If I could peek into the future to see what private park organizations might look like in the coming years, I suspect they would resemble the San Francisco Parks Alliance – a new organization, resulting from a merger, that is taking on a far larger and more complex mission for public parks in that city. The Alliance’s mission – a mix of stewardship, philanthropy and advocacy – is about balancing a collaborative approach to a huge challenge.
“The new organization represents 55 years of combined experience in philanthropy, advocacy, park and open space policy, and community mobilizing. The Parks Alliance is one of the only organizations in the country combining these roles; it’s really a three-legged stool. We took on all the work of two existing organizations through the merger and then added a third component – a community-based policy council,” says Matthew O’Grady, Executive Director for the Alliance.
In October 2011, the leading parks-serving organizations in that city, Neighborhood Parks Council and the San Francisco Park Trust, joined forces to form the new San Francisco Parks Alliance. “Usually mergers are driven by financial desperation. In our case, both organizations were financially stable with the usual amount of talent and track record. But they found they were bumping into each other and confusing residents, and interfering with each other’s achievement of mission,” says O’Grady.
Once merged, they took a different approach for creating their board. Rather than merging boards they did a fresh application process, raising expectations for the board’s role, and then invited old members and new ones to apply. They simultaneously recruited 5 new members, including a new president. O’Grady says, “We saw it as creating a new organization rather than just a merger – with three strategies: advocacy and education – the legacy of the Neighborhood Parks Council; philanthropy – the legacy of the Parks Trust; and stewardship and volunteer work.”
Collaboration between Residents and the City
After the merger, the Alliance held an open application process to create a new Parks Policy Council (PPC). The 23-member PPC has at least two representatives from each District with annual renewable terms, eight issue-focused working groups, and a detailed framework for policy deliberation and action. The PPC develops advocacy and policy directions on issues presented to them by its members, Alliance staff, the public, and city agencies, and acts as the link to a broader audience of grass-roots park advocates, park groups, and the general public. The PPC is an advisory body, with policy decisions made by the Board of Directors.
“It was about figuring out how to leverage more community engagement,” says O’Grady. “More than 100 fiscally-sponsored community groups are also affiliated with the Alliance – they are us! Most of them are all-volunteer and the Alliance is their fiscal sponsor. We provide financial management, technical assistance, liability insurance, liaison to the city, volunteer recruitment, and philanthropy through a program of cash awards for community groups.”
For example, the Friends of Larsen Playground has been fundraising to renovate the dilapidated playground at their park in partnership with the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. The Recreation and Parks Department (RPD) recently awarded $250,000 from the bond-financed Community Opportunity Fund, bringing public funds raised for the project to $900,000. The Alliance is acting as the fiscal sponsor for Friends of Larsen Playground, which is raising the remaining $100,000. The Parks Alliance and RPD are jointly producing a large fundraising event this September, Party for the Parks, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit this effort. RPD will take the lead on developing park improvements at the site.
Larsen Playground shows the Alliance playing one role to support a neighborhood park effort. How do they play all three roles with the city?
“The three-cornered stool idea – it’s working,” says O’Grady. “One of our Park Partners has been working to acquire a parking lot in a dense neighborhood that has long been used as farmers market. A church was selling the lot and the parks group led a campaign to secure support for its acquisition and conversion to a mini-park. That effort involved all three of our core strategies – advocacy that supported our Recreation and Parks Department in spending $4M on acquisition of the site; stewardship and volunteerism to champion the effort; and philanthropy – our Park Partner raised half a million dollars for the site’s conversion. This local group was the champion and the Alliance supported them.”
Extending the Reach of the City
The Alliance makes a strong case on its website – Are we taking parks for granted? – for their role and the engagement of every resident in the city in making sure parks are fully funded and that the Parks Department has the support it needs to carry out is mission. The Trust for Public Land rates the San Francisco Park system as the third highest ranking city park system in the nation. In addition to park users and advocates the Alliance works daily with the City on operations, maintenance and capital projects.
O’Grady says, “We have an array of MOUs that cover specific aspects of our partnership with the Recreation and Parks Department, and a set of high level strategic vision agreements with an array of local, state and federal agencies. For example, we are in partnership with them on the large Blue Greenway project – 13 miles of waterfront designated to become parks, bike commuting and a continuous route for access to the waterfront.”
They also have an ongoing partnership with the Department of Public Works (DPW) to turn leftovers from the city’s street grid – steep hillsides, dead ends, stairways, etc. – into park spaces. The Street Parks Program is a collaborative effort with DPW where neighborhood groups adopt the sites, clean them up and convert them into clean landscaped places, urban agriculture, or stairway access up a steep hillside – about 150 new sites across the city – into beautiful open spaces.
While the Alliance enjoys bringing support to new parks and park improvement initiatives, it also plays a different role in helping the city and its park partners be more accountable for park operations and maintenance. ParkScan, created by the Neighborhood Parks Council in 2003 – and now embraced by the city as a valuable management and maintenance tool – is a website that enables city residents to report issues or problems they see in city parks. It is linked to the city’s “311 network” and tied into a computer system that automatically generates work orders for the Recreation and Parks Department’s line staff.
The P3 Funding Model
There is much discussion around the country these days on the pros and cons of private-public partners for parks. O’Grady says, “That controversy is playing out in San Francisco as well.”
At about the same time that the Parks Trust and Neighborhood Parks Council were merged, city leaders decided to place a parks bond measure onto the November 2012 ballot. A couple of weeks into his job O’Grady had to start into fundraising and planning a campaign. “We put $100,000 into the measure that went to the voters last November. It was approved by a 72% margin and authorizes the city to borrow $195 million for park, open space and recreation facilities.”
The need for the new funding was critical but required voters to recognize a new paradigm in more public-private partnerships in the city. In 2008 voters passed a previous bond measure which paid for renovation of a wide array of parks, recreation centers, and club houses. When the downturn hit the city had to lay off staff. “The cuts to the Recreation and Parks Department disproportionately hit the recreation programming,” O’Grady said. On the bright side, the budget for the fiscal year that just started included a 15% increase for RPD, including funding to restore programming at several clubhouses and rec centers across the City. “It’s a big step in the right direction,” O’Grady commented.
The economic downturn which drove cuts to the city budget has forced parks managers to get creative in finding ways to generate earned income to avoid more drastic cuts in services. The strategy is one that the Department pursues. The city budget for parks is now one-third earned income, one-third from a dedicated property tax stream, and one-third from the general fund. It’s a significant shift from 6-7 years ago and not without considerable controversy.
To help fill the funding gap, the Alliance, together with its Park Partners, donors, and members, raised $13,236,621 for parks and open space last fiscal year. Its own operating budget is just over $2 million with the bulk of revenue coming from contributions and earned revenue.
Parks for the Next Seven Generations
“One of the underpinnings of the strategic plan is about supporting a social compact which is a balance of public dollars and private philanthropy. We believe that the public should be expected to pay for ongoing maintenance including bond dollars for major renovations. And private partners should focus on improvements and programming and other contributions that the city otherwise would not be able to have. The Alliance does not want to slide into being a maintenance organization,” says O’Grady.
Front and center in the new strategic plan is the Blue Greenway, which the Alliance calls the single largest re-envisioning of urban space now under way in San Francisco. The proposal is about taking the city’s eastern waterfront which fronts some of the lowest income neighborhoods in San Francisco, including Hunters Point – an EPA superfund site going through a decades-long redevelopment process to become home to 30,000 residents – and giving them access to the waterfront and access to more parks and open space. It is a 13-mile long route – a greenway with parks along the route. With $22 million from the 2008 bond issue, the Port of San Francisco has already built four new parks. There is $16 million more in bond money for new parks along the route. Hundreds of acres of shoreline and near shoreline over a couple of decades will become new parks.
“We are making progress in what is still a very challenging time,” says O’Grady. “There are lots of voices, lots going on. It is complex, and for us, an ongoing challenge of balancing priorities.”
One key lesson that the Alliance has learned, says O’Grady, “…is the value of concentrating on community engagement, because people really love their parks and are really passionate about them. Therein lays a tremendous vein of support – philanthropic as well as political as well as stewardship. Volunteerism is another great means to tapping into this – getting people to spend a day in the park to see how things work.”
A second lesson O’Grady points out is that partnerships with city agencies but also with funders, other agencies and community groups are the new way of working and will require, in some cases, a new business model for parks. The greenway project is the best example of this – with half a dozen government agencies and multiple community groups focusing on those neighborhoods. The Alliance is bringing all those groups together and pioneering a new way of accomplishing what was once the purview of the city on its own.
And the third lesson O’Grady offers: “Don’t try to pass a bond measure in your first year!”
Kathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.