A move towards more individual sporting activities, and an increased focus on smart technologies and the needs of people with disabilities: These are just some of the changes at play for council parks and recreation management specialists. Patricia Moore takes a walk in the park.
Surveys, such as those carried out by Sport New Zealand, indicate Kiwis are moving away from structured sports leagues in favour of less formal recreational activities. Walking, swimming, cycling, jogging and running top the list and frequently happen in council-managed parks, recreation and aquatic centres.
It’s a shift driven by population growth, shrinking backyards, and recognition that regular exercise is a huge contributor to the health and wellbeing of the population.
Karl Nesbitt, parks and open spaces programme manager at the New Zealand Recreation Association (NZRA), says the relationship of older people to places and spaces is also having an impact.
“This is influencing design with attention being given to accessible walkways and seating in parks, and hydrotherapy pools in swimming complexes.”
Council-owned recreational facilities need to measure up, using smart solutions to provide the amenities required, while at the same time ensuring ratepayers are not burdened with the cost of upkeep.
GymGuru’s Brett Forsyth believes communities want “more enticing facilities which last longer and cost less”. He points out that with parks becoming destinations for entire families to access recreation facilities, the challenge for councils and communities is providing facilities that cater for “a hugely diverse range of needs and wants”.
Mike Henton, GM at software providers Jonas Leisure, sees increased demand for council facilities as a good thing: “But only if the facilities can meet the demand.”
He says the smart management solutions lie with technology. “Data on participation and facility use, as well as issues preventing people participating, will be a major factor in helping councils gauge where to put their resources, while increased efficiency can help keep costs down.
“Councils should be looking at how technology can be used to improve the built environment. Can it be used to improve access for the elderly or people with mobility impairments? Can it improve the user experience while also reducing the amount of work for staff?”
Mike cites access gates at aquatic facilities as an example. “Wheelchair-accessible entrance control gates that interface with facility-management software allow people to check themselves in using membership cards and take the strain off staff at the front desk.”
He says there are also wider implications. “Good software does what you want it to do, in fewer steps. Enrolling people is less complicated, allowing staff to focus on individuals and personal contact. It also provides insights and intelligence to guide decision-making, enabling councils to base their programmes on facts, reducing their vulnerability to subjective criticism.”
Nige Cottingham is executive general manager – strategy, marketing and business development, with Citycare Property, one of the leading facilities and open spaces maintenance (FM & OSM) providers to local government.
“The challenge for us,” he says, “is managing the growing desire and implicit requirement for both emerging technology disruptors, such as autonomous mowers and viable internet of things [IoT] opportunities, and the maturing social evolution which sees ratepayers more conscious than ever before of where their money is being spent.”
Nige says Citycare is responding to this changing landscape by bundling its services. “We’re bringing FM and OSM teams under one service delivery roof. In addition, we’ve directed some proof of concept activity in the IoT space, looking specifically at sensor devices in order to drive future operational advantages or efficiencies.”
Smart solutions continue to emerge. Mike says Jonas Leisure recently introduced updates to its Envibe leisure management software. “One of the significant additions is the ability for customers to view availability and book classes and spaces at leisure and recreation centres, directly online,” he says.
And Karl reports use of the Yardstick suite of benchmarking tools is enabling organisations to compare and measure performance against others in the industry.
On the equipment front, GymGuru recently released a solution addressing the needs of the disability community. Brett says his company saw that exercise opportunities for wheelchair users have often involved equipment that’s cumbersome and difficult to use.
“We came up with a combination wheelchair press, bicep curl and squat: a unit that’s not only for wheelchair users but can also be used as a regular squat and bicep curl. It’s a truly multi-use, three-in-one, item that provides councils with more cost-effective equipment.” He adds a number of councils have already installed the unit.
And councils using smarter park management are now having their initiatives recognised with the introduction of the Green Flag Award. So far, 16 parks have been awarded a ‘Green Flag’, an international standard which, Karl says, “brings with it a vast amount of prestige”.
Judging critiques eight criteria including cleanliness, sustainability and community involvement.
Looking ahead, Nige envisages more community involvement in service areas that Citycare manages.
“To this end, we’ll shortly be launching a new Community Guardians Scheme that will see Citycare as the facilitators and / or enablers of a wide range of community motivated events.”
(Citycare recently provided equipment, machinery, traffic and safety management for over 800 volunteers from the Student Volunteer Army in Christchurch who came together to clean up what Nige says is a “growing environmental challenge” at Godley Head.)
Karl also sees more community and volunteer involvement within the sector and suggests this could include community partnerships around management of maintenance services or facilitation.
Wairoa, the “Outdoors Capital of Aotearoa”, is an example of a smaller council already thinking along these lines. Wairoa District Council partnered with Adventure Wairoa, a collaboration of local sports bodies, to create and run the Wairoa Mountain-Bike Park, a recreational facility it’s believed could bring “an economy spike” to the area by attracting visitors as well as locals.
The council-owned site offers mountain-bikers a range of challenges on a seven kilometre trail, plus the bonus of views to one of the region’s other attractions – Rocket Lab launches at Mahia.
Mayor Craig Little says council welcomed the opportunity to work with Adventure Wairoa: “Why wouldn’t we? They’re promoting Wairoa so, as a council, we did everything we could to make it happen.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org