Passive Parks

When parks and rec departments develop their inventories of facilities, the lead elements are more often than not the active sports centers that cater to youth and adult enthusiasts: soccer, baseball, softball, football, lacrosse, basketball, and other popular sports of the day.

8 min read

By Randy Gaddo

When parks and rec departments develop their inventories of facilities, the lead elements are more often than not the active sports centers that cater to youth and adult enthusiasts: soccer, baseball, softball, football, lacrosse, basketball, and other popular sports of the day.

Passive community parks follow somewhere after that, regrettably, almost as an after-thought. In the context of this article, “passive” denotes parks that don’t have sports fields or facilities, such as a rink or court where youth and adults play in organized leagues.

However, when you consider that these passive parks can serve as many, or possibly more, local residents than active facilities, maintaining them should be as important as keeping turf grass green and ball fields groomed.  However, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The Silent Majority
Often, the reality is the budget. There’s only so much money to go around in a typical municipal budget, and as parks and rec departments compete with other departments for a piece of the pie, it can come down to who presents the best case to decision makers.

Every active youth or adult sport normally has a volunteer parent-support group that can make compelling appeals for funding to parks directors and supervisors, or directly to budget decision makers. In political terms, think of them as “special-interest groups” for sports. It is more difficult to say “no” when groups representing significant numbers of taxpaying citizens are in front of you with reasoned (or not) arguments.

Most often, passive parks don’t have people who form organized groups to make their desires known. By their very nature, passive parks are, well, passive, and therefore represent the silent majority.              

There may be a handful of folks who, for one reason or another, take an interest in letting municipal leaders know what needs to be done at their local park, but not always with the emotional groundswell that accompanies organized youth and adult sports.           

However, astute departments have “people for that.” Volunteer “Friends of the Parks” groups can be formed to help raise awareness of passive park needs and funds to offset public allocations for passive park maintenance.             

Breaking It Down
Take Franklin, Tenn., for example, where assistance from non-profit groups provides major assistance in funding operations, maintenance, and capital improvements at 16 parks; three are listed as active and the rest either passive or historic in the most recent 2015 Parks and Recreation Master Plan (            

Franklin is 21 miles south of Nashville and part of the largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in Tennessee.  Named after Benjamin Franklin and founded in 1799, it was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.  It is home to a diverse population, from local citizens and Fortune 500 companies to country-music stars and their families that live or maintain homes there. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and their three girls live there as do Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, Martina McBride, Amy Grant, and Wynonna Judd—to name a few.            

But the stars form only a small percentage of the 74,000 residents who enjoy activities on more than 700 acres of parklands; 75 percent of that land is defined as passive parks, according to Kevin Lindsey, Parks and Rec Facilities Supervisor. He says he would generally characterize a passive park as one that doesn’t have sports fields that are used by organized sports groups and parks where “there are no sport lighting systems, just area safety lighting,” he says.            

But the term “passive” can be deceiving because each of the passive parks has many active features, all requiring maintenance. “Each park has its own character and amenities,” note authors of the department’s website. Indeed, the master plan delineates walking and fitness trails, playgrounds, picnic tables, shelter areas, tennis, basketball, and fishing as some of their offerings.            

With the completion of the 2015 master plan, the city further noted active/passive designations for purposes of identifying levels of service and allocation of resources. The new designations include mini parks, linear parks, neighborhood parks, community parks, regional parks, signature parks, special-use parks, preserves/greenspace parks, and historical parks. These designations enabled the department to hone in on where needs—including improvements and maintenance—weren’t being met.

Partner-Based Operations
The Franklin budget is lean considering the progressive nature of the city and its demographics. “In a normal situation, our parks and rec budget is about $4 million for operations and maintenance, including staffing,” says Lisa Clayton, Franklin Parks and Recreation Director. “For day-to-day maintenance, about 40 percent of that is directed towards passive parks.”            

However, she also points out that the parks are unique for several reasons that, collectively, enable them to control their budget. Clayton characterizes their operating mode as “partner-based.”            

First, they have a cooperative arrangement with the local county, Williamson County. The county maintains the fitness centers and other facilities, some of which are in the city and some not, so the entire population is served. “We don’t duplicate those services that the county already provides,” explains Clayton.            

Second, each of the youth-sports associations are designated non-profits and take an active part in developing funds directed towards maintaining the city facilities they use. This allows more general funds to be allocated to passive parks.             

Third, Franklin has more-than-average acreage of historical property that falls under the parks and rec department.  As noted in the master plan, Franklin is unique in many ways, particularly when it comes to its historic parks. Few towns across the United States have preserved so much of their Civil War battlegrounds as Franklin has. Additionally, most of the battlegrounds are units of the federal National Park Service. In Franklin, these battlegrounds are preserved within the city’s park system.            

“We have non-profit groups such as the Friends of Franklin Parks and Battlefield of Franklin Trust that helps enormously with funding passive parks,” says Clayton. “They either partner with the city or obtain resources privately and then donate to the city.”     

Telling The Story
Safety and quality of life are top priorities for Franklin residents and thus for their elected officials. “We are lucky here to have very supportive residents and elected board members,” Clayton says. However, that luck is driven by a robust communication system that keeps residents and decision makers informed of what’s happening at parks and why funding is important to properly maintain and improve them. “We have a board and a city administrator who understand that, if you’re going to have it, you’ve got to maintain it. We keep them informed so they are not put in a reactive position.”             

Clayton stresses that it is a constant educational process and social media are used to keep the story out there through photos and YouTube. The department is fortunate to have a communications team from city hall that uses drones to help with their messaging. “When you can put out a visual like a 30-second flyover of a park using the drones, it helps people understand and get to the heart of what you’re trying to accomplish,” she says.             

Lindsey gives an example of the local support received recently for a unique feature at one of the passive parks. In cooperation with the Williamson County Library, the maintenance staff set up a half-mile “Storybook Trail.” Through an agreement with a publisher, the park received large 18 x 36-inch plastic pages from a book. The pages are placed along the trail for parents or teachers to help children get their exercise as they learn to read. Two or three books are rotated to keep it fresh.           

The maintenance staff provided materials and labor to put in the concrete pads and installed the frames purchased by the Friends of Franklin Parks; the maintenance crew continues to do the change-out of pages and other required maintenance.         

“When we opened Storybook Trail, we had the mayors from the city and the county, as well as several county commissioners and city aldermen in attendance,” says Lindsey. “That demonstrated their support and shows they are behind us all the way.”

Passive But Equal
The parks and rec department in Ketchum, Idaho, with a population of 2,753, is very different demographically from Franklin, yet shares some of the same perspectives when it comes to maintaining passive parks but goes about it differently.             

Founded in 1880, Ketchum is located in the Wood River Valley in south-central Idaho, adjacent to Sun Valley, and the communities share many resources; Bald Mountain is famous for its world-famous skiing.               

This picturesque mountain town has 14 parks on 40 acres of land.  However, the town doesn’t really define any of its parks as specifically passive. “We don’t have strict passive parks,” says Lisa Enourato, Ketchum’s assistant city administrator and communications director. “We have a couple of natural areas and some pocket parks that we do consider passive though.”       

Ketchum’s definition of passive parks involves a more open perspective. In its view, “Unless it is a natural area or a wildlife viewing park, people should be allowed to throw a Frisbee or kick a ball,” says Enourato.              

At the parks considered passive, minimal maintenance is required. Benches, picnic tables, garbage receptacles, and some bathrooms are all that the small maintenance staff is responsible for. The crew is also responsible for mowing, cleaning, weed control, flower maintenance, outdoor furniture maintenance, and removal of animal waste at all parks, active and passive.            

For the most part, the Ketchum staff treats all parks much the same, by necessity. However, Enourato does estimate that about 25 percent of the rec budget is applied to passive parks. “We simply have more active parks than passive,” she says.    

Each parks and rec department faces its own unique set of challenges concerning the care and maintenance of passive parks. Some, like Franklin, are fortunate to possess resources that support more aggressive approaches to funding passive park maintenance; others, similar to Ketchum, apply a more conservative approach. For that reason, there isn’t a one-fits-all template.              

The ultimate determination will normally come down to how much local support there is for more passive forms of recreation. Coupled with good planning, this communication and involvement from elected officials and parks and rec leaders will determine where passive parks fall in the local hierarchy of needs that will keep them actively maintained for the long haul.              

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email