be really conscious of how we’re slowly ramping up our services based on public health restrictions, based on customer demand, based on our staff capacity, and based on the impact of any budget reductions.

As we approach planning for the future or for the summer I should say, I mean one of the first things we’ve done is pulled together a team of folks who’s while some of our folks are focused on emergency shelters, some on emergency child care, we’ve actually pulled together a group of people to focus on the future and I think that’s been incredibly helpful. Here’s how we’re looking at it. In a normal year, we like many of you run a huge summer operation, huge expanded summer camps. We’re the number one provider of child care in the city any time of year, but that’s especially true during the summer. We lifeguard nine major beaches. We’ve got 22-wading pools throughout the city.

We have a whole bunch of other kinds of programming we run, including just normal programming operating out of our community centers, right? Your pottery class, your drop-in pickleball, and all of that and again, everything else that happens outside, but you won’t hear about that from me. As we’ve approached this planning process for the first few weeks, I think I was really had in my head like how much of normal can we do, right? When you ask that question, you start to say things like, “Well, we can slowly open up buildings. We might be able to have some managed drop-in, but it would be harder to do registered programs because of the uncertainty might lead you to that kind of thinking.”

At a certain point, I realized I wanted to really think about it differently, that rather than thinking how much of normal can we do, really ask what are the core things the community needs from us this summer and how can we be a part of providing that, right? It’s really like right now in our emergency time, we’re under a continuity of operations plan that really pushes resources toward mission essential functions. I think even as we move out of that emergency stage, given the limited resources, given the limited staff capacity, given the uncertainty around public health guidance, we still need to be thinking with that essential functions frame.

As an example and again, this is just pure still planning and thinking, not yet fully approved, but I think we’re thinking about is child care one of our mission essential functions for the summer. If you do that and you start to operate your child care programs under the public health guidelines that we think we can, you start to realize that there’s not actually a lot of room in those buildings for things like drop-in, right? If you just ask how much a normal can we do, you might get one set of answers. If you ask what are the essential functions we need to perform this summer, you get a very different set of answers.

Speaking in particular to our summer camp, I want to be a little hesitant because we’re still thinking and planning, but we do hope to the current date for registration for those programs is May 12th. We are developing a plan to do that, to open registration for some of our programs then, not yet formally that didn’t approve, but we think that that’s going to be a really good measure of customer demand and important service that we can provide. We think given public health restrictions on a number of youth and a cohort, the number of folks that can congregate in a building, that we’re going to have a significantly smaller summer operation than we normally do and that there’s going to be a gap there.

That’s always true for a variety of reasons, whether it’s economic inequality and a wide variety of reasons. There are always young people who are not engaged in formal summer care, and so we’ve got a small program we run each year called summer of safety that’s essentially a structured drop-in program outdoors at parks at certain sites around the city, where you’ve got a recreation leader there helping folks play games, get a free lunch, do a few arts and crafts. It’s not formal registered care, but it’s a safety net to keep those young people safe. We know they’re going to be at the park or wander in the neighborhood anyway. Let’s put our resources there to help support them.

I think we are contemplating expanding that program this summer, again thinking and planning, not formally approved, but we are contemplating how we can think of summer care as really a mission-essential function that we push all our resources toward. Some of that happening through public health approved formal care, and then some of that through an expanded outdoor drop-in program. We’re also having all these same conversations about major events and my colleague, Lakema, is doing an excellent job thinking about scenario planning for one of our signature summer events, so I’ll pass it over to you Lakema.

Lakema Bell, Get Moving Initiative Strategic Advisor, Seattle Parks and Recreation:

Thank you, Justin. We have an event called the Big Day of Play which draws about 3700 attendees, and we plan for this event year-round. When I say we, it is a cross-group of stakeholders that do different things in recreation from our aquatics to our specialized populations, to our lifelong recreation, to our environmental learning, to our urban foods programs, our community centers activities, our athletics, and tennis as well. We put all these things together to provide an event that allows folks access to opportunities and resources of which they may not have access to this event is free. What we’re doing right now in this committee is thinking of Big Day of Play three ways.

Essentially, it’s an event that’s at one of our community centers that is located in one of our most diverse neighborhoods in the country, and we also have an aquatics building that is very close and we provide transportation. With that 3700 folks, about 70% are people of color and that’s intentionally done because we are looking to engage those folks in opportunities for access and resources, or we have health vendors. We have fitness instructors, anything from tennis to Zumba are all ways that you can engage for free. We also have jumpy toys.

Every day, one of our three ways of thinking about it is every day, and so we’re thinking about no gatherings greater than 250 people with enhanced attention to hygiene about the three-foot rule right now, sticking with public health and CDC. We’re also looking at six feet away which is no gatherings greater than 50 people, and then of course virtual. At this slide that you see up, you’ll see the implementation strategies on the left. There’re a few things that we do for all events; logistics, emergency management, first aid, marketing, inclusive outreach, then there’s aquatics, the activities that we’ll have, photography, videography, data collection, access, our entertainment, what are funding sponsorships, grants, partnerships, collaborations, and volunteers.

I have put that to the left, so you can be able to have a visual of how that looks and changes given the three ways that we’re looking at possibly providing the Big Day of Play event. Every day with the 250, we’re looking at how can we do entry and exit controls. Keeping in mind that we’ll have liability notices like we do at a regular event. The community engagement, they do door to door hangings, they do translations. That would be throughout all three strategies. We would lessen what the vendor looks like. We normally have 52 to 100. We’ll look at doing half of that in regards to our vendor booths and of course spacing so that we can ensure that three feet.

If we go to six feet, we’re now looking at okay, not at the Rainier or at the Rainier event, the Rainer Community Center in location, but also in addition, maybe spilling out into some closed streets around the city, so that we can have fewer people there. That would still have translated materials. It will still have food trucks, but it would be less, maybe one food truck, some farmer tents so that we can ensure that we have produced because we know oftentimes, folks from these communities are in food deserts. We’re looking at address those inequities and also be on the grounds, we’re looking at as opposed to person-to-person engagement for data collection.

You’ll see that we utilized our communication masters which are folks from different marginalized communities that speak the languages that they’re from that help with translation interpretation. We know that if you market and advertise in different languages, then people at the event need to be able to speak those said languages. That’s what the community engagement ambassadors are doing. They’re engaging our communities that they represent. Also, thinking about access. At our event, that Big Day of Play, we have what we call a contemplation room, and now what this room is for folks that may have overstimulation situations from folks that may need to pray, folks that may need to just get a chill pill if you will.

We provide that area so that folks don’t have to leave the event in order to see about their needs, but they can actually see about their needs at the event and then come on back. What does that look like every day? Six feet away, we’re looking at what neighborhoods are affected with health disparities and looking at engaging those neighborhoods with that potential block party engagement, and then also looking at digital divide and how do we mitigate this. Now, remember, these are all in the beginning stages of conversation, also keeping it in hand that we need to ensure that stakeholders both community organizations, nonprofits, our partners, folks that we’re engaging them around to potential funding and grants have say in these communications.

Also, looking at our funding and sponsorships as I talked about before, it would look differently. On the every day which is the 250 and under, we can still have banners. We can still have marketing materials there at the site with the six feet away. Now we’re looking about possibly sponsorship of each area to entice potential sponsors, and then virtually which would be across cross-pollinated or all pages, websites with running ads under them and streaming live like many ads. Engaging, we’re doing a phased approach of many vignettes of possible artists that will be at the event, many coupons or resources engagements with Facebook live, and so forth. Really we’re at the beginning stages.

We have amazing people at the table looking to have this information and collaborate in a way that we can provide programming for everyone.

Caryn Ernst:

All right. Thank you Lakema and Justin. That was really terrific, and I particularly appreciate the way you laid out the three different contingency plans of depending on what the guidelines and restrictions are at the time that you do the event. You’re planning out three different ways of approaching it, and I think that’s a great framework for people to think of. The next person who’s going to be speaking is Allison Watkins, the chief strategy officer at the Austin Parks Foundation.

Allison Watkins, Chief Strategy Officer, Austin Parks Foundation:

Hi, thanks so much. I’m Allison Watkins of Austin Parks Foundation, and thank you so much for having us and for letting us be here today and to talk about a few things. I’m going to share with you guys a little bit about what we at Austin Parks Foundation are currently doing. I wanted to start off with just sharing in the now, what we’re doing externally, and then internally as well. Externally, Austin Parks Foundation has done… I know that the City Parks Alliance has focused a lot of webinars already on this in terms of communications, but just wanted to share where our heads are at in terms of communicating with our external stakeholders.

I should also mention Austin Parks Foundation, we’re about a 30-year-old nonprofit organization that operates in Austin, Texas and we are there to support our Parks and Recreation Department. We do our own programming, and we help and fund new park amenities and building them new parks, but obviously, with everything that’s going on, we’ve really had a change in strategy and been pivoting as an organization to do these three key things, which are around educating our constituents and our community, connecting with them, and hoping to inspire them. I know some friends on past webinars have shared how they’ve updated their websites.

I wanted to share just a screenshot with you guys so you can see at our website austinparks.org, this is how we’re transitioning. We’ve got key areas where people can learn how to be in their park safely and what the rules are and how to maintain social distancing and do everything that our local government is telling them to do, ways that people can find local green spaces. Austin Parks Foundation as a nonprofit works in all nearly 300 parks in the City of Austin, and our marching orders and what we’re really trying to educate people around is that you don’t need to be traveling to a park that’s far away. You don’t need to go to those big downtown destination parks.

We want people to be able to stay close to home, and so we have a great resource on our website that really shows people where they can find their local green spaces if they may not be as familiar with them. Then bringing parks into the home. A lot of the programming and activities that we do as an organization in parks, we’ve really tried to focus those around how you can do those in your own backyard, so that’s everything from mulching trees to activities you would do with your kids like seed ball making. We’ve transitioned our blog and our little hummingbird society activities which is our kids’ programming events to be more digital. These are just screenshots of those areas.

We’ve got a ton of nature play activities and just things that parents can do with their kids around their house that really brings some of that park program that we would do in person and in local parks into your own backyard and into your neighborhood. Then again our own little hummingbird society which is in the past, it’s been a program that is it’s a fee for activity. It’s a $10 a month donation program that people get fun activities and volunteer activities in the local parks, and we now have made all of our content free and available to everybody. By coming to our website, they can download booklets, they can explore the content online, there are downloadable activities, there are printable activities.

Just trying to really bring a lot of those resources that we would normally give to people in an in-person way, making them digital and available to everyone. Then finally, I wanted to share in terms of what we’re doing internally, and again, this is just from a communication standpoint, our team, we’ve got about 25 team members all across the city. We are in shelter-in-place, so we’re all working remotely from our homes, but we want to make sure that we’re connecting with our teams at all times. We hold a weekly team meeting on Monday afternoons, and then our leadership team which is a small group of five individuals also meets weekly on Thursday afternoons.

For those team meetings, we’re really trying to start with something light. We want to make sure that we are connecting with our team members as individuals and that we’re hearing from them. We know that what web meetings in Zoom can can be a little hard and that you don’t hear from everybody, you don’t get to see everybody unless you do something intentionally. We try to start each of our meetings with a sharing exercise, so we can see each of our team members individually and hear a little bit from them. We’ve been sharing things like recipes, we’ve been making shows, we’ve been watching inspiration that’s coming from our neighborhoods of great things that our neighbors are doing for each other.

Just a little ways to get everybody to be able to be visible and to share in those meetings. Then we have a collaborative agenda where we’re hearing from our various departments about good news and things that are happening, important update, struggles that people are having that they need collaboration and help with, and then we’re also just trying to keep our traditions. Our finance team is known for their cartoons that they share in each of our monthly team meetings, and so they’ve been great about sharing a silly cartoon every team meeting that we have virtually. We are continuing to honor birthdays and celebrations of our team members as well.

Just trying to keep as much of a semblance of routine as possible, even though we’re doing things virtually. Then in terms of other work that we’re doing around week forecasting, scenario planning, similar to the team in Seattle, we wanted to share with you just a few resources that we’re using and we’ve created. In terms of a budget standpoint, our finance team when this first started began scenario planning in terms of the best middle worst-case scenario, and we’ve been refining those over the last several weeks. We have really been concentrating on cutting our unrestricted expenses and getting those as low as possible. We actually have a board meeting next week that will be going to our board with a new route forecast and a new budget for 2020 taking all this into consideration.

We’ll be sharing that with them and hopefully getting that adopted which will give us our new marching orders in terms of how we’ll be spending moving forward. Then again similar to what Lakema showed, we’re going to be doing scenario planning and we are doing scenario planning for all of our events and programming. Whether that be free events that we help put on in the park and various other programs that we do with our community for our park adopters, various things, fundraising events, everything is going through this scenario planning lens.

We’re thinking about this in terms of things that are in our control, and we’re really talking about what are the details of those programs, what are the budget concerns, what are the new revenue projections that might come out of fundraising events, and then what are the ways that we’re thinking about being creative in terms of building out some of these scenarios. One program I wanted to share, just I know that some of you all also have run movies in the park program. It’s something that a lot of us do across the nation in terms of getting people free programming into parks. We at Austin Parks Foundation run movies in the park which happens usually from later middle spring all the way until the wintertime because of our mild temperatures here in Texas.

We would be in the midst of holding movies in the park. We do about 10 movies a year at different neighborhood parks across the city. We halted that program obviously when everything happened, and now we’ve been scenario building for our best, middle, and worst-case scenarios. I’ve outlined what those are here, so you can see them in terms of our best-case in regards to when our start date is and again when a drop-dead decision would need to happen and then what the plan would be in case place. Again, this would be best cases that we could operate as normal and things would just resume as they always did. It gives those main things that we need to focus on immediately in order to make that happen.

Middle cases again with more of a drop decision being made by June and the program starting in August. It’d be like a late summer into early fall program, and so we would cut it immensely. It would only have a handful of showings. We would do social distancing and assuming it would be required. We would implement blanket squares and food truck lines with all our 6-feet apart spacing, so really wanting folks to give them the tools to be able to social distance appropriately. Then we also look at things like our sponsors and normally our movies in the park program has a large sponsor contingency. A lot of our sponsors come out and they want to interact with our communities.

This would be showing how we could do that maybe in a more limited way, cutting a lot of that on-site presence, but looking at other ways we can give benefits to our sponsors. Then our worst-case scenario really looks at how do we do this virtually. Again, looks at all those things in terms of picking a streaming platform, would we offer a way to partner with a local restaurant or restaurants for giving food and alcohol options? Do we try to do some social media along with the movie itself? How do we publish this in a more robust way since it’ll be a new way of doing this program?

Then compiling again new sponsor benefits I think again is the team in Seattle said, of just being able to think about what are the ways that we could offer benefits that are different than what we would do if we were in person, but doing them digitally. This is just where our heads are in terms of this program and really continuing to refine the scenario planning. It’s never perfect and as we all get new information from our local and state governments, we’ll continue to adapt these plans to meet those specifications. Again, we will continue to roll out what these various scenarios look like as we get that information. The next thing I wanted to share was just around risk assessment tools.

The scenario planning is really for things that are within our control and the risk assessment tool is about things that are not so much in our control. This was just a really simple tool that we built to help, and I’ve given some example here, but we’re using this to look at every risk that exists with everything that we’re doing, whether it be our programming, our fundraising events, other activations or programs that we offer, and what the impact of those risks are, the financial impact of them, and then starting to rank them in terms of their severity. How severe is this risk if it were to occur and what’s the likelihood of that happening?

Our leadership team is going through a scenario right now of building out all of the various risks and really looking at their severity and likelihood. Then in the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be coming together to rank them in terms of is this low, medium, high, and extreme, and we’re looking at those that are extreme that are really a really high severity and a really high likelihood. Then we’re putting mitigation plans in place, what are things that we can do to help lessen this risk, what can we do to help lessen the outcomes if these risks actually come to pass, and who on our team is responsible for these. We’re just beginning exercise.

It’s something that we discussed last week, and we’re just beginning to put it into place, but I think it’s going to be really helpful in thinking about things that ultimately are out of our control as a nonprofit organization and trying to think if some of these comes to pass, how can we prepare to be as best ready to take these on if and when they happen. Then finally, the last thing I just wanted to talk about and touch on was around communications and what we at Austin Parks Foundation are doing to communicate. I would say we are trying to over-communicate, which I know can be really hard at this time. We don’t want to flood people’s inboxes.

When I say over-communicate, I mean a lot of thinking of the mediums we’re using. Making sure that we are doing everything to communicate with people via email or videos, a personal phone call, social media, just thinking of all the ways that we can connect with our partners and donors and volunteers and the general constituency that uses our parks, and really seeing the importance of not one thing works for everybody, and so wanting to make sure that we’re hitting all in the really broadest of communications to make sure that everybody hears the messaging that we want to put out there in regards to using parks safely, the ways in which they can find out what parks are available to them and the amenities that are available to them.

Then also again, our programming and the free activities that we’re trying to do in this new normal and giving those opportunities to people. We want to come from a place of empathy and understanding and collaboration in partnership, and I think I have here around wanting to listen. We know that our park adopters and the people who we work with every day have different experiences than what we’re going through currently. Specifically to those park adopters, so there are about 115 different individuals and groups that help us really manage and oversee their neighborhood parks.

We’re using them as hearing what’s happening on the ground and their own neighborhoods, and then building tools and resources together that help them combat what they’re seeing in their own neighborhood parks, but the important thing for us right now is just to really listen and to communicate as much as possible with what we’re doing and then here from them what it is that we could be doing better. Then I think the other thing that’s really important from our perspective is being really upfront and honest and transparent with changes. As I mentioned, movies in the park as we were supposed to launch in the middle of March.

As soon as we knew we weren’t going to be able to do that, we broadcast that message as far and wide as we could using our public relations and then also our social media and website and email, and just letting people know that this is the current reality that we’re living in. As we think about future programming in terms of our fall fundraiser, that will be the same. As soon as we meet any of those critical deadlines, we’ll be communicating that out to our constituents, so they know what’s coming. I also listed on here spring grants. We want to run a grants program for our park adopters and for our local community that helps put dollars back into those neighborhood parks.

We’ve put the spring grants on hold as we make decisions obviously with the parks and recreation department about when that can continue, and we’re just continuing to communicate and update park adopters and those that would be affected by that as much as possible. Then again with listening and having conversations, you get some really interesting things that come about. These are just the final things I wanted to share with you about interesting conversations we’re seeing currently. The power of our park adopters as I mentioned, when you’ve got local folks on the ground in neighborhood parks, they’re hearing and seeing things that we don’t necessarily have eyeballs on.

Really being able to listen to them and then build resources and toolkits and signage and things that they need in order to make their park safer. That’s how we’re really looking at this situation currently and really wanting to use them more and more as things lessen, and we’re able to get back into our communities or into our neighborhood parks in a more active way, wanting to be able to make sure that we’re hearing what’s actually happening on the ground and being able to help our park adopters work with their neighbors to enter into those spaces safely.

We’re also thinking a lot about how we can support our community gardens knowing that those spaces are still currently open as a food resource and being able to provide small grants or resources in terms of seeds or mulch or tools to be able to allow people to use those spaces safely. Trying to think creatively with our parks and recreation department and also our community partners around how we can better support our community gardens. We’re also thinking about the future of community engagement and knowing that’s such a key part of our park planning process.

As we build new amenities in parks and you redevelop parks, how can we do community engagement when it means we can’t be face to face or in large groups or in our neighborhoods? We’re having really interesting conversations right now with people that are doing that work really well and trying to learn from them so that we can implement new ways of doing community engagement as we embark on new projects in the future. Then finally, as a nonprofit organization, we have a large focus on advocacy.

As we talk to our neighbors and our park adopters, the thing we’re really concentrating on is how can we be better advocates for these spaces that people are enjoying and loving so much as mental and physical health respites right now and make sure that when our city budgeting comes, that we are being really good advocates and getting our community to be really good advocates for the parks and recreation department and their budget, and ensuring that their budget does not get cut at such a critical time and making sure that these spaces stay open as they need to so people can use them safely. Again, when you listen and you are having detailed communications with all of your constituents, really interesting conversations can come from them.

These are just a few topics that we’re excited to explore more with our neighbors, and that’s it from Austin and Austin Parks Foundation, but thank you so much for having us and we’re excited to learn more from the Vancouver team.

Caryn Ernst:

Thank you Allison. That was great. Really helpful to hear how you’re doing your scenario planning and your risk assessment in particular. All right, we’re going to turn it over to Dave Hutch now, who’s the director of planning and park development at the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.

Dave Hutch, Director of Planning and Park Development, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation:

Hi everyone and thank you City Parks Alliance for hosting this webinar and also inviting us to participate. I’m going to take a slightly different tact today and talk about how we’re using data to understand what’s going on in our parks currently and how we will respond to COVID-19. I also just want to say we’re really in an unprecedented time here in terms of the importance of parks. We’ve never seen a time like this where you can’t go visit friends, you can’t have family over restaurants, shopping malls, gyms, community centers, everything’s closed. Where are people going? They’re going to parks and they’re going on streets and sidewalks.

We’re really seeing particular in our context just the incredible importance and role that parts are playing, and we’re not quite as advanced in terms of looking at what we’re going to be doing this summer and this fall, but we are collecting data and we’re starting to think about it. What we’re seeing here in Vancouver British Columbia, this is Google mobility data and you can see activities in all different sectors of society. We’re seeing an incredible increase, 20% more use in parks compared to the baseline data. Again, our demographics and our geography is really critical to understanding our park system and how we respond. Vancouver’s a very dense city.

It’s one of the most dense cities in North America and a population of 630,000 and a metro region of about 2.5 area of 115 kilometers is slightly smaller than San Francisco, but we’re only 4% of the metro land area, but we have 25% of the population. We’re a destination as well and we have about 230 parks. The other thing that’s really important to understand about Vancouver is that about 60% of the population lives in 30% of the landmass. We have a very large, single-family, and duplex zone which is the blue, and then a high-density zone which is the gray.

Here’s the makeup of that, so you can see that in the single-family zone, again like I said about 30% of the population, the rest is in varying forms of what we call multi-family or attached forms of housing, increasingly mid-rise to high-rise. The reason why I’m showing you this is because these folks that are living in these attached forms of housing have much less access to private outdoor space if not any at all. What did we do immediately? Because we had a spate of very good weather at the onset of the measures that were put in place, we implemented something we call park champions. What the champions are doing is providing information around physical distancing in parks and really focusing on hotspots, our destination parks.

The champions were redeployed community center workers, recreation programmers, and youth workers that really have a lot of experience in nonviolent crisis intervention, contact resolution, and very good interpersonal skills because they were being thrown out there and in information roll with our park users. Here you can see them, they’re using hula hoops to show that the two meters apart, in America, it’d be 6-feet apart rule. Then, of course, using communication and signage to reinforce that. The other immediate action we did was we just needed more capacity in our parks because of the density and the amount of use and their limited capacity is we started looking at the road, working with our engineering department, looking at road networks next to parts, and opening those up for bike and pedestrian use, primarily bike use.

We have a very good system of connected by pathways in Vancouver along the waterfront. What we’ve done is we’ve moved those out of the parks and onto the roads and key locations along the waterfront destination parks. Then the other big move was making Stanley Park car-free which is something we’ve talked about for years and this really gave us the opportunity to try it. It’s been a fantastic example and that allowed us to free up the seawall, the perimeter trail from bikes, and it is now organized itself into a 2-way pedestrian system that is opening up a lot more room for physical distancing which is key.

What else is going on? We really needed to understand what was going on in the rest of our system and how do we prioritize our efforts to keeping the system open because what we’re hearing from our provincial and regional which would be like our state and county chief health officers that parks are essential for physical and mental health and that people are encouraged to use them but to stay local and play local. How can we ensure that we’re managing the demand and the capacity of these parks? We devised a system of data collection which I’m going to speak about in a moment, but what we really wanted to know is when as we were responding and taking these interventions, how were they working not only in the immediate but over a period of time?

We also wanted to avoid further park and amenity closures by understanding how they’re being used and really again designing and testing ideas with rapid implementation. This is something that’s been really interesting as the amount of innovation and the productivity in this time that we’ve been able to implement these really quickly. Again, determining patterns and then of course, balancing these activities with safe access. When we closed down streets, we don’t want a street party, but we do want to create more capacity for use and for people to be aware and to be safe.

In terms of collecting data, while this is going on in the bigger picture, really as we move into recovery mode, I think there’s going to be a real focus on resilience in cities and the role that parks will play in ensuring resilience for major disasters and other forms of emergencies. We need to understand the carrying capacity of parks and prioritize the investment, and really what all of this is informing the design for major parks. Stanley Park and some of our other major parks, if we were designing them for a pandemic, I think we would have looked at the circulation system completely differently. We really have the opportunity to do that now that we’ve tested closing them down to vehicles, ensuring safe circulation.

We’re really looking at that part and a number of our major park master plans that are in the beginning stages. Again, measuring the demand for different types of park space and finding less used parks and how can we get people to spread the demand around. What we did is we took a citywide survey of 50 parks across the city, and we were really well-positioned to undertake this survey, and it’s an ongoing survey. It’s actually happening about four times a week. We have just finished band play, our parks and recreation services master plan in October. It was approved by our board and as part of that, we undertook a system of observing play and recreation in community study on.

This was developed by Dr. Deborah Cohen of the RAND Corporation. Deborah Cohen, Dr. Cohen actually came up to Vancouver and trained some of my staff in the collection methodology. We were able to apply that to this very rapidly to this survey. We also used our park provision study. You can see there’s a link there to where we really did a lot of work understanding the walkshed of each park and also the number of people that you would be sharing that park with, so the density or the number of hectares or acres of land per thousand people within a 10-minute walking distance of those people. The survey approach is really a daily observational snapshot of data gathering.

It’s alternating noon and early evening, times when we know our parks are really busy. There are 50 parts of processing, and those were chosen with the highest population density around them and not just the hotspots. We have 18 staff surveying their local parks and because my team is working from home, this was really easy to implement. We divided up the city based on where folks lived and they were able to pick two to three parks in their neighborhood, and just quickly gather that data. It’s an online survey input into your cellphone and the analysis tool very simple and using Excel, and we’re able to publish the results the next morning. Here’s just a quick map showing.

You can see there’s a concentration around the downtown Peninsula where we do have a lot of people living, and here’s a sample of the survey. Very simple, where you’re at, what’s the weather time, date, how many people observed, what percentage of people observed or social distancing, so it’s a sliding scale, are there any pinch points. Pinch points meaning, do we have trail, pedestrian bike, parking, vehicle conflicts that need to be dealt with, describe them and are there any… We’re collecting a lot of data on dogs off-leash. Dogs are very popular in Vancouver and we want to ensure that people are using them safely.

By synthesizing this data very quickly and publishing it the next morning to the leadership team, it allows them to prioritize and direct efforts all the way from the park champions who are our soft touch in the parks where information for park operations who would actually go out and implement any measures, and park rangers and police enforcement if we needed a heavier hand in terms of enforcement. What this does is this allows us to obviously keep parks open longer, but make evidence-based solutions and creating new processes for decision making. It’s going to allow us to look back and see what actually happened on the ground during a pandemic, during an emergency, and that’s really what this slide is telling us.

One of the key outcomes of our band play parks and recreation master plan was to ensure that we’re gathering data and making data and database decisions. We move beyond crisis management and we have well-informed recovery efforts, so that’s our next step to move to and like it says here data to inform future, managed access and opening, and really just show us where we need to focus at the time of crisis. Here’s just what we’re seeing. Here’s just over a few days. We’re seeing a very high level of compliance in terms of physical distancing which is great. It’s comforting to know that people are engaged and we do have some information on where it’s not happening and where more work is needed to be done and deploying our champions or rangers if necessary in those locations.

We’re seeing an over 80% compliance on physical distancing. For those of you who probably haven’t been following how COVID-19 is playing out in Canada, British Columbia, it has the lowest infection rate in Canada. We’re probably the closest to moving to more recovery efforts the soonest. We’re very lucky in that regard and our public health system has really guided us through this and really ensured that we’re all being safe and aware, and I think really as a result are moving towards these recovery efforts. Like I said, we’re seeing in groups where we need more work young adults. People are obviously attempting it, but not quite sitting two meters apart which is six feet and our sports fields are being used very well as passive open spaces.

Loop trails are incredibly valuable. That’s a very simple thing that we’re going to be looking at as we get into park redevelopment and investments in the future, and we’ve been able to reduce pinch points from being observed within a week through direct action by documenting those, deploying the park champions and parks ops to deal with those pinch points. That’s it from us. Thank you very much. I’m going to turn it back over to Caryn.

Caryn Ernst:

Thank you, David. That was really, really interesting, and what a great strategy for being able to monitor the safe use of parks and collect data. It seems like a great model for others to use as they start thinking about how to reopen parks safely. Being able to have the data on safety useful parks seems critical to that. Dave, how are you preparing staff for the gradual reopening of normal operations, and what staffing changes are you anticipating making?

Dave Hutch:

Well, as I said, I think we’re still really in a response mode and how we’re preparing staff is really with our park champions, the weather is starting to warm up here. We’re starting to see more people in parts. Will we be needing to deploy more park champions? That is something that we’re having to look at in terms of getting them in the field and in those hotspots. Our beaches, we’re an oceanfront city and so our beaches as the weather will warm will become another area of focus and in terms of ensuring that we have our champions there. We know many people go to beaches, not just to swim, but just to be outside and be in the outdoors. It’s something we’re going to have to monitor and continue to watch as the weather and our survey data tells us what our demand is going to be.

Caryn Ernst:

We have a lot of questions about summer programming and how to keep kids engaged. Justin, can you elaborate a little bit more on your ideas for keeping kids engaged if summer camps either don’t happen or they can’t accommodate the usual number of kids, what are your contingency plans there?

Justin Hellier:

Yeah. I think currently, we are operating some emergency child care based on the best thinking of our team and folks from public health and looking at models from other cities, where it really is eight youth in a cohort. Each cohort needs to have a dedicated space that no more than 50 folks congregating in a building, and that’s our current emergency assumptions. We are thinking about the summer as can we operate with those same assumptions going forward, right? That’s the state of the planning at the moment that we may be able to run summer camps with those same basic parameters. That’s not a final decision, that’s where we’re thinking about now. If we do that, we know we’re going to be serving far fewer youth.

We are contemplating an expanded park program. What it looks like, every year we do this at five sites, but thinking about expanding that this year where a drop-in program at parks. We call it the summer of safety and summer lunch and playground program as well. Really, it’s just some staff they’re at popular parks that youth come to, and the basic idea is we know these young people are going to be wandering around the neighborhood, visiting parks, trying to come to the community centers that are closed, right? How do we provide some structured activity to keep them safe as a safety net?

It’s a program we’ve built up over several years, and I think we’re contemplating what does expansion look like, right? Can we add that to more parks because we don’t want any crowding happening in any specific part? Can we look at where there are young people who are and are not being served by our registered programs and can we make sure to push that program there? How do we staff this program, right? Can we redeploy existing staff who under normal circumstances would be in a building, but if that building is totally full of child care and closed to the public other than for child care, can that staff be out helping lead activities for youth?

Again, still in the planning phases, still thinking about it, but I think we do feel a need to try to fill that gap and help make sure those folks have care.

Caryn Ernst:

Great, thanks. Well, I know you’re all following CDC guidelines and guidelines from your local health professionals. We’re just wondering are there any other standards or protocols or any other processes that you’re using to make decisions here, Lakema?

Lakema Bell:

Yeah. Well, in regards to making decisions, the City of Seattle in about 2004 committed to racial social justice initiative. It’s a key strategy to focus on race because we know that most disparities when most hit are most impacted with marginalized communities. When we’re looking at our decision-making, we’re always looking at is who will be most impacted and how will they be impacted? Are there any negative consequences to these conversations, and then also including them in the conversations so that we’re not blindsided in regards to what we think versus to what their needs are. We are doing that in different pockets.

We’re also engaging with communities with our community engagement ambassadors program and as well as engaging and working with organizations to help to do some live-streaming fitness classes right now. They’re also eyes and ears on the ground for what community are needing right now and in ensuring that we are addressing the needs of our communities that are most impacted by this, not only systems that are embedded that have created these inequities, but also how it’s being illuminated within this COVID-19 pandemic, right? Keeping those issues at hand and we utilize the framework of the race and social justice initiative to help inform those decisions and communications and engagement.

Caryn Ernst:

Great. That’s really helpful to be thinking about, and another perspective on thinking just beyond health requirements, but really what’s the equitable impacts or inequitable impacts of that and how are you addressing it. Thank you.

We received a lot of questions on how you are communicating with patrons and volunteers, both in terms of logistics as well as higher-level messaging about what the future holds. Allison, can you elaborate on how you’re keeping people engaged during this time?

Allison Watkins:

Sure. Yeah. I think as I mentioned in my slides, it’s really about using all kinds of different mediums knowing that not one single medium fits everybody. We’re doing everything from filming messages from our CEO to sending postcards and handwritten notes to people just letting them know that we’re thinking about them. We are obviously communicating via social media and our website, and we have all of those electronic means that everyone’s doing.

As I mentioned, we are really trying to, and it sounds like every group is really doing this in some way, whether it be the park champions in Vancouver or the teams that they have in Seattle, really trying to get people that are on the ground being that voice to communicate with their neighbors around what to do, what not to do, other things that they may not realize are available to them in terms of park activities to do at home or in your own green space, in your backyard if you have one.

Yeah, we’re using the park adopters to really be that voice in neighborhoods specifically, and then as I mentioned, really trying to use their ears on the ground to help inform how else we should be communicating. We’re trying to just pepper as much as we can throughout various mediums, but we’re always looking for new ways and hoping that we’re hearing from those people on the ground that can help inform new and creative ways we should be communicating with the community.

Caryn Ernst:

Great, thank you. Then, of course, we had a lot of questions about generating revenue and some of you touched on there are huge revenue impacts of this for parks departments. There were a lot of questions about how are you thinking about generating revenue in the absence of recreation programs and other fees. Dave, I’m going to turn to you. Do you have any thoughts to share about generating revenue during this time?

Dave Hutch:

Yeah, certainly. We just turned our attention to this idea in the last week. I feel like here in British Columbia, we’ve turned a corner in terms of flattening the curve. Now our chief provincial medical health officers are saying we can start looking at a very cautious and gradual reopening of some activities, and there are things we’re exploring. Again, these are very early days, no decisions have been made, but things like we have three municipal golf courses. Golf we’ve set up properly has a distancing measure built into it. We’re looking at our concessions, our food service. We have a lot of people out in our parks. We’ve closed down our concessions, but take out of course is available in many, many restaurants.

We can provide that service now that the weather’s warmed up. Parking, we’re a very dense city. We have a lot of pay parking lots in our parks that were closed down to help manage. Using the data, we can carefully decide where we can open some of those parking lots without contributing to more congestion and gradually have some revenue start to reoccur, which of course is critical for the operations of the entire system.

Caryn Ernst:

I’d like to thank our speakers. This is really tremendous. We had a lot of interest in how organizations are handling this transition, so thank you.

Please save the date also for City Parks Alliance’s Greater and Greener international urban parks conference which will be taking place July 2021 in Philadelphia. The conference is a great opportunity for us to connect in person and discuss with peers and coming on the heels of all this, it will be a great time for us to connect on how we’ve made our cities more resilient as a result of all of this. Thank you to our speakers for joining us today and for sharing such great information about how you’re making a positive and proactive approach to planning for the summer and beyond, despite these challenging circumstances.

Keep up the great work that you’re doing in our nation’s urban parks.



View past webinar recordings and upcoming webinars.


  • May 15, 2020

    Advocacy Update: City Park & Recreation Funding, Green Infrastructure, and Emergency Relief

    Julie Waterman

    City Parks Alliance’s federal advocacy efforts have been in full-force during the health crisis, focusing on increasing federal investment for urban parks.

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  • Apr 23, 2020

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

    Tom McCann, City Parks Alliance

    Learn how park & rec professionals are using social media, live-streaming, signage, and other strategies to connect residents and encourage physical activity.

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