Jai Cole, who on Sept. 14 became the new executive director of Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA), wants to make the park system more accessible and equitable.
Cole spent the past 16 years with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Montgomery Parks. During a recent phone interview, the Silver Spring resident told the Sun Gazette why she returned to her home county.
Why did you seek the FCPA leadership post?
“I grew up in Fairfax County and went to high school in Reston. I fell in love with nature at Lake Fairfax Park, which was the park behind my house. I played basketball and cut my teeth at Nottoway Park. My first field trip as a kid that I ever remember was at Colvin Run [Historic Site]. I loved working in Montgomery County and grew up professionally there, but the opportunity to lead, enhance and conserve my childhood parks was too good to pass up.”
What are your initial goals?
“I’m really focused right now on learning our park system, meeting with staff and finding out what it is they need to be successful . . . Thus far, [the Park Authority Board] has been letting me settle in before throwing huge fireballs at me, which I appreciate.”
Did former FCPA executive director Kirk Kincannon give you any parting advice?
“He has moved away, so we are scheduled to have lunch or coffee ‘virtually’ sometime soon.”
What are your aspirations for the agency?
“I have a very high focus on equity, so I’d like to see our One Fairfax [policy] be included in the park system . . . We’re the back yard for a lot of county residents and need to make sure our programs and access to parks are done in an equitable way. I’m also an ecologist by education, so I believe we can both provide a world-class park system and conserve our valuable natural and cultural resources.”
Are there limitations when trying to provide equitable parks, such as different geography and offerings?
“When I talk about equity, it’s not necessarily about providing the same types of spaces everywhere. Every part of the county is different; I’m learning that on my trips around trying to visit all 427 parks in the next calendar year. You’ve got to start with a data-driven approach to look at whether you have areas where you want to focus on equity. Then you start looking at how many parks are accessible within a certain distance – usually it’s a 10-minute walk – and then you determine what types of experiences are missing.”
How goes FCPA’s focus on urban parks?
“Urban parks are very important. We’re urbanizing quickly as a county and moving up. We’re building three-dimensionally, not two-dimensionally. [The challenge is] how do we provide a phenomenal park system for an increasing population.”
What features are central to urban parks?
“Social capital is a very big element for urban parks and urban planning. I always say when you’re building spaces, especially in urban environments, the key to determining if a space is successful is how many women are in that space, because women apparently know what space to go into. Social capital is really the key to equity as well. Parks reduce social fragmentation and they bring together people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures in one central space.”
What made you choose parks and recreation as a career?
“It’s funny, but I never thought I’d be in parks and recreation. I started my career working at the pool at the Reston Community Center, which was one of the best jobs I ever had, and worked my way up there and ended up in programming. A friend of mine, who’s now the director of the Reston Community Center, and my sister and my family were sort of, ‘What are you doing? You’re an ecologist. Get into your field.’ So I moved from recreation all the way over to parks, thinking that the first five years of my career were a wash and not going to count for anything. I started as an entry-level aquatic ecologist, thinking that was just going to be a stopgap as well. I just grew to love it.”
What do you enjoy about the field?
“I love that parks and rec have direct impact on land that you’re conserving . . . I like being able to save that tree, build that playground and see adults in that dog park. Parks can have an immediate impact on a community.”
How did your athletics experience prepare you for this role?
“It does help with understanding the trials and tribulations of trying to get to practice or finding a place where you can play with really good competition. Nottoway was that place for me . . . Also, how important it is to have good park design, to not just be looking at field design, but also what is there else to do for the community and the family that’s there. It also taught me to hate half basketball courts [laughs]. You can’t play a basketball game on a half-court.”
What’s your favorite park in the world?
“Anywhere in the world, I would say the Outer Banks. Cape Hatteras National Seashore is where I spent my childhood fishing and swimming and that’s where I take my children every year to go and visit the parks there. Locally, I would say Lake Fairfax, because that’s where I would get lost in nature when I was a child.”