Have you heard of mobile recreation? Essentially, this is the idea of bringing recreational resources to communities, especially those that lack parks. UCLA professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris was perhaps ahead of her time when she said in 1995 that “the ever-changing urban form and social ecology of neighborhoods calls for a flexible rather than rigid park design and for spatial layouts that can be easily changed in response to future needs… One can even think of mobile parks-spaces whose equipment and furniture can be transported to other parts of the city if the need arises.”
As a park planner, I know firsthand how challenging, expensive, and time-consuming it is to acquire land and create new parks. It typically takes years before new parks can be provided due to bureaucratic, financial, political, and other constraints. Mobile recreation vehicles may sound strange at first, but they may be entirely appropriate given the urgent need for additional recreational opportunities in under-served neighborhoods and the high costs of developing new permanent parks. Sometimes, even when land is acquired for park development, it may make more sense to use smaller sites to host portable recreational equipment like basketball hoops, skateboard ramps, or soccer goals on a rotating basis rather than develop permanent amenities. Doing so would enable a park agency to meet a variety of needs which is important, especially in communities with residents varying in age, race/ethnicity, recreational preferences, and interests.
Many park agencies across the U.S. offer some type of mobile recreation program. Mobile recreation programs have even been featured in an article in the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA)’s Parks and Recreation Magazine. Highlighted below are a few examples of such programs:
New York City, New York
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks) operates mobile recreation vans which provide free activities for all New York City children. Between May and October, teams of trained NYC Parks staff travel throughout the five boroughs of New York City to provide structured and supervised activities. The vans are stocked with a variety of games and toys that are suitable for children, including board games, chalk, balls, crafts, and more. The mobile recreation vans can also be found at community festivals, fairs, free programs, and other related events.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco Recreation and Parks offers a mobile recreation program with the primary goal of introducing youth to recreational activities that are fun, challenging, and encouraging them to “Get out and Play” now and during their entire lives. Activities include a mobile rock-climbing wall, skateboarding/BMX, disc golf, and sea kayaking. Equipment for these activities is transported to recreation centers, parks, and playgrounds all over San Francisco on Saturdays throughout the school year. In addition, the mobile recreation program is offered at fifteen after-school enrichment programs on Wednesday afternoons.
Cape Coral, Florida
The Cape Coral Department of Parks and Recreation’s “Fun-Mobile” is a new recreation center on wheels that offers a variety of organized activities to promote outdoor play to the public at local parks for free. As part of the program, children have the chance to create unique art projects, play a game of basketball or soccer with a Cape Coral police officer or Lee County Sheriff all in a fun and safe environment. The Fun-Mobile is solar-powered and hosts a mobile registration system which allows residents to register for camps and classes.
The City of Boise delivers active and fun recreation games, nutrition education, and a healthy snack through its mobile recreation program. The City’s mobile recreation vans are large cargo vehicles outfitted with balls, jump ropes, bases, and other supplies for field games, fitness, and fun art projects for kids. The City currently operates two vans which travel to different predesignated elementary schools during the school year and to different parks and apartment complexes around Boise during the summer months. The Mobile Recreation Unit was launched in 2008 to address programming deficiencies identified by the Mayor’s Council on Children and Youth. Accessibility, both in terms of location and cost, was identified as a major obstacle facing families seeking safe, quality after-school programming for their children. The Mobile Recreation Unit is intended to improve accessibility and provide safe, supervised activities near to homes.
Los Angeles County, California
Within Los Angeles County, a number of cities such as Burbank and Long Beach currently offer mobile recreation programs to address the needs of residents, especially kids. The City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks is planning to launch a mobile recreation program to bring a variety of outdoor activities to children and families in under-served communities. Each mobile recreation vehicle will provide differently themed activities ranging from sports to drama and dance to STEM activities. The program will commence on the weekends at four elementary schools in high park need areas. The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) is also looking to initiate a Mobile Play pilot project to bring recreational resources to children and families in communities lacking safe and accessible opportunities for play and exercise. DPR anticipates bringing in portable skate ramps, basketball hoops, and equipment for classes such as yoga to enhance selected existing parks and offer new options for inclusive play and physical activity which help to increase fitness and lower levels of obesity.
Park planners and decision-makers must explore innovative strategies to meet the growing and evolving recreational needs of under-served communities. Mobile recreation is an exciting way to expand access to free recreational options and opportunities for families and children in park-poor neighborhoods. While there may be some challenges, such as the need to coordinate and transport play and exercise equipment across neighborhoods, they should not stop us from trying out an idea like mobile recreation, which has the potential to yield great benefits.
NYC Parks Mobile Recreation Vans screenshot from https://www.nycgovparks.org/programs/recreation/mobile-units
Cape Coral Mobile Recreation screenshot from https://www.capecoral.net/department/parks_and_recreationhome/cape_fun-mobile.php
City of Los Angeles Mobile Recreation Program screenshot from https://challenge.la2050.org/2019/play/city-of-los-angeles-department-of-recreation-and-parks/
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.