This narrative has been edited from a draft written for an international audience in October 1994 by Peter Nicholls, Trustee of the AIPR Trust Fund-Education. Many of the trends are highly operative in the early 2020s.
The impact of change
Alvin Toffler, in his book The Third Wave suggested that the world is going through a “Third Wave” of development. The first wave was the agrarian revolution which took thousands of years, the second wave was the Industrial Revolution, which took about 100 years, and the third wave is a sort of ‘Information Technology’ revolution which is changing the face of the world in just a few short decades. This is creating a huge impact on management in all sectors, including parks and recreation. Not only must managers cope with change but with an accelerating rate of change.
It is in this frame that we need to assess the trends affecting parks and recreation in Australia. Much of Australia’s parks and recreation management is delivered within the public sector and we have to accept that governments have rarely been proactive at dealing with change. This inherent conservatism justifies grave fundamental concern about the future of parks and recreation management in this country (and elsewhere in the world). Governments need to fundamentally review how they can effectively rise to the challenges of a world of rapid change.
An aspect requiring carefully assessment is the role of the private sector in parks and recreation and the scope for increasing public and private sector partnership. I shall discuss this further, later in the narrative.
What are the major trends affecting the future of parks and recreation management in Australia? I suggest that they include the following:
- the substantially reduced availability of funds for public sector activities and the impact which this is having on the need for greater efficiency in the delivery of parks and recreation;
- a trend towards greater centralisation of control over available government funding;
- increasing concern about the health of the natural environment; and
- an expanding role for the private sector in the provision of recreation opportunities, either in its own right or in partnership with the public sector.
Whether these trends will continue relates less to the level of available funding and more to the extent to which these practices meet the challenge of rapid change. We are only now beginning to recognise the enormity of the challenge in coping with changing circumstances (internal and external).
Although the most recent period of economic recession is now  behind us, it has had a strong influence on funding allocated for parks and recreation. The current trend is to substantially reduce government sector spending, in favour of encouraging free enterprise in the private sector. Whether or not this trend will continue is difficult to say as there is evidence within the currently centrist [Keating Labor] national government (known as the Commonwealth Government of Australia) of a swing back to increased public sector spending. Given that under the Australian Constitution the national government has little direct responsibility for parks and recreation – these being reserved to the states and, by delegation from them, to local governments – this trend is not yet benefiting our profession. Note however my comments later on the greater centralisation in government controls.
The need for visions, missions, goals
The terms in this heading are clichés which have been bandied around by management consultants for a long time. The pity of it is that we have yet to realise how important it is to settle them if we are to progress through this era of rapid change.
Procedures come and go in times of change. The greater hope of stability lies in definitions of what we want to achieve. A simple example (to explain but not to achieve) is a vision of ‘wanting equal opportunities for all people to have access to the recreation opportunities of their choice’. The aim is clear and no amount of rapid change will alter that ideal. What will alter is the procedures and resources for achieving that aim. We need to identify our visions and agree to stick to them. With our visions clear, we can then put change to our advantage in our efforts to achieve our visions.
The future of our heritage
Why speak of heritage in a paper on future trends, particularly a future which is subject to turbulent changes? It is important to remember that our world has been built on our heritage. Whatever the world of the 21st century might produce, to be reminded of the heritage on which it is based will aid stability.
The word ‘heritage’ has some political status in Australia (notably by national and state government in the context of regulatory protection of assets) but the power it wields is more one of accommodating political forces than any real sense of pride in and protection of the physical assets and social influences on which the modern world has been built. Relevant to parks and recreation, there is little doubt that Australia’s international image is built very much on its natural heritage of wild places, beaches, flora and fauna. We speak of world heritage lists of places in Australia – unique natural areas – which need to be protected. Yet we are obliged to continually combat the economic mindset which views all areas as fair game for mining and logging.
Clearly a basic task of the parks and recreation profession is to ensure that all Australians have adequate and accessible opportunities to appreciate their country’s natural heritage. Ecotourism is beginning to be accepted as one of the great ways of attracting tourists to Australia. But also we appreciate the need to preserve those attractions in the face of the disturbance that tourism development brings to those natural areas.
On the urban and near-urban scene, one positive trend is the increasing awareness of the need to preserve creeks, rivers and streams as greenways. People are keen to see linear parks and nature corridors, either just to allow them to enjoy nature or as a means of travelling from one place to another (e.g. from home to the shops or school). Walkways, cycleways and (rural) horseriding paths are booming and it is likely that this trend will continue.
As mentioned earlier, there is little national political interest in parks and recreation other than during periodic controversies about the effects of particular development proposals on the natural environment; and periodic complaints by the environmental movement about underfunding of park management.
The fact is that the professional interests of parks and recreation managers and those of the national politicians are still far apart. However, if and when our national government decides to take seriously the fact that we are heading for an environmental disaster, their interests and those of parks and recreation management are much more likely to converge.
There is in Australia a trend towards greater centralisation of control over public funding. The national government has been the sole collector of income tax in Australia since the Second World War. Traditionally the national government has given large untied grants to state and local governments. In recent years such funds have been greatly reduced and that which is granted is increasingly subjected to conditions of use – ‘tied grants’. [The introduction of a goods and services tax in 2000 significantly increased the flow-on payments to states, but the author’s point about predilection for tied grants remains valid].
Given that the national government has little responsibility for parks and recreation issues (except in the Territories), this trend to greater fiscal centralisation is likely to increasingly add to the woes of parks and recreation professionals at the state and local government level as they seek to gain the funds vital to the needs of their work.
The Role of The Private Sector
The era of ‘economic rationalism’ [Australian term for neoliberal economic policy, dating from 1983] has brought extensive outsourcing of parks and recreation operations, but less thoughtful attention to how private enterprise and the visions of the parks and recreation professional can mutually benefit. There is an inherent tension between the need for private firms to extract a short-term profit and the long-term ideals of the public sector, which chronically lacks the resources needed to bring those ideals to reality. Successful mutual partnerships are known. The professional associations offer a major avenue for strengthening these partnerships.
In local government, where the bulk of public sector expenditure on parks and recreation occurs, the contemporary squeeze on public funding is resulting in a growth of the practice of compulsory competitive tendering for parks and recreation services. It is interesting to hear that while this practice is now well-established in Great Britain, there is growing evidence that it is not working and the policy pendulum may swing back (but to what?).
Already widespread in Australia is the practice of contracting services out to private firms, both in maintaining parks and gardens and in the management of recreation facilities. Contracting out saves the council much in the highly expensive areas of staffing and capital machinery. Indeed, there are examples in private enterprise where the major part of the work has been contracted out, leaving only those people who have the expertise which is unique to the organisation.
The management of leisure centres (wet and dry) is heavily swinging towards the private sector as councils see the benefits of being seen to provide a service to the community at a much reduced cost to the ratepayer. The community is generally accepting except there are those who are still concerned that social justice principles may be ignored in favour of the user-pays principles. Rather than talking of ‘user pays’, we need to be asking ‘who pays?’ This line of questioning opens all the options available along the continuum from total funding through rates and taxes (rare these days) to various proportions of public and private sharing of the costs (of which the user is only one of many possible funding sources).
Parks and recreation organisations In Australia
There is a need for a new form of communication between politicians and parks and recreation professionals and for improved decision-making procedures which are more responsive to the issues which are rapidly emerging in the field.
At present a plethora of professional associations cover the provision and maintenance of parks and recreation assets and services. None can claim to be influential in the affairs of public administration. These associations should consider consolidation as they face the challenge of remaining viable while having a small member base in contrast to the sophisticated mass marketing of private enterprise upon which these organisations depend for sponsorship.
The Royal Australian Institute of Parks and Recreation took the lead and set up a process through which the many related associations in Australia could meet and discuss the potential mutual benefits of establishing a new major organisation along the lines of the British Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management and the American National Recreation and Parks Association.
The new organisation Parks and Leisure Australia has the potential to influence the above-mentioned trends – reduced public sector funding, expanding role of parks and recreation in improving the health of the natural environment, and strengthening the links between the public and private sectors.
It seems that pendulums of societal change are swinging ever more rapidly. Professionals and practitioners in the parks and recreation sector need a clear understanding of the visions they should be pursuing and be prepared to effectively use whatever trends present themselves in the cause of turning those visions into reality.