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Toward a Useful Teaching Strategy: City Park Partnerships

Last month the City Parks Alliance (CPA) held a pilot workshop in a concerted effort to develop a teaching strategy for helping park professionals learn and understand partnerships and collaboration.  More than twenty participants attended the day-long event held at Augustus Hawkins Natural Park in Los Angeles, supported by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and hosted by the Los Angeles Parks Foundation.

(L t R): Jackie Carrera, Gordon Robertson, and Dale Larsen

(L to R): Jackie Carrera, Gordon Robertson, and Dale Larsen

I had the privilege of facilitating the discussion and was supported by City Parks Alliance staffers, Executive Director Catherine Nagel and Outreach & Program Manager Angie Horn, as well as a team of three experienced urban park professionals: Jackie Carrera, a recent transplant to Los Angeles after 21 years as CEO for Parks and People in Baltimore; Gordon Robertson, Director of Planning and Design for Denver Parks and Recreation; and Dale Larsen, Professor of Practice & Honors Faculty at Arizona State University and former Director of Parks & Recreation in Phoenix.  Collectively they represented more than 100 years of experience in city park partnerships!

We structured an agenda based on surveying park partners in California to find out what they wanted to learn.  Response to the survey centered on four ideas for shaping an agenda:

  • Understanding the need for partnership; why and how partners should work together
  • Getting started by scoping out responsibilities and structuring agreements
  • Working together day to day, communicating, team-building, and establishing trust
  • Building a culture of collaboration and shared vision for the long run

And so for the day-long session we shaped our workshop around these four areas.  The small size of the group meant that we could use our time for discussion, storytelling, and sharing successes and failures.  The experts in the room shared lessons and reflected on their experiences with public and private partners.   Continue reading

Promoting Stewardship in Parks

Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. In recognition of its innovative practices in partnerships and volunteer engagement, Priest Point Park has been named a Frontline Park.

Priest Point is a park built by volunteers.  When the park was constructed, the city did not have the staff necessary to complete construction, and relied heavily on community members who donated their time and labor.  Volunteers cleared the landscape, restored historic structures, installed landscaping features, and cleared trails throughout the park.  At 314 acres and more than a century old, Priest Point is both the city’s largest and oldest park, and still relies heavily on volunteer engagement for general maintenance.  This history of volunteerism in Olympia provided the basis for a culture of stewardship that has since grown to encompass all of the urban parks and forests in the city.  Continue reading

Economic Value of San Francisco Parks Approaches $1 Billion Annually

San Francisco’s park system plays a particularly outsized role in the City’s economy and is worth almost $1 billion a year, according to a recent report.

The report, by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence in partnership with the San Francisco Parks Alliance, said the value of San Francisco’s parks is $959 million a year.

The report incorporates data from San Francisco’s entire park and recreation system: everything from destination icons like Crissy Field and Coit Tower, to trails, natural areas, neighborhoods and community parks, and even hardscape downtown squares. Seven major factors are analyzed and enumerated in the report: property value attributable to parks, revenues from park-related tourism, the value citizens derive from direct use of free or very low cost park resources (called “direct use”), health benefits resulting from active recreation in parks, community cohesion from gathering together in parks, clean water and clean air. Continue reading

A Link to the Past

Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. In recognition of its innovative practices in community engagement and fundraising, Railroad Park has been named a Frontline Park.

“We’re proud when Railroad Park earns recognition because it shows that outside groups see what our frequent visitors see.  City Parks Alliance studies urban parks across the continent.  They track parks’ impact on surrounding communities, and they highlight green spaces that revitalize and contribute significantly to their cities,” said Jim Emison, President of the Railroad Park Foundation Board of Directors.  “That’s Railroad Park Foundation’s mission for Birmingham, and it’s wonderful to be recognized for those results.  Parks in New York and Toronto and Chicago and Los Angeles have received this distinction in the past, as has Birmingham’s own Red Mountain Park.  We’re proud to be in the company of such visionary park leadership that actively works to improve communities.”  Continue reading

Room and a View: Rutherford Platt’s Reclaiming American Cities

By Peter Harnik

A city is much more than merely a physical entity. But for our purposes, as park lovers, let’s stay in that place for now: the physical city as the sum of its physical parts. What is the proportion of structures and open space that we seek? And of the open space, how much is for pure utility (fast-moving streets) and how much for social intercourse (sidewalks, plazas, boulevards and parks)? How do we get things cooking economically while keeping the kitchen tolerable? Too many buildings means too little breathing room—like a smoky wood stove choked with oxygen-starved logs. Too much open space means not enough humanity—the stove with just a few twigs, unable to heat up.Reclaiming American Cities Cover

Getting this balance right is remarkably difficult. A look back at the wrenching changes that have wracked our cities over the past century—booms, busts, blights, renewals, fads—reveals that neither government nor the private sector uniformly understands what makes for excellent urbanity. And, frankly, the conflicting pressures from different flavors of citizen activists hasn’t helped.

One problem is that advocates for conservation and advocates for housing barely interact. This is due to both philosophy and language. The two sides tend to disagree about what needs fixing most—environmental pollution or poverty—and they also literally cannot understand each other. The acronyms, descriptions and explanations, the methods for solving problems, particularly the government and private programs that are available, are unintelligible to the uninitiated in each camp. One side talks only about “housing the poor,” the other only about “saving nature,” and the gulf remains unbridgeable. We need a new paradigm: making cities great places to live, for rich and poor alike.

Rutherford Platt has started us in this direction. Reclaiming American Cities: The Struggle for People, Place, and Nature Since 1900 (University of Massachusetts Press) is perhaps the only historical narrative that seeks to gather up the disparate physical urban threads—housing, transportation and parkland—in a complete package that reveals the contradictions and blind spots (as well as brilliant insights) that have guided our lurching city building movement for the past century.

This book is not about parks, per se. It is about what Platt sees as the 20th century’s three waves of urban planning styles—“patrician” (top-down and inspirational, a la Burnham, which he says is bad), “technocratic” (top-down and scientific, a la master builder Robert Moses, also bad) and “humane” (small-scale and locally-based, a la urban gardening guru Will Allen, which he likes). Platt is strongly infused with a Jane Jacobs mentality, although he is probably more pro-planning than she was. Though not solely about parks, I read it of course with park-oriented eyes.

Platt, himself, is an unusual collection of disparate parts—a geographer, lawyer and historian, and also an optimistic liberal. But I must jump immediately to the revelation that sticks most vividly in my mind: the delicious irony that Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago would have resulted in the destruction of Jane Addams’s Hull House.

Burnham was the leading exponent of the parks-oriented City Beautiful movement. Addams was the leading exponent of the anti-poverty-oriented Settlement House movement. Both were national figures of the highest order, and their offices were both in Chicago, scarcely two miles apart. This almost poetic confrontation provides Platt with a neat opportunity to teach about the two political viewpoints and the many ensuing movements and programs that grew from them over the decades, including “Radiant City,” “Garden City,” parkways and boulevards, “Model Cities,” “urban renewal,” “urban removal,” housing vouchers and a whole lot more. (He also uses the Chicago locale to weave in a discussion of the battles over “nearby wilderness” by telling of the epic struggle over the once-wild Indiana Dunes southeast of the city.)

Minor spoiler alert: Burnham’s grand plan was not fully realized, so Hull House was not razed. However, half a century later, a vast highway-and-renewal scheme with Burnhamesque hubris, took out the entire impoverished Halsted neighborhood that Hull House had been serving. Hull House itself was preserved as a historic landmark.

How many conservationists talk about poverty, race and housing? How many housers and poverty activists talk about urban wilderness and natural refuges? This is a conversation that needs to happen, and Reclaiming American Cities provides an excellent study guide for just this in-depth discussion, both within and between these groups. Of all general-purpose urban histories, it provides the best elucidation of the role that parks play (and don’t play) in the swirl of forces that constitute the urban conversation.

Peter Harnik is director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence and author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities.

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