Creating A 21st Century Park System For Brown County
Now the largest age-based demographic in the United States, millennials are setting a growing cultural tone for how consumer products and workplace practices are experienced. This cohort is also increasingly driving how local communities think about the services and public spaces they provide.
Born between the early 1980s and the turn of the century, millennials are more than 75 million strong and just this year outnumbered the 74 million baby boomers in the U.S. reported the Pew Research Center. Across the nation, people in the millennial age group who have college degrees are opting to live in urbanized areas, reported Nielsen in 2014. That same year, the White House Council of Economic Advisers reported that 73 percent of U.S. residents aged 25-34 in 2011 lived in mid-size to large cities, an increase of six points since 1980. A similar shift was reported among people in that age range without college degrees, increasing from 58 percent in 1980 to 61 percent in 2011. Additional U.S. Census data from 2014 suggest that older millennials are opting to locate in the suburbs as they have families and that the urban lifestyle appeals more to younger millennials.
These trends toward urbanization and suburbanization are playing out in Wisconsin’s Brown County, which offers the densely populated urban center of Green Bay surrounded by a suburban ring, with expansive rural areas beyond. Brown County's millennial-age residents represented just more than 20 percent of the area’s total population in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of the 134 millennial participants in Brown County's public input process to develop its five-year Parks and Outdoor Recreation plan, 76 percent self-identified as living in an urban rather than rural area.
Regardless of where millennials live, this generation as a whole is more active than older generations: The Physical Activity Council estimated in 2016 that 49 percent of young adults are active on a regular basis to a healthy level.
Brown County's 18-park system boasts more than 3,000 acres in open spaces available to residents and visitors alike, as well as 30 miles of paved and crushed gravel recreational trails. Some Brown County parks offer direct programming, but more rely exclusively on recreation that patrons initiate themselves, such as playground fun, walking, photography, picnicking and so on. As more young adults have moved to urban centers in recent years, the county's Parks Department decided to assess how they use local open spaces for recreation.
While Brown County developed its Parks and Outdoor Recreation plan in 2016, the Planning and Land Services office partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Extension Brown County to engage residents in the millennial and younger Generation X (ages 18-44) demographics. In addition to using traditional information gathering methods that included a steering committee, this project conducted an online survey open for public response and a focus group to gather information from adults in the targeted age demographic. Of the 475 survey respondents, 250 (63 percent) reflected this age range. The two-hour focus group assessed the perspectives of a dozen diverse community members in that range to explore the survey questions in greater detail.
This engagement offered several key takeaways.
Rent, not buy
Younger adults are often credited with embracing the "sharing economy." Brown County survey respondents and focus group participants expressed interest in renting items such as kayaks, paddle boats, stand-up paddleboards and fat tire bikes for use on Brown County waterways and trails. Kayaking and stand-up paddling were both ranked in the top 10 growing recreational trends in Wisconsin by the state Department of Natural Resources in its 2011-2016 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan. But despite Milwaukee and Madison sustaining bike share programs in their central urban neighborhoods, the focus group had no interest in a Green Bay bike share program, nor did the suggestion arise whatsoever in the survey. The Brown County Parks Department launched a fat tire bike rental program in 2016 at a park location with an extensive trail network.
Don't forget Fido
Focus group and survey respondents requested more off-leash dog parks, greater access to traditional parks to take leashed dogs, and more waste bags and receptacles on recreational trails in Brown County. A cohort that is historically waiting longer to get married and start families does not appear to be shying away from pet ownership.
Many younger adults grew up using the internet and expect to be informed online. Focus group participants requested an interactive, mobile-friendly events calendar for activities and events taking place in both Brown County parks and municipally managed parks, through which they could readily find a space or event that suited their budget, desired travel distance or preferred recreational activity. These participants also indicated strongly that they hear about programming and events through word of mouth and social media, rather than through print media or television.
Diversity in offerings
Interested in a variety of activities, survey respondents indicated they did not mind traveling a greater distance to a park for a specific offering, such as fat tire biking, disc golf, swimming or snowshoeing. Respondents also said they overwhelmingly travel to Brown County parks by motor vehicle and driving distance did not appear to be a hindrance for the 71 percent who live more than one mile from a county park or trail.
The high demand for a swimming beach on the Green Bay waterfront reiterates that proximity is not essential. The city of Green Bay is well on its way to bringing back a sandy swimming beach at Bay Beach Amusement Park, the Green Bay Press Gazette reported in September 2015. Cross-promotion of simultaneous events in parks was a strong point of the focus group conversation, with participants indicating that they would be more likely to attend back-to-back events like a live music performance, farmers' market or outdoor fitness class in the same park.
Ready for adventure
Survey respondents and focus group participants clamored for adventure sport amenities, such as an expanded trail network (asphalt or crushed gravel) and year-round maintenance of the paved section of the Fox River State Recreational trail. They additionally suggested other specific opportunities, including adventure racing county parks, a zip line and a rock-climbing wall. These findings were not unique to Brown County, echoing the DNR's 2011-16 state parks plan.
Brown County's park planning process shows that millennials and other young adults – including those who live in urban areas – report being physically active and wanting to do more outdoors. Now that they have offered their insights into how they use open public spaces for recreation and how to improve parks, businesses, governments and community organizations can discuss collaboration to meet those desires.
Allyson Watson is a community and economic development educator in the University of Wisconsin-Extension Brown County office in Green Bay.