Last week, Sasaki landscape architect Eamonn Hutton sat down with Kevin O'Hara, the National Recreation and Parks Association's (NRPA) Vice President of Urban and Government Affairs, to discuss the upcoming NRPA Innovation Lab. They discussed the intent of the event series, why Boston was selected to host this lab, how Kevin sees the role designers will play in parks over the next decades, and more. Click here for more info on the "Data-Driven Government and Parks and Recreation" Innovation Lab. Read below for their conversation:
Eamonn Hutton: Kevin, this is the fifth Innovation Lab that the NRPA has hosted in the last few years. Can you describe the goals that you have for these labs?
Kevin O'Hara: We started with the goal of finding out what issues cities are really facing around the country—whether they're environmental, health, management and administration, or issues of equitable access—and talking about how Parks and Rec departments can provide solutions to these civic problems. Through bringing NRPA members together with market leaders, we have been able to elevate these discussions and encourage cross-disciplinary solutions. We held the first lab in Miami, where the Miami Dade Park Recreation and Open Space Department is partnering with University of Miami on measuring how their agency impact public health, and in subsequent labs we explored issues of economic impact, cross-agency collaboration, and innovative financing approaches. Here in Boston, we're very excited to talk about data and how it is driving decision-making, especially at the local level.
EH: What was the initial impetus for organizing these conferences?
KO: It was more an evolution than an "a ha!" moment. I have an urban planning background and I have always been a keen lover and admirer of cities. And, as parks are such an integral part of cities, I began to realize that parks really do have a lot of cool things to offer to their communities beyond the long-accepted "feel good" value. There are a lot of great things going on in our industry that we ought to share, and there are lots of people outside the industry, such as designers, public health officers, developers, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, that we could collaborate with. The Innovation Labs bring these various parties to the table where we can discuss issues and explore solutions.
EH: A lot of departments are doing so much great work, but they remain almost anonymous to the public, or are taken for granted. With so much great work being done, do you think it's hard for parks & rec departments to take a step back and look at what they're doing, and see the impact they're having on their communities?
KO: Our agencies are natural collaborators, but perhaps they are not natural cheerleaders. We should focus a little more on the really cool stuff going on in different agencies and cities, so they can take that victory lap and show how they are impacting communities. Also, it's important to expose one department's successes to other organizations, so they can see the value in what they're doing. We want to share these successes and have those replicated across the country. That's another key outcome we hope these labs will have, that people can walk away with these lessons and apply them to their own communities.
"I want them to understand that there's a slow revolution starting in city government, and it's all about data." - Kevin O'Hara
EH: Who's the target audience for the lab series?
KO: Our primary intended audience is the directors and senior agency leaders from large, typically urban, parks agencies. We start here because larger agencies typically have the staff and resources to be able to devote time and effort to some of these bigger issues; stormwater management or data-driven governance, for instance. They can take these lessons back home and leverage their city's various assets—civic, academic, corporations—in rolling out solutions within their unique context. We are also intentional about inviting folks from outside the profession to shed light on this discussion and broaden the conversation.
EH: Each Innovation Lab has explored a unique topic within the industry. When you were planning this event, why did you think that it was the right time to come to Boston and talk about data and technology?
KO: There are so many technology tools out there—everyone's got an app or cool new tool that offers solutions to any assortment of problems. But I think that the City of Boston is taking an intentional approach to how data is used to inform all levels of decision making. There are a lot of important players in Boston. We're very glad that Nigel Jacobs, from the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) will be joining us, and that Stephen Goldsmith, from the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, will be kicking off the conversation. So we wanted to hold this event here to really dig into why and how Boston is becoming more nimble and transparent. There are a lot of lessons to learn from Boston that other cities could really benefit from.
EH: You've been working with parks for a long time, and you've undoubtedly seen trends and innovations come and go. Looking long-range, what do you think we can expect to see from parks over the next decade or two?
KO: First off, I think the definition of an urban park will broaden significantly. Already we're beginning to think about the entire public realm as a park of sorts, whether a city links up several trails into a connected network, or increases its tree plantings. Urban parks will become not just recreational assets, but major health and wellness assets. We'll have a new and heightened appreciation for these spaces as we, as a country, become re-urbanized. They are becoming the lungs, heart, and soul of a lot of cities, and I hope that we see that appreciation spread across the country, regardless of the size of an agency or city.
EH: What is the role of the design and planning community in contributing to these changes within the industry?
KO: Their role will be to continually push us, especially in the public sector, to understand how design can help us solve multiple problems. How do we create recreational assets while incorporating stormwater? How do we incorporate beauty? How do we do more with less? How do we tell people who we are as a parks system, cities, and a society? There's a lot that our brothers and sisters in design world can teach us. Great design can broaden the support base of parks. By listening to this support base, and understanding what residents want their cities and parks to provide, we can become more nimble and responsive. We have to engage a much younger, more diverse demographic now than we ever have before. There are lots of ripe collaborations to be explored between design and parks agencies.
EH: If that's the aspiration for incorporating design, are there any disconnects today? Are we, as designers, really giving Parks and Rec organizations what they need?
KO: That sounds like the topic for a whole other innovation lab, Eamonn! I think the design community does a great job of broadening the conversation of design excellence in the public sector, and showing us the value of investing more in our spaces. When we're planning and designing our parks, we need to listen more to what the design sector is saying. And the design community should continue to incorporate design in a way that is in line with an agency's budgetary constraints. It's this push-pull dynamic that we need to continue honing and refining so that we get the best designs built, and to ensure that we design for evolving programming and evolving uses.
EH: Ideally what do you want directors to take away from this upcoming lab?
KO: I want them to understand that there's a slow revolution starting in city government, and it's all about data. It's about leveraging data, tech, and services, and becoming a more responsive and nimble government. I want them to see some of the big picture policy ideas and implications of using more data. I want us to take a deep dive into how we can gather data that can better help tell our story—whether it's resiliency benefits, health benefits, or issues of equity. There's a lot of data that helps us not only be the best stewards today, but will also enable us to start new conversations, and to use the data we have to solve problems that are only now emerging.
Eamonn Hutton is a landscape architect at Sasaki Associates who is particularly interested in the design of urban public spaces through an engaged public process and the role of technology in innovative spatial planning. His recent work at Sasaki includes the redesign of the Ithaca Commons in Ithaca, New York; a new academic quad for Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts, and Parks and Rec master plans for Hartford, Connecticut and Burlington, Vermont.
Kevin O'Hara is the NRPA's Vice President of Urban and Government Affairs where he oversees NRPA's federal advocacy efforts with Congress and the Administration. He also leads the organizations efforts to promote Parks and Rec agencies as leading problem solvers in American cities. Most recently O'Hara was the Manager of Government Affairs for the American Society of Landscape Architects where he oversaw advocacy efforts on urban parks, green infrastructure, children's access to nature, and more.
This is the second installment of a series of blog posts that discuss the upcoming NRPA Innovation Lab. Click here to read the first installment.