Playing Together Pays: Digital Engagement Transforms Parks and Recreation

Parks and recreation facilities are at the heart of community wellbeing. It’s universally acknowledged that successful parks and recreation projects demonstrate a living commitment to the communities that they serve. It, therefore, follows that these beloved habitats of community life have a duty to place the community at their core.  

Why engage community on parks and recreation projects? 

Community participation in planning, designing, and developing parks and recreation facilities brings an array of benefits to all involved. It can speak to the needs of the community, local stakeholders, and the environment. It can deliver the insights that decision-makers need to inform better policy in the sector. Designers can tap into local knowledge and needs to create a vision that optimizes resources and works for everyone. 

But that’s not all. Spanning the communication and design aspects, active community engagement in the sector enables conversations that bring stakeholders and community together in partnership. In addition to underlining vital democratic values for local decision-making, community engagement is invaluable to nurturing relationships and fostering trust between stakeholders and community. What better way could a community space or facility reflect its values, than to include the people it serves in imagining it and bringing it to life?

Community engagement is woven through with the aim of bringing more voices into important conversations about a collective future. Dedicated online community engagement spaces are now complementing offline engagement activities at local governments and planning bodies around the world. Equipped with a range of tools and ways to spark and track discussions, invite ideas, and welcome input, online community engagement adds a whole new dimension to consultations on parks and recreation projects. 

What can online community engagement bring to parks and recreation projects? 

Planning the habitat of democratic life is a task that draws on the resources, needs, and expectations of all stakeholders to the issues at hand. In this regard, community engagement is the bridge that enables the flow of information, ideas, and feedback across and between community and decision-makers. 

The insights that emerge from these conversations can create substantial value in how projects are imagined and implemented. For instance, Byron Shire’s comprehensive upgrade of local mobility infrastructure looked to community engagement to spot the gaps, align resources with community needs, and deliver the difference to decade-long strategic visions for pedestrian access, bicycles, footpaths, and related mobility infrastructure.     

Similarly, community engagement helped envision Australia’s newest bird sanctuary in ways that could learn from and speak to the knowledge and aspirations of local communities and stakeholders. Extending across four local government areas, the Adelaide International Bird Sanctuary National Park – Winaityinaityi Pangkara was established with the leadership of the Kaurna People, the Traditional Owners of the Adelaide Plains. Decision-makers and engagement planners took a creative approach beyond the boundaries of the engagement spectrum to tap into the power of storytelling and deliver the knowledge that continues to shape the planning and management of the sanctuary.  

Online community engagement can help decision-makers understand the community better, and enable the community to get a clear picture of the issues at hand. For the Littoral Rainforest Project underway at Port Stephens, online community engagement informs both the community and the management plan towards protecting the critically endangered and fragmented pockets of littoral rainforest across the region. Over in Wyndham Vale, online community input is shaping a landscape concept plan in the Council’s park upgrade strategy, bringing community expectations and experiences of local recreational infrastructure to designers and planners.  

When the City of Stirling sought an upgrade to local recreational facilities for a growing community, their initial round of consultations and inquiries revealed priorities for change. Stirling’s district-level reserves, Hamer Park and Inglewood Oval, provide a variety of sport and recreational opportunities to the community. With a redevelopment on the cards, the City wanted to ensure that the facilities evolved to meet the needs of the community. 

The initial community consultations pointed to considerations around facility improvements, accessibility, noise and parking concerns, sustainability, spectator needs, and environmental concerns. Stirling surveyed the community online, after setting out the key issues and themes in a document library and related resources, a timeline of events to illustrate the process for the community, and a news feed to help everyone stay in the loop. 

Speaking from the local to the regional, community engagement can help co-create comprehensive wide-ranging visions for the conservation and management of public resources and spaces. For instance, the City of Gold Coast set out an overarching framework to guide use, access, and stewardship of their reputed coastline in the Ocean Beaches Strategy 2013-2023. 

This framework aligns with related plans and strategies around nature conservation, climate change, water-cycle management, transport, economic development, and shoreline management. Community input helped identify key considerations around community experience of beaches, the health and cleanliness of beaches, the role of coastal infrastructure in addressing erosion, and partnerships for the management of beaches. 

Circling in on a space for diversity

In addition to supporting the collaborative development of big-picture strategies, online community engagement can speak to the needs of specific diverse communities such as youth. When the City of Burnside looked to grow recreational services for their burgeoning youth demographic, the need for a wheel park was placed before the whole community for review.  A wheel park is a recreational environment designed specifically for the use of skateboards, scooters, rollerblades or bikes, typically a space for youth to take part in play, sports, and social activities. The online consultation walked participants through the possibilities for such a project, illustrating benefits, myths, potential locations and requirements, and invited feedback via a survey. 

Civic infrastructure for recreation also speaks to the needs of pet-owners, a community that has often been a site of contention for the use of public space and shared resources. Dogs on and off leashes in shared recreation infrastructure have often drawn strong responses from their communities. With the numbers of pets and pet-owners growing exponentially, dog parks have become a part of mainstream parks and recreation planning processes. 

In the City of Mandurah, the community’s four-legged friends were a significant consideration for local park services. The City turned to the community to find a suitable location for an enclosed dog park. The consultation tapped into an online mapping tool where participants could place a pin at their preferred location for the enclosed dog park. It also provided a feedback space where participants could point out and voice their objections to various potential sites.  

While the scope and scale of the consultations above may vary, they equip the community and decision-makers to let information, ideas, and knowledge flow to reveal pathways to change. 

For more on how online community engagement can unlock local insights check out Bang the Table’s best-practice projects.

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