Visitors spending time in Tacoma parks will notice new faces making the rounds this summer.
Metro Parks Tacoma launched a refreshed Park Guides program this month, starting with four full-time individuals split between regional and neighborhood parks. The guides will be a first point of contact for visitor questions and concerns, provide education and information on the surrounding ecology, and support programming efforts.
“We’re especially excited to begin offering more interpretive programming,” said Visitor Services Supervisor Daniel Mero. “Having a dedicated group of individuals who can provide nature talks or be available to answer questions about their surroundings in our parks will enrich the visitor experience and encourage good stewardship of our natural places.”
Park Guides will regularly reach out to encampments of people experiencing homelessness in community and neighborhood parks, lead engagement efforts, and work with the City of Tacoma’s Homeless Engagement Liaison (HEAL) Team and Community Liaison Officers from Tacoma police to connect interested individuals with resources.
“Metro Parks Tacoma provides our HEAL Team with detailed information about any encampments and unhoused individuals in a given area,” said Javon Carlisle, Homeless Engagement Alternatives Liaison Team Manager at the City of Tacoma. “With the information provided, the HEAL Team can act swiftly, assessing the situation and connecting people to services. Like Metro Parks Tacoma, the City wants to ensure that all residents can utilize Tacoma’s green spaces”.
In an important distinction from a previous incarnation of the program, these Guides will actively monitor and engage with all populations in the parks but won’t act in an enforcement capacity.
“This program is an opportunity to respond to concerns gently and collaboratively so problems can be solved with voluntary compliance rather than enforcement,” said Joe Brady, Deputy Director of Regional Parks and Attractions.
Park Guides receive training in verbal judo and de-escalation, as well as first aid and CPR. If a situation requires ongoing security monitoring or a police response, they will make that call, but Mero hopes these types of incidents are few and far between.
“Our Guides are there first and foremost to be approachable and enhance the park experience through friendly education and programming opportunities,” Mero said. “We want them to be on a first-name basis with visitors and known as someone who can just as easily identify and teach about native plants as patch up a scraped knee or gently remind someone to put out their cigarette and clean up after their dog.”
Guides will keep track of daily activities and public feedback to help Metro Parks identify gaps in messaging or services. A plan is also being developed to make that data publicly available to gauge the impacts of the program.
In addition, and predating the Metro Parks Park Guides, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium has had a fulltime ranger for several years with similar goals of safety and guest engagement. The ranger is a uniformed representative who patrols the zoo, responds to emergencies, and helps resolve guest issues as a friendly and respectful ambassador. Both the zoo ranger and the park guides place emphasis on building relationships and strengthening community in their roles.
Funding for the Park Guides program was provided by Prop. 1, which was passed by Tacoma voters in November 2022 and restored the Metro Parks regular property tax levy. Costs for the Park District’s contracted security patrols increased from $158,000 in 2019-20 to over $1 million in 2022. The Park Guides will help offset that cost by reducing the number of incidents handled with a security response.
Other health, safety and security measures supported by the levy include improvements to lighting, security and alarm systems, inspections, and maintenance of spraygrounds and pools, and the cleaning and sanitation of park restrooms and public facilities.