Playing Towards a Healthier Brooklyn Park

Students from Ken Gilbertson's Operations and Management course in the field with project lead Brad Tullberg

By Hannah Gary

Our worlds are increasingly occupied by screens and the absence of physical activity, a combination that has caused a national public health crisis. Obesity and obesity-related diseases are rising, especially among children. One solution health experts recommend is encouraging more physical activity through nature-based recreation. Nature-based recreation facilitates active interaction with nature, and the benefits extend beyond just physical health. It also can help children develop leadership and problem-solving skills, can teach children their limits, and can improve both emotional and cognitive development. For adults, interacting with nature has been linked to improved mental health.

Because of the myriad benefits, the City of Brooklyn Park is partnering with RCP to identify ways to include more nature-based recreation elements in their Recreation and Parks Master Plan, which is being updated in 2017. “Nature-based play helps kids kind of reconnect to nature,” noted Brad Tullberg, parks and facilities manager for Brooklyn Park's Recreation and Parks Department, and staff lead for the RCP project. “It’s a great tool for developing problem solving and risk analysis and all different things. . .[A]s we diversify our park inventory, we have a ton of traditional playgrounds. If we are able to add some nature-based play to different areas of our community, it certainly gives everybody a little different experience, and a different experience is available to everyone.”

Three courses have been examining nature-based recreation from different perspectives, including assessing which existing parks in the city can accommodate nature-based recreation elements, developing a long-range management plan and site designs for specific recreation elements, and creating a risk-management template City staff can use to assess and manage risks to park users associated with nature-based recreation.

Assessing Opportunities for New Nature-Based Recreation Elements

To assess the current state of nature-based recreation elements in city parks, as well as opportunities for introducing additional opportunities for natural play elements, five teams of students in Dr. Tony Brown’s "Research and Evaluation in Recreation, Park, and Leisure Studies" course developed evaluation criteria and conducted site analysis of the 60 parks throughout the city.  To facilitate this analysis, Tullberg divided the city into five regions, one for each student group, and asked students to visit and assess the parks in their region.

Tillery Bailey, a senior studying Recreation Administration and a student in Brown’s course, said she and her group began by researching existing nature-based recreation areas and developed a checklist of what made a successful recreation area. They then went to the sites with their checklist, took notes and pictures, and finally came together to assess park conditions and develop recommendations.

Each group developed a report outlining their evaluation process and offering recommendations for including nature-based recreation elements in city parks. At the end of the semester, the groups presented their work to Tullberg.

For Brown, a key element of his course is providing students with real-world experience through their course assignments. Students have the opportunity to apply the skills they are learning in the classroom, while also providing a useful product to the community partner.

Students in the course value this real-world experience. “I thoroughly enjoyed this project,” said Bailey. “My group, we loved it. Just being able to go out and implement what we were learning.”

Student Zoe Kesselring, who graduated in December with a degree in Recreation, Park, and Leisure Studies and a minor in Landscape Architecture, also saw value in participating in a project with a community partner. “I really appreciated the fact that this project was based in the real-world," Kesselring said. "I have done some real-world projects in other classes but nothing to this extent. Working with real-world parks, and people currently working in the parks and rec field, definitely raises the stakes as your performance in a project like this could contribute to your future employment opportunities.”

Participating in the project had immediate benefit for Bailey as well: She was able to discuss the experience in an internship interview, noting the evaluation skills she gained through this project.

Planning for Long-Range Management

Although including more nature-based recreation elements in the Brooklyn Park parks system is the City's ultimate goal, planning for how those additional park and recreation elements will be managed is also critical. To that end, five students from the University of Minnesota Duluth campus worked with Tullberg to develop a long-range management plan, as well as proposed site redesigns for three parks in Brooklyn Park.

Their course, "Operations and Management," is focused on management skills for environmental education majors. Students spend the first half of the course learning about annual facilities operations, and the second half devoted to community-based learning projects.

“Cooperative learning and project-based learning is really among the strongest learning tools for students,” noted Dr. Ken Gilbertson, the instructor for the course.

The students' final report focused on four components of long-range management for Brooklyn Park: (1) mission, vision, and objectives; (2) natural features; (3) social features; and (4) natural playscape designs and health benefits of interacting with nature. At the conclusion of the semester, the students traveled from Duluth to Brooklyn Park to present their work to an audience of city staff, elected officials, and residents.

Gilbertson believes that presentation skills are critical for students entering into the field of environmental education, and says the students treat their final presentation as a professional experience. “They are still teaching, they’re just teaching to a different audience,” Gilbertson noted.

Presenting their findings to Brooklyn Park was also a highlight for the students. “The best part was watching them during the presentation get excited about the things that we had come up with, and taking all our ideas further, which was awesome, because that’s what it’s meant for,” noted Ayla Erickson, an Environmental and Outdoor education student. Erickson had the unique opportunity to participate in the RCP-Brooklyn Park partnership through two courses, delving into both long-range management in Gilbertson's course, as well as risk-management strategies in another course at UMD.  For Erickson, this allowed her to see the larger picture of Brooklyn Park's needs. She was able to bring demographic research to the risk-management plan, and lead her team's work on the risk management section of the long-range management project.

Managing Risk for Nature-Based Recreation

A barrier to developing more nature-based recreation elements cited by many cities is the issue of risk management. Traditional playscapes are regulated by design restrictions that reduce risk to visitors, but nature-based play areas typically do not have the same regulations. Because of this, liability becomes a concern. Another team of students at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus tackled this issue. Through Danny Frank’s "Risk Management" course, students examined six parks in Brooklyn Park to assess risks to park users—particularly children—and provide recommendations for managing the potential risk associated with introducing new nature-based recreation elements.

Risk assessment for nature-based recreation carries unique challenges, primarily because there is more variability and unknowns. For Frank, however, this presents a creative opportunity.

“I think often times people get nervous about ‘well, it’s too unpredictable, we just can’t build this.’ but I think it’s more of a creative process of trying to be in the mind of a child and trying to figure out what are all the ways this person is going to try to hurt themselves,” commented Frank.

The students' assessments followed a 16-step model, and each student provided an overview of current conditions as well as recommendations to decrease risk at nature-based recreation sites. After their final report was completed, the students presented their work to Tullberg via video conference from Duluth.

For Tullberg, the projects provided staff with valuable information that can be used in their overall systems planning process. “When we go to look at this, when we look at Jewell Park, that [long-range management plan] will probably be the framework for where we start,” said Tullberg.

For more information about this project, see this news story on the University of Minnesota Duluth News website.

Hannah Gary is a dual-degree graduate student in the University of Minnesota's Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Master of Public Health program in the School of Public Health.