Tech Innovations In Parks: Notes From Our Presentation At Greater & Greener
Smarter parks are responsive parks; they let us know when and how they’re being used, what’s working well, and where there are opportunities to improve
Last month, we spoke on the Tech Innovations In Parks panel at the City Parks Alliance Greater and Greener Conference in Minneapolis. We were thrilled to share the stage with Los Angeles Recreation and Parks, Denver Parks and Recreation, and the Land Art Generator. The panel was moderated by our good friends at the National Recreation and Park Association, with whom we’ve partnered on events like the Boston Innovation Lab and collaborated on articles examining the role technology plays in parks.
The Tech Innovations In Parks conversation was wide ranging and discussed best practices for how to implement new technology, both hardware and software, to update outdoor environments to meet the expectations of hyper-connected people today and improve internal department operations. Ultimately, the goal of testing and using the latest technology available is to continually enhance the user experience of park visitors on a daily basis. The full presentation slides are available on the Greater and Greener website.
At Soofa we think about parks that benefit from technology and data analytics as smart parks; these are parks that respond to the needs of people and communities in the present and at the same time inform those who are planning, designing, and managing them what’s working well and what needs to be improved.
In our presentation at Greater and Greener we shared our research showing just how valuable parks are and offered thoughts on new ways to measure this value and maximize it, all while maintaining a focus on improving the experience of the communities served.
Every dollar spent on parks returns 20 dollars to the economy
The importance of parks is measurable and smart parks provide data back showing just how valuable they are. Our Smart Parks white paper shows that for every dollar spent on parks, 20 dollars are returned back to the economy.
These returns are made up of things like increases in property values adjacent to parks and public spaces, more spending by tourists drawn to neighborhoods because of noteworthy and attractive parks, and decreases in overall healthcare spending in communities where there are an abundance of opportunities for healthy, preventative physical activities to take place outdoors (i.e. biking on the 100s of miles of trails in and around Minneapolis or jogging along the Esplanade or through the Fens in Boston).
Knowing that parks provide such a substantial economic return is only the beginning; contemporary tools that keep track of how parks are being used offer park managers a new way to measure economic returns, in the moment. Armed with this insight, park managers can maximize returns by adjusting strategies in real-time as opposed to looking through a retrospective lens at the end of a season or even over multiple years for how a park or park network performed and was used by people. Not only is this methodology incredibly tedious and expensive, it is also prone to inaccuracies because of an inevitable lack of data.
Real-time pedestrian activity measurement provides a new way to evaluate the success of capital improvement spending, programming strategies, and community based events
We focus on providing a better way of measuring park usage with solar powered, human-centered public infrastructure like park benches that charge phones and count pedestrian passerby. The connection with people, providing a clear public amenity like free phone charging in the case of Soofa, is the key to the success and sustainability of the smart parks movement - advancements in technology and data analytics applied to public spaces are most effective when there is a real, authentic relationship created between these new tools and people.
It’s all about gaining and maintaining the public’s trust. The industry can collect as much data as it would like using the latest, cutting-edge technology, but if the public doesn’t feel a benefit, or worse, if there is a feeling of privacy being infringed upon to gather data, and if agencies aren’t able to justify the expense back to elected officials, taxpayers, foundations, or donors, spending capital and operating dollars to test new ideas and products won’t happen.
Our partner cities and organizations help co-create our products and public space data analytics tools
Over the last year we have been working with leading parks and recreation agencies nationwide to continually improve and refine the way we analyze the data we collect on park activity. Our partners include the Park District of Oak Park, IL, Prince George’s County Parks, MD, Washington, D.C. Parks and Recreation, Miami, FL Parks and Recreation, and dozens more.
Some of the uses and data stories we are helping our partners craft and tell include:
Capturing data in one park with multiple sensors to see where people enter and exit, where they dwell the longest, and to understand how the park gets used on different days and during all seasons.
Analyzing usage rates of many parks within the same city to see which is the busiest and by how much over the others.
Monitoring the attendance at temporary pop up events; seeing when people tend to come, how long they stay, and what types of marketing and advertising gets people to come in the first place.
Telling the story to elected officials, foundations, sponsors, and the public about the value that parks provide back to the community - using data that shows exactly how much use parks get and why spending more money on them is justified.