Probably no city amenity is better loved by kids and their parents than parks.
But running a park system is a lot more complicated than having a few ballfields and some nice walking trails. Demands on public parks are changing. More people want to use them. Parents aren't eager to have children wandering around unsupervised. And many kids find Playstations more alluring than a basketball court.
Randy Quale, manager of Bloomington's Parks and Recreation Division for more than a decade, just finished his term as 2007 president of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association, which for 70 years has worked to promote physical activity among Minnesotans and to provide park and recreation services.
Quale sat down recently to talk about the challenges facing parks and the people who manage them. Answers have been condensed for length and clarity.
Q How does taking care of the environment mesh with recreation?
A We're parks and recreation. We believe strongly in maintaining quality natural resources and having park amenities available for people to come in and utilize, whether it's a simple walk in a natural area and enjoying the connection with greenery or whether it's active participation in an adult athletic league. Different strokes for different folks.
Q Is the relationship Minnesotans have with parks different from that of people in other states?
A I think Minnesotans have a real strong connection with parks and kind of an outdoor heritage. I don't know if it's a legacy that people feel, but when you talk with environmentalists, fisher people and hunters, they just feel such a strong connection and a need for having wildlife preserves and accessibility. I respect that. I'm a hunter and a fisherman myself.
Q How is the community you serve changing?
A We're used to change. We change from season to season. We're always looking at what is the next great program or theme that we can get people involved in.
Three Rivers Park District came up with a speed-dating program on cross country skis. What a neat idea. I thought that was terrific.
One thing that's a universal desire is trails. People want to get out and be active and want to bike and hike. Now we're going back and trying to figure out how to retrofit the city for bikeways and recreational trails.
Q How do you serve a population that's growing older?
A Not everything's going to be a playground and a ballfield. We've done a great job of having amenities for families and children, but you have to keep in mind that there are other ways people recreate. For senior populations, it falls back to trails. They want areas where they can be active, where they can feel safe, where they have good quality access and well-maintained facilities.
Q What about growing ethnic diversity?
A Ramsey County has been working with Hmong and Somali and Russian communities. They heard especially from the Hmong that they wanted picnic facilities where extended families could gather, where you could have room for 30 to 50 people. That makes a lot of sense.
And you have to think of in terms of, "Are we communicating properly?" We have this wonderful area where we have watercress. People love it, but the problem is people go in and start harvesting it. They're damaging it. We had signs out there, "Please do not pick or remove plants." We found out it was a population that couldn't read English, so now we're looking at putting up additional signage to better communicate.
Q Is there any park activity that's fading away?
A Adult softball leagues, in our community. That's probably because there's been an upswing in private softball complexes, and generally they'll have a bar and restaurant and you'll have a one-stop social event. In Bloomington, you're not allowed to drink alcohol in our parks.
Tennis was very big back in the '70s, when you had Chrissy Evert and Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. It downticked, and now it's starting to tick back a bit. But with the number of tennis courts we had in the city, we may have been a little overbuilt.
Q Is it harder to get kids to come to parks, with all the electronic entertainment to distract them?
A That's one of the big issues I have a personal interest in -- the concept of leave no child inside, and trying to interest children in nature. If you're leading a sedentary lifestyle, obviously you'll have more problems with childhood obesity and a variety of social and physical issues. You start to wonder how many kids have the chance for unstructured play outside.
Ask a baby boomer what they remember as a child, and it's "going out by myself and building a fort, chasing frogs, playing by the water." Now, if you try to build a fort on city property, it's a liability. Go near the water, you might drown! And don't touch the frogs! They might carry some disease!
We're so driven by fear of the unknown, stranger danger and everything else that we program the heck out of our kids and don't let them just be kids and play. I've heard that kids average 44 hours of screen time a week between TV, the Internet and Gameboy.
Q So what can you do?
A You offer quality programming and you have facilities that you make attractive and provide that sense of security and safety so that a parent is willing to allow their child to be at that location. Kids are more likely to die in a car accident coming home from grandma's at Thanksgiving than to have an abduction in a park. It's that perception problem that we've got to overcome.
I think we need to provide programs and facilities that compete with the Gameboys. Why play a game of tennis with your Wii when you've got a tennis court a block away? Can we run a program that gets you out to be active rather than reactive to a video game?
One of the best things we do is our summer day camp, where we teach outdoor skills and appreciation for nature. We also have an overnight [camp]. I keep hearing from kids that this is the first time they've camped outdoors. And it's great. They love it and they'll go home and say, "Mom and Dad, I want to go camping." And next thing you know, the family is having that type of experience.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380