SF Rec and Park looks to embrace technology and nature simultaneously 

It is no secret that a primary goal of spending time outdoors is to unplug from technology.

But technology, particularly in The City, has also become increasingly essential to parks, both in their management and operation as well as improving a park user’s experience, panelists said at a breakout session for the international parks conference Greater & Greener 2015 at Zynga’s San Francisco headquarters Tuesday.

San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department has long sought to strike a balance between encouraging residents to turn off technology and connect with nature, and using technology to unite residents with parks.

In fact, Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg even recalled at the panel that one of his first tasks when he assumed his post in 2009 was to revamp the department’s website. The department has since created a mobile app and placed WiFi in 32 parks, among other technological advances.

However, areas where technology could be useful, such as tracking the popularity of new playgrounds or even the visiting rate of parks, are still primarily done manually.

“We’re still trying to figure it out, how to embrace technology…in a way that makes parks better but that doesn’t alter the fundamental ethos of connecting with nature and connecting with each other,” Ginsburg told The Examiner after the panel.

For Zynga founder and chairman Mark Pincus, another panelist, walking his dog (and namesake for his company) to a park in Cole Valley showed him how parks can serve as a neighborhood hub.

“When you get out of the digital world…parks are the best single platform to empower and connect communities,” Pincus said.

Pincus envisions even greater connectivity between park visitors and technology users. He suggested park departments worldwide could create currencies and leader boards, like in online gaming, to entice nature lovers to earn and spend in a way that drives engagement in parks.

Such an idea is entirely feasible, and actually in the works in San Francisco for certain activities like volunteering and attending community meetings, Ginsburg said.

“The more time that people spend [volunteering], there should be some prize,” he added.

There are, however, areas of technology in San Francisco parks not universally embraced, said Ginsburg. Some residents have expressed concern about privacy with certain devices, such as drones, which the department has acquired as a way of assessing trees and park facilities for maintenance, repairs and other improvements.

It can also be difficult to introduce new technology in parks while navigating the bureaucratic maze of government, he noted.

“There is not an app developer in San Francisco that doesn’t want to try something on us,” Ginsburg said. “The challenge is…we have trouble moving at the pace that technology companies and innovators really want to move.”

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for Patch.com, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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