When you ask Neel Deshpande how long he’s been a fan of the Great Outdoors, he quips that he was in a canoe before he could stand: by which he means his parents took him paddling when he was just six weeks old. Ever since, nature has been Deshpande’s literal playground.
The Nashville native grew up bicycling in Warner Park, kayaking most, if not all, of the state’s whitewater, and as a high school student at the University School of Nashville had his eyes opened to countless more outdoor experiences. He attended the University of Montana, where he climbed, hiked, paddled, and, yes, studied, earning a BA in Political Science and later a master's in Public Administration. But, he says, he never imaged that he’d be able to make his love of wide open spaces his career.
Eventually Deshpande returned to his hometown, took a job with metropolitan government, and it wasn’t long before he convinced the mayor that Music City needed a “a bona fide outdoor rec program.”
Now Deshpande serves as special programs manager for that program, a division of Nashville’s Metro Parks and Recreation. Under his guidance, and with the help of government officials, private outdoor-minded citizens, and outdoor-focused businesses, Deshpande is working to help build Nashville’s reputation as an outdoor city.
“Equal access is my big thing,” he says. “Both long and short term, I think the void that government can fill is to establish access to outdoor recreation to the general public.” Deshpande’s vision includes better public transportation, so that people can get to launch sites and hiking trails, and more public-private partnerships to make bicycles and other gear available across town.
Metro Parks’ Outdoor Recreation department now offers canoe and kayak trips, birding trips, bike outings, fishing workshops and a robust calendar of events throughout the year. And Deshpande has been successful in getting hikers, bikers, paddlers, climbers and others to come together to help raise the outdoor street cred for Nashville. In January 2014, Deshpande even made national news when he rescued a goose frozen in a pond in Centennial Park during the Polar Vortex.
He knows that Nashville is not the city that most often comes to mind when thinking about outdoor recreation in Tennessee. “What we cannot compete with is Chattanooga’s topography. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot offer outdoor recreation,” he says. “We are more able to offer entry-level recreation. We have places that are easier to paddle, easier to try for the first time. Nashville is where we will get more people into the sport.”
Just like a certain 6-week-old canoeist.