By Jennifer Erickson, Jasmine Davis, Samantha Turner, Tommy Ropp, and Sydney Lundy

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a giant park like this or a little tiny pocket park. It’s about the people. We’re here to serve them.”

-Parks and Recreation, Season 5, episode 8

Anthropology and Urban Parks

As the study of all things human, anthropology, too, serves the people. In the case of Anthropology 459, students in this immersive learning class in fall 2021 came to understand that Muncie parks and recreation are ideally for all the people and that, like the sitcom Park and Recreation, we can use the parks as lens for understanding urban life and humans more broadly.

Immersive Learning at Ball State brings together interdisciplinary, student-driven teams guided by faculty mentors to create high-impact learning experiences. Like the discipline of anthropology, immersive learning means engaging wholly, or deeply, in a subject. This Ball State educational platform allows students to earn credits for working collaboratively with community partners, such as businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies to address community challenges. For this class, we partnered with the Muncie Parks and Recreation Board. Ideally, both students and partners benefit from the learning experience and a final product is created, which is why we created a website. The goal of the website is to share our findings with the Muncie Parks and Recreation Board and the City of Muncie more broadly as well as Muncie residents and park users. During the fall semester of 2021, our anthropology class immersed ourselves in Heekin, Tuhey, McCulloch, and Westside parks, and gathered ethnographic fieldwork to understand how public space is used and managed in Muncie. With guidance from Professor Erickson, we did this in part through the framework of urban anthropology.

Urban anthropology in the United States emerged from sociological traditions in the “Chicago School,” which used Chicago as an archetype for processes of rapid urbanization, migration, and political economy. Middletown, U.S.A., a systematic study of the city of Muncie in the 1920s, came out of this tradition. After World War II, in the 1960s and 1970s, that urban anthropology diverged from the Chicago tradition—and its roots in studying “primitive” forms of social organization—-and aligned more with urban geographers because early theories on rapid urbanization did not adequately describe or predict the range of cities or the diversity of people in them (The Lynds, for example, purposefully excluded immigrants and African-Americans from their study of Muncie). By the 1990s, the city as context became an important factor in both urban and migration studies. Due to its direct, personal participation in gathering information, a constant throughout anthropology’s history is its dedication to ethnographic fieldwork. Today anthropologists who work in cities view people as urban subjects who are “engaged in culturally meaningful actions in social conditions of unequal power” (Nonini 2014, 2). This means gathering data on cross-cultural processes of urbanization and different scales of social, ethnic, epidemiological, and economic problems that we find in cities as well as forms of collaboration and resistance to power.

One conundrum that faces urban anthropology, a field that traditionally studied more rural populations, is how to limit the scope of the research. Anthropology strives to portray people holistically, but the amount of diversity present in cities makes this goal challenging, if not impossible. Instead, we might investigate a specific group of migrants living in a city, or people living in a particular neighborhood or other single spatial unit, or focus on a population in social terms such as a religious group or a profession. To limit the scope of this research project for an undergraduate methods course, Erickson chose four urban parks for students to explore. The parks are located in different parts of the city, surrounded by different neighborhoods, and together offer a lens for understanding the larger city of Muncie and urban life in general.

Research in parks also provided a safer environment to conduct research during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Only about half of Delaware County Indiana is fully vaccinated therefore making ethnographic fieldwork a challenge. According to a recent study by Wallet Hub, Indiana ranks as the worst state in the nation for COVID safety, including Washington, D.C. We heard at the Indiana Parks Association Conference that the pandemic has made parks more important to communities across the state.

Public Parks and Public Space

Photo by Claire Dorsch

A city’s parks serve multiple purposes. In one respect, they exist to provide the citizens with an area to relax and enjoy the outdoors. Alternatively, they give researchers and concerned citizens a glimpse at the social, political, and economic health of a city. Aside from their uses for research and recreation, parks serve as part of the urban commons . As such, they are not the cure-all to the overarching issues in the political landscape of a city.

“The commons” are a shared public resource that generates “resources that human beings hold in common . . . and which are essential to their biological, cultural, and social reproduction” (Nonini 2006, 1). Long before capitalist accumulation and private property ownership became the dominant modes of economic and political organization globally, there was a world where members of human communities enjoyed access to an array of common resources that were essential for their social survival: land, water, forest, game, and pasture (Kalb 2017, 67). Urban life in the twenty-first century obviously has a different form of the commons than our human ancestors had. Henri Lefebvre (1968) first put forth the idea of the city as commons. He viewed “right to the city” movements as a way of reclaiming control over decisions about how the city develops and grows, and to promote greater access of urban space and resources for all urban residents. Developed in tandem with a critique of neoliberalism (also thought of as trickle down economics, globalization, and the rising tide of anti-government, pro-market attitudes and practices), the commons has become a way to promote a more equitable future outside of the market and state (Bollier 2016, 3).

In cities today, the commons have to do with public space, such as parks, public transportation, a social safety net, access to affordable housing and healthcare, clean and safe drinking water, and secure bridges and roads. A more expansive and contemporary understanding of the commons includes knowledge commons (the sharing and creation of information, science, knowledge, data, and other types of intellectual and cultural resources), cultural commons (virtual and digital cultures), infrastructure commons, and neighborhood commons, among others (Foster and Iaione 2016). As governments privatize their services, wages stagnate, and housing, healthcare, and food costs skyrocket, local residents must fight harder and more creatively for their right to the commons. Cities have different reasons and paths of approaching the commons, which is why they must take root at the local level, for example, at the level of a city or neighborhood, but—in an age of globalization—local movements must also be seen in connection with larger global movements. For example anti-racism movements in Muncie are connected to the larger Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter movement. Likewise, the Muncie Women’s March is connected to national Women’s March and movement. Local movements to protect public space, such as “Save Tuhey” mentioned in the Tuhey Park section, was a successful local movement to save a municipal park that can be compared to other movements around the globe that have highlighted the importance of public, tax-funded space, and the problems associated with increasing amounts of privately-held land and businesses, which disadvantage poor people especially. As organizers of “Save Tuhey” state, “It’s a slippery slope: We don’t want to create a precedent of the city giving away public land to private entities.”

Parks and Recreation

What would a class on parks and recreation be without mention of the hit show Parks and Rec and how it connects to Muncie? Parks and Rec is a show about parks, of course, but it’s also about the bureaucratic functions that influence small towns. It’s also about team work, friendship, romance, and politics. The show uses satire to highlight difference and diversity in terms of political opinion, gender and family, class, and the relationship the public and private spheres.  The show follows Leslie Knope as she tries to create better parks and park-related functions in the town of Pawnee, Indiana. The show deals with situations that could come up in real life parks and park planning, including conflicts between different departments, difficulties with the public, official and behind-the-scenes meetings, and the joys and challenges of urban planning. 

Some things have come up in the show that connect with our research.  Through attending meetings about the city and the parks, we have seen how the bureaucracy of Muncie works.  Parks and Rec shows the characters attending and hosting meetings and public talks about their plans for Pawnee, Indiana and its parks.  In both the show and real life the meetings are open to area citizens to attend, and they are also allowed to stand up and voice suggestions, opinions, as well as criticisms.  Perhaps the criticisms of local citizens influenced the parks board to abandon a partnership with the YMCA and the possibility of a new facility in Tuhey Park.   

Leslie Knope spends much of the first season campaigning for a pit in Pawnee to be filled in and turned into a playground.  She considers this pit to be both an eye-sore and a danger; a friend’s boyfriend fell in and broke both of his legs.  Another problem with the pit is people throw trash into it.  Knope wants to take this dangerous, useless space and turn it into something useful for the town.  In Muncie, there has been talk of “beautifying” the parks.  Tuhey Park is very useful for both people inside and outside of Muncie: it sits almost in the middle of the city.  There was a discussion about building a new YMCA at Tuhey, which would have turned this public space into a private space.  It would have also taken away some of the attractiveness of Tuhey, as some of the green space in Tuhey (and possibly Tuhey Towers) would have been taken away to build more buildings and a parking lot.  This also shows a close parallel to the episode titled “Ron and Tammy” where the library is hoping to take over that pit that Leslie has been trying to turn into a park and use it for a more restricted use than the public space she is wanting.  In the show, the protests from Leslie and her group stopped this from happening.  In Muncie, the community protested the potential private use of Tuhey and got the potential project stopped (Parks and Recreation, 2009).  Much like Leslie, the people of Muncie wanted to have a beautiful public space rather than something that would restrict who could use the space.  

One thing the show included that appeared during research was the idea that children make their own fun.  One episode of Parks and Rec opens with a group of children who have decided to hold a dog-poop war using pet waste in plastic bags dug out of a trash can (Parks and Recreation, 2009).  At Tuhey Park, there has been an abandoned shopping cart just laying around in various locations.  This cart has drawn the attention of several children, including one little girl who was only stopped from playing in it by her mother, who laughingly refused to let her do so.  Several boys played with the cart, pushing each other around in it and jokingly calling the cart an “Uber”.  These boys even tried to push the cart up a slide, only to give up when it continued to fall back down.  The show has captured one of the most important aspects of park existence: children will create their own fun by using whatever the environment has to offer.  

The show Parks and Rec is a humorous look at the way park boards and municipal governments operate.  We discovered throughout this ethnographic project that there real life dramas unfold in Muncie, but the show’s carefully edited satirical writing made it arguably more interesting and funny than real life. As such, there will be references to the TV show throughout the website.

Overview of the website

In what follows, readers will find a summary of Muncie history and a contemporary political, economic, and social context for the parks. Following the introduction is an overview of the methods that students used. Next, each park has its own page with subsections of individual park histories, a list of the sights, sounds, and amenities of each park, and a description of encounters with park users. Each group pulled information from the most recent (2021) 5-year park plan and some groups also provide a conclusion or recommendations. In conclusion, Jen Erickson summarizes key findings about Muncie Parks and Rec and teaching ethnographic methods in uncertain times in terms of the concept of potentiality.


Bollier, David. 2016. “Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm.” Next System Project, April 28.

Foster, Sheila R., and Iaione, Christian. 2016. “The City as a Commons.” Yale Law and Policy Review 34 (2).

Kalb, Don. 2017. “Afterword: After the Commons—Commoning!” Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 79: 67–73.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1996. Writings on Cities. Translated by Eleonore Kofmanb and Elizabeth Lebas. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Nonini, Donald M. 2006. “Introduction: The Global Idea of ‘The Commons.’ ” Social
Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 50 (3): 164–177.

Parks and Recreation. “Season 1/Episode 4, Boy’s Club.” 21 minutes, April 30, 2009.

Parks and Recreation. “Season 2/Episode 8, Ron and Tammy.” 21 minutes, November 5, 2009.