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Pokémon Go’s Lesson for Parks: Embrace Technology

The AR smash only hints at the possibilities of parks taking a more aggressive lead with technology

With mobs of phone-wielding fans spending more and more time in (augmented) reality, exploring their surroundings and venturing to new parts of their cities, the Pokémon Go phenomenon could be seen as a mixed blessing for parks and parks administrators. Increased and unexpected outdoor engagement would make any fan of public spaces excited, but does more traffic change the park experience or potentially damage habitat?

Parks across the country have welcomed the invasion of virtual creatures and real-world game players, staging events, Pokémon-themed meetups, and utilizing the game as a sure-fire way to generate social media buzz. When asked for a comments on the challenges and opportunities presented by the game, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, which has noticed gatherings of players in city parks but no accompanying maintenance issues, gave the following statement:

"Parks has received reports of many non-native invasive Pokemon species in our parks ranging from humble Pidgeys to fearsome Bulbasaurs, so we are very appreciative of committed citizen efforts to document these creatures. And while they’re at it, we encourage Pokemon players to look up and discover the real park natives, the flora and fauna on display in New York City parks!"

Like many similar organizations across the nation, NYC Parks & Recreation is taking advantage of one of the year’s largest trends to attract attention and visitors. It’s certainly the right reaction.

But as the hit game shows the massive popularity of AR technology, and the possibilities of marrying real-world locations with mobile technology, should parks department be asking not, "how do we catch up," but "how do we lead?"

Michael Shull, General Manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks in Los Angeles, believes parks need to make technology a key aspect of their appeal to visitors and citizens.

"We have to be more progressive," he says. "There were times when agencies across the nation were opposed to wi-fi in parks. They thought it would take away from the pureness of the parks. My takeaway is, and I’ve always been this way, we need to be progressive to use technology, and that’s what is going to drive changes in the park system. This isn’t a ‘build it and they will come’ situation. Technology is a big part of attracting young families."

Shull loves the impact of Pokémon Go—"anything that gets kids moving is a good thing"—and has held meeting within the department to figure out how to take advantage of the attention, but can’t help but compare it to an app called Discovery Agents, a game that allows parks systems or other places to create places-based missions (released earlier this year, the app’s marketing has been updated to reflect the post-Pokémon world). Los Angeles parks partnered with the app, setting up missions in several different parks, and Shull says it’s a somewhat similar experience. While it's unfair to expect a game without the pop culture cache of Pokémon competing on a level playing field, the app's partnerships with numerous city and national parks suggest more can certainly be done.

"Kids aren’t going to put their devices down, so we need to figure out ways to get them moving and get them engaged," he says.

Shull wishes there was a way to combine aspects of both apps, to create content specific to L.A. parks within the Pokémon universe. Other parks, administrators, and rangers are trying to do just that, albeit without the help of Niantic, the game's creator. At Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area near Malibu, California, administrators have been organizing Pokemon-themed hikes, taking kids out to explore trails and catch Pokémons. On one of the last trips, more than 80 people joined.

According to Zachary Behrens, a Senior Communications Fellow at the park, there are some risks. You don’t want hikers with the faces glued to their phones to step off the trails and damage habitat, potentially come across at rattlesnake, or get lost. But with the incredible crowds that are attracted by this technology, it’s worth the effort to rethink the park experience.

"If these hikes can get people engaged and get people to the parks, that’s a core part of our mission," he says. "It’s all about balance. "