The Journal of Extension -

February 2016 // Volume 54 // Number 1 // Ideas at Work // v54-1iw4

Pros in Parks: Integrated Programming for Reaching Our Urban Park Operations Audience

In addition to regular job duties, such as tree care, mulching, irrigation, and pesticide management, urban park workers have faced environmental changes due to drought, wildfires, and West Nile virus. They simultaneously have endured expectations to manage growing, diversifying park usage and limitations on career development. An integrated programming approach is used to provide training to frontline parks department employees in the cities of Arlington and Fort Worth, Texas. Results indicate high levels of adoption of practices, enhanced staff morale, and identification of potential future leaders. The program also introduces an urban audience to the broader array of Extension programming and services.

Laura M. Miller
County Extension Agent, Commercial Horticulture
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
Fort Worth, Texas

Jamie Rae Walker
Extension Specialist and Assistant Professor
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
Dallas, Texas


Over the past 5 years, North Texas parks departments have endured budget and staffing reductions (Trust for Public Land, 2011) while also facing issues related to growing populations (City of Fort Worth, 2014), increased park usage (Trust for Public Land, 2011; National Recreation and Park Association, 2013), and environmental issues, such as drought (Borisova et al., 2013; Dolesh, 2012), West Nile virus (Merchant, 2012), tree damage (Skelton & Josiah, 2003), flooding (Gretchen, Allred, & LoGiudice, 2014), and wildfires (Dolesh, 2012; Kapp, 2013; Morris, Megalos, Vuola, Adams, & Monroe, 2014). Park employees must be trained to manage these matters in addition to maintaining the knowledge needed for their regular duties, such as custodial work, tree care, mulching, irrigation, pesticide management, and attending to safety issues (Warren, Rea, & Payne, 2007).

Training is necessary to keep staff up-to-date on best practices and changing regulations as well as to improve employee retention and provide opportunities to identify potential managers (Krofta & Panshin, 1989; Kutilek, Gunderson, & Conklin, 2002; Ramlall, 2004; Martin & Kaufman, 2013). Current budget and staffing situations, coupled with the need to keep staff proximate to work sites, limit opportunities for park employees to attend regional, state, and national programs. Furthermore, most training topics require tailoring to meet specific local operational needs.

Program Development

In 2006, Tarrant County's horticulture agent worked with the parks and recreation departments of the cities of Arlington and Fort Worth to provide employee training in horticulture. Committee members expressed interest in further developing the training, and in 2008, it evolved into the Pros in Parks program. Primary goals included increasing job knowledge, professionalism, safety, environmental practices, and job satisfaction. Topics for instruction were expanded beyond horticulture basics to include land management issues and trends and to emphasize career development related to parks, communications, community development, and management and personal development (e.g., health and financial management).

Program Delivery

Planning Committee

Initially, topics were chosen and evaluated by the Tarrant County Commercial Horticulture Advisory Committee. Over time, a Pros in Parks Task Force was developed, and it currently comprises park operations managers from four local municipalities, urban foresters, the county horticulture agent, and the municipal parks specialist.

A task force–driven approach allows for topics and trends to be identified with input from stakeholders (Webster & Ingram, 2007), expands access to trainers on interdisciplinary topics and skills, and creates an unbiased, evidence-based curriculum. The task force devises a list of issues facing frontline staff; the specialists and agent identify emerging practices and research relevant to land management, parks, and career and personal development; and attendees provide topic suggestions through previous session evaluations. The result is a program series covering horticulture and land management basics, emerging land management and parks practices, and relevant topics for career and personal development (see Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1.
Topic Selection Criteria for Pros in Parks
Required job skills, such as tree pruning, weed identification, mulching, and safety
Content specific examples, such as pesticide training with examples specific to park employees
Current issues, such as drought, wildfires, and West Nile virus
Trends, such as population densification, nature-based play, diversification in urban populations and recreation uses, and park design trends
Relevant content for career or personal development
Requests from previous session evaluations
Other relevant curriculum or research (e.g., presentations offered at related conferences or lecture materials offered at local universities)
Table 2.
Select Examples of Session Topics
Athletic field management Money management Pruning and maintenance
Basic horticulture Park safety perceptions Quality control
Customer service Park trends Social media
Drought Personal safety Tree hazard identification
Earth-kind landscape Pesticide applicator Turf management
Equipment and safety Plant disease diagnosis Urban stream management
Event management Plant identification Water conservation
Health and wellness Planting and pruning Weeds
Leadership in changing times Playground maintenance Wildlife in your park


Pros in Parks is a series of regularly scheduled educational events. Employees attend the entire series or specific sessions. Each topic is offered once a week in two cities, Arlington and Fort Worth. Training space is provided by the host parks department. Operations staffs from other communities are welcome to attend when space is available. Trainings are offered during the winter months, the best time for attendees. A small educational fee is paid by each city.

Extension specialists and agents in pesticide, turf, water, forestry, entomology, and horticulture serve as the core group of instructors for land management topics. The municipal parks specialist, other Extension subject matter specialists, or experts from local parks departments, universities, and businesses are used for the related career and personal development topics.

Teaching Methods

It is crucial to understand the culture of the audience (Webster & Ingram, 2007) and use a balance of teaching and hands-on or action-based activities. Assessments indicate that attendees are accustomed to active workdays, so a variety of teaching methods are used for Pros in Parks. In the classroom, computer-generated presentations are most common, but these are enhanced with activities such as working in small groups, participating in question-and-answer sessions, and using classroom response systems. Such activities engage participants and ensure that important concepts are understood.

When appropriate, longer segments of time are spent on outdoor activities, such as surveying urban streams, participating in photo scavenger hunts, pruning trees and shrubs, rebuilding a pitcher's mound, conducting inspections, evaluating hazards, mapping, and practicing safety activities. Because some park employees have limited English proficiency, a translator is available on-site (Webster & Ingram, 2007).


To determine program effectiveness, retrospective postsession surveys are administered after each session. Select examples of learning outcomes and self-reported knowledge gain and intentions to adopt are shown in Table 3.

Table 3.
Select Examples of Percentage of Attendees with Reported Increase in Understanding and Intention to Adopt Practice
Topic Increase in Understanding Intention to Adopt
Customer service 69.0% 84.0%
Good cultural practices for turf management 73.7% 80.0%
Insect repellents 52.0% 85.0%
Plant problems caused by too much and too little irrigation 58.7% 84.0%
Plant selection for water conservation 63.0% 89.5%
Planting and pruning techniques 90.0% 94.4%
Park safety and playground maintenance 83.0% 80.0%
Park type classifications 78.0% 84.0%
Social media 77.0% 84.0%
Staying safe 46.0% 85.0%
Sun protection 39.0% 85.0%
Trends in parks 79.0% 84.0%
Weed identification and herbicide selection 75.7% 92.3%

Supervisors from participating cities indicate that although reported increase in knowledge is inconsistent, intention to adopt practices is consistently high. From their perspective, the sessions serve as knowledge gain opportunities for newer employees and skill enhancement for long-term employees. They also indicate that the program serves as a team-building exercise and contributes to staff morale, in addition to helping them identify future managers.


As municipalities continue to work with constrained budgets, changing environmental impacts, increases in density and park use, and a high number of retirements, trainings will grow in need and demand.

Data from previous participants' feedback indicate a need to further develop the program by offering a certification and by placing additional emphasis on topics that can support attendees' career retention and advancement. Feedback also emphasizes a need for the program to incorporate more hands-on and interactive learning opportunities and sessions offered in various languages, particularly Spanish (Wyman et al., 2011).

Pros in Parks is replicable for urban audiences throughout Texas and nationally. By using a committee-driven approach to select and package Extension expertise, agents can offer an impactful educational and personal development program for urban parks operations staff.

Pros in Parks strengthened the partnership between Texas AgriLife Extension in Tarrant County and the participating parks departments. Furthermore, many of the participants (18% Black and 31% Hispanic from 2009 to 2014) indicated that they were not aware of the breadth of Extension services. Thus, by using an integrated Extension planning approach, the program serves as a way to introduce this urban audience to broader Extension programs and resources (Young & Vavrina, 2014).


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