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The Role of Regional Park Districts in Strengthening Community Relationships

Yumiko L. Jakobcic, Patricia A. Stokowski

Abstract


Regional park districts have been studied for their ecological characteristics, but their social and cultural values have received considerably less attention. This research seeks to understand how regional park districts contribute to strengthening community relationships, using a case study of Vermont’s Winooski Valley Park District (WVPD). Using autoethnographic methods, we explore how the WVPD accommodates visitors and serves adjacent communities, their efforts to stimulate community interactions and cohesion, and a manager’s perceptions of the outcomes of these efforts. Data analysis focused on the extent to which social and cultural values emerged in managerial practices, and evidence of how these strengthened community relationships. Specifically, the analysis included the review of diary entries to uncover examples, descriptions and self-reflections about managerial activities, programming practices, issues, and problems. A content analysis and iterative reviews of the diary entries were used to organize and categorize textual materials. Then, working inductively through personal reflections and shared conversations, two researchers collaborated to derive themes and interpret their meanings relative to the research question. Five themes were identified: connecting across people and place; collaborations creating community; fostering cross-cultural relationships; socializing youth; and sustaining community. Data show that regional park districts link people with nature while also connecting people across neighborhoods, communities, and regions; a regional park can thus be defined as a place where visitors gain understanding of local landscapes and the neighbors with whom these landscapes are shared. While some relationships developed organically, managers also used on-site programming to intentionally engage community members. The unique characteristics of regional park districts suggest a need for increased levels of partnership and educational programming to link citizens, formalize commitments to diversity, and provide opportunities to establish social relationships. Partnerships that establish cross-cultural connections and youth programs are particularly impactful for fostering community social ties, for both children and adults. Though measuring the social and cultural values of regional parks may be difficult, their contributions to local communities can be significant. Managers should intentionally engage staff, volunteers, and partners that foster sustainable community relationships. Finally, managers should be intentional about capturing the social and cultural values of regional parks that may otherwise go unnoticed. Investments in public relations, plus cultural and environmental interpretation, will help highlight these unique values of regional parks. Strong community relationships and values directly contribute to the overall resiliency of communities and sustainability of regional parks. Active management of community relationships within regional park districts can be paired with ecological planning and management to provide more comprehensive protection for natural areas and open space. 

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Keywords


Autoethnography; community; diversity; recreation programming; regional park districts; social relationships; youth

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.18666/JPRA-2019-9180

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