Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Natural Resources

First Advisor

Robert Manning


The National Park Service (NPS) strives to embody U.S. democratic ideals, conserving our collective stories and scenery for their intrinsic value and the enjoyment of current and future generations. However, although these places are conserved for all, they are not enjoyed by all. As with other conservation agencies, the NPS finds itself increasingly concerned with building relevance with diverse potential stewards. In cities, where 80% of the U.S. population and 40% of the NPS portfolio is based, there is a prime opportunity to build relevance with large, diverse, and proximate audiences. Recognizing this opportunity, the NPS initiated its Urban Agenda as a centerpiece of its 2016 centennial. The Urban Agenda seeks to connect people with proximate NPS parks and programs, primarily by using collaborations as pathways to relevance. In doing so, the agency may become a more resilient and value-added component of these larger landscapes. However, connections between relevance, resilience, and collaborations, especially at the organizational level, have rarely been addressed.

This dissertation: 1) identifies perspectives on NPS relevance in the urban context; 2) examines the diversity of brokers and roles in facilitating relevance across collaborative networks; and 3) assesses areas of intra-NPS relationship-building for enhanced relevance. A multi-site, multi-methods evaluation was conducted. Detroit, Tucson, and Boston, all cities with Urban Agenda investment but representing different proximities to physical NPS parks, were selected as cases. Qualitative in-depth interviews with NPS staff and community partners were paired with quantitative social network analysis. The first phase of research identifies areas of commonality and difference among perceptions about relevance. Qualitative inquiry found that, across cities, NPS staff tended to conceptualize relevance in agency-focused ways while community partners conceptualized it on broader scales, both in audiences and goals. These differences in scale may be complementary, though, with the NPS further enhancing its relevance by recognizing the larger context and embedding its perspectives within this context. The second phase of research quantitatively examines collaborative network composition and potential, especially regarding network and broker diversity. Study results suggest that building the breadth and depth of a network, as well as targeting specific areas of desired growth, are ways to effectively build network resilience and further connections for relevance. The third phase of research examines relationships among parks, programs, and offices of the NPS. Combining qualitative and quantitative methods, this inquiry found that relationships between parks are most numerous and supported by institutional structures. However, connections to and within programs are a desired area for further connection. All relationship-building structures and language must emphasize the utility of internal connections for external relevance. Balancing relationship types while being inclusive of non-park groups may be essential in promoting organizational resilience and relevance. This evaluation contributes to theoretical understanding about and indicators of relevance and resilience. Together, results from these three phases of study can help the NPS understand specific relevance considerations in urban areas, efficiently use their resources to enhance relevance, and continue to strive toward our democratic ideals.



Number of Pages

194 p.