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Leadership Innovation

“Sixteen years ago I was labeled as the Urban Mechanic and described as a sort of one-man ‘Mr. Fix-It’ when it came to the basics that make our city work. The nickname was overstated then, but it’s outdated now – we are all urban mechanics.”
Tom Menino, Mayor of Boston

A few weeks ago I raised the idea of business model innovation with regard to running parks.  I see much applicability in the research on business innovation for city park governance.  There is a kind of Hi-Lo way of looking at governance and running parks as suggested by Mayor Menino that links the idea of innovation – big picture and cutting edge – with mechanics, the down and dirty of everyday excellence in operations.

I’ve also been reading Governance as Leadership by Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor.  (The Pew Charitable Trust has a nice summary of the book here.)  The book is mostly about reframing the work of nonprofit boards, but I see lessons for reframing the work of P3s, too.

I think that engaging in park partnerships drives the need to focus on governance and thus the ways that the work at hand can be done better; it’s really about finding ways that the partnership, with new resources, can innovate and do the job of running parks differently.

Leadership1According to our authors, there are two methods of leading which boards follow: task and structure based, or governance based. Most practitioners in the field know that focusing only on organizational structure and management processes won’t lead you to innovate, but it’s always a safe place to begin.

An approach focused on governance means thinking about it in a way that generates real leadership and innovation.  They suggest finding a common purpose before worrying about tasks and structure by looking back on the organization’s history and success, finding clues about its culture, and discovering a common purpose which can become a better starting point for goal-setting.  In the case of parks, it’s about looking at the park’s history and culture of operation with an eye toward sharing governance and what that means and looks like.

Peter Harnik, Director of the Center for City Park Excellence is forever asking, “What’s the problem?” in an effort to sort through the myriad challenges that park managers have.  Deciding on the nature of a problem before trying to solve it makes sense.

Given a common understanding of the problem, all the park partners can start from the same place.  For example, in the case of parks, rather than cut back on services in the face of budget deficits, local governments can engage partners to transform the way parks are managed – what are the ideas, how can we innovate? A successful partnership works because the reason for it is compelling, not coercive, to both partners.  Because, our authors suggest, “…posing catalytic questions and promoting robust dialogue right where the stakes and anxieties are high…” is the place where innovation begins.

This idea hit home for me in reading about some of this year’s winners to the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge.  The Mayors Challenge was created, “to celebrate the creative problem solving and incredible innovation that is happening in city halls from coast to coast.”  The goal is to find innovation around the problems and challenges that face local governments in delivering services.  One means for this is linking issues, linking stakeholders and breaking down silos.

Leadership 2
While the overwhelming majority of philanthropic support is still issue-specific – e.g. education, health care, the environment, or the arts – the Bloomberg Philanthropies sees the first step in innovation as creating a city-wide strategy where all those issues come together.

Innovating in Philadelphia
One of this year’s winners is the Philadelphia Social Enterprise Partnership [PSEP] which provides opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to tackle traditional public sector problems such as storm water management, gun violence and education.  In March, the group’s proposal was one of five (out of 300) awarded $1 million.

Leadership 3PSEP partners include Good Company Ventures (GCV), the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (ONUM) – similar to Mayor Menino’s in Boston, the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology. According to Bloomberg staff, PSEP’s inclusion of non-government leadership was unique among Bloomberg finalists.

PSEP has three core elements: (1) reframe challenges as opportunities for innovators; (2) bring the best ideas to Philadelphia to be developed and challenged with city government at the table; and (3) create a system that allows city government to serve as the testing ground for these new solutions. Each year they work on three major urban challenges.

Here’s the premise of the project in Mayor Nutter’s words:

Historically the tendency of government was to think it had all the answers. We defined problems and we prescribed solutions. You sent us taxes; we delivered services. But current economic and political realities require government to be more focused and strategic in our investments and actions – and though there has been a certain loss of trust in government to just get stuff done – it is at the local level that we are best placed to drive innovation and earn back the trust of our citizens, restoring a sense of hope and optimism about our future.

The role of government is evolving from problem-solver to partnership-builder and, as usual, that change is being driven by city governments. Cities are incubators of innovation…pursuing progressive policies and initiatives tackling some of America’s toughest challenges. Most exciting are not just the initiatives themselves – whether aimed at violence, clean energy, or education – but the ways in which cities are developing them, leveraging the enormous creativity of citizens, entrepreneurs, and other partners to transform the ways we solve problems.

The Takeaway
Philadelphia has essentially created a space outside the government structure that allows innovative ideas to flourish and take root through collaboration and partnership. Here’s an example from the Mayor:

In order to encourage the development of innovative solutions around neighborhood improvement, we’ll bring together the Police Department, Licenses and Inspections, 311, and our community engagement program, PhillyRising, to identify assets including open data, program knowledge, environmental resources, expenditures, and insights to define critical areas of need and opportunity. We’ll pool this information into a national call for ideas, and the 10 most promising will come to Philadelphia to turn these ideas into solutions with the relevant city departments, Good Company Group, a social enterprise accelerator, and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, among others. The most viable solutions will be piloted inside city government – perhaps with Police or 311, or maybe both – creating a lab for urban innovations.

I like the idea of collaboration with a business innovator and academic and the practitioners whose job it will be to implement the new idea.  This approach has broad appeal for park advocates looking for innovative business models for running parks – everything from governance to linking to other city functions like transportation and housing on the park’s edge are critical to the park’s success.

One of the interesting aspects of this work is the discussion behind the timing of setting goals. Innovation gurus say hold off on committing to goals too fast.  Most of us like to believe that ‘thinking’ has to precede ‘doing’ but goals frequently emerge from action and can inform what the goals should be – I call my version of this the “ready, shoot, aim” approach.  Once a common understanding of the challenge between park partners is found, the next step is to experiment relentlessly to try out new ideas.  Testing ideas before committing to them can help refine them.

This makes a great deal of sense when you look back at all the park conservancies who didn’t start with contracts with their city partners, or MOUs, or even letters of agreement in some cases.  They just agreed on what needed to be done and began to tackle the job, learning in the process. They assumed that their actions would inform a bigger, longer term set of goals as well as a way of working with each that amplified their strengths.  One of the paths to innovation is through partners using their partnership to observe and to ask provocative questions and to find successful ways to address long term issues, not just the tasks at hand.

KBlahaKathy 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

Frontline Park for May: Hunting Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Community Garden Dedication

This 87-acre North Philadelphia park is located in one of the city’s most challenged areas. In the 1940s and 50s, the park was a magnet for activity and a destination for tourists, boasting a popular carousel, ball fields, playgrounds, and John Philip Sousa’s music wafting from the bandstand. As the neighborhood lost population and the landscape deteriorated, it became a place that was to be avoided at all costs—and had come to represent the worst of urban decay. Once a space that was the neighborhood’s biggest liability, today Hunting Park is becoming a source of community pride again and it is setting a new standard for Philadelphia’s 10,200 acre urban park system.

The transformation has been made possible through the Hunting Park Revitalization Project, an initiative led by the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. The Hunting Park Revitalization Project aims to create a safe and well-maintained park space that will provide a place for healthy recreation for children and families, bring neighbors together and serve as a catalyst for larger neighborhood renewal. To date, the Fairmount Park Conservancy has raised $4 million for capital improvements in the park and Phase One of the project is nearly complete.  Site furnishings in the park were manufactured by DuMor Site Furnishings.

Ryan Howard with the Hunting Park Indians

Through Phase One of the Hunting Park Revitalization Project, the Fairmount Park Conservancy managed the creation of a new community garden, farmers’ market, two playgrounds and a brand new baseball field. Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and his Family Foundation helped kick off the park’s renovations with a grant to rebuild the baseball field. Currently, the Fairmount Park Conservancy is managing the reconstruction of the park’s football field and the installation of new lighting around the park’s loop road. The success of the Hunting Park Revitalization Project to-date is due to the leadership of the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and key partnerships with the park’s civic group Hunting Park United, Philadelphia city officials, national sports figures and community members.

Hunting Park is being featured on CPA’s website, www.cityparksalliance.org, during the month of May.

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

Learning to Share: Designing Schoolyards for More Than Just Recess

A sixth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland by sharing schoolyards with their parks departments.

Schoolyards are large, flat, centrally located open spaces with a mandate to serve the recreational needs of schoolchildren. Great schoolyards–the rare ones that have healthy grass, big trees, a playground, and sports equipment–seem a lot like parks. But they aren’t. For one thing, most have fences and locks. For another, they are closed to the general public. Schoolyards are parks for only a limited constituency. But they have terrific potential to be more than that. Even less-than-great schoolyards (those that are merely expanses of asphalt with few amenities) represent sizable opportunities in key locations. To many observers, schoolyards seem the best, most obvious source of park-like land to supplement the park systems of overcrowded cities. And they are–even if upgrading them into schoolyard parks is more difficult than it might seem.

“Schoolyard park” in this context means a space reserved for schoolchildren during school hours and used by the whole community at other times. In a few cities–New York, Chicago, and Phoenix–schoolyard parks are run cooperatively by the board of education and the parks department. In others, the parks department has no formal role at all.

The pockmarked and cracked asphalt lot before it was developed into I.S. 62-The Ditmas School playground in Brooklyn, NY. Credit: Julieth Rivera.

Most schoolyards originally had grass and trees. But without proper design, construction, and maintenance, grass can’t survive daily trampling by hundreds of little feet. And small trees can’t handle that much swinging and climbing without becoming spindly skeletons. After a few years of frustration with dust, mud, and dead trees, school principals begin to think that laying down asphalt might be a superior solution (and barely any worse ecologically). It’s also a lot easier to sweep up broken glass from asphalt than from dirt and weeds. Then, this being America, the expanse of asphalt starts to attract automobiles; in no time the former school park has a set of parallel white lines and a row of oil stains. Keeping a schoolyard green, clean, car-free, and environmentally productive can be more difficult than operating a regular neighborhood park.

Maintenance can also be thorny. Most school districts are either unable or unwilling to keep schoolyards up to the standards that parks require. After all, money spent on horticulture for the community-at-large is money not spent on the education of children. But school districts also generally balk at turning the maintenance responsibility over to the park department. They worry about losing control over their children’s space.

There are successful programs to refurbish school lands in both Boston (the Boston Schoolyard Initiative) and Denver (Learning Landscapes). Both programs are fully under the direction and control of the school system with no involvement of the park department. The schoolyards are open to the general community except during school hours; they are all fenced. Converting each former space in Denver from what one administrator called “scorched earth that resembled a prison yard” into an irrigated and drained Learning Landscape with a field, two play structures, a hard-surface court and a “community gateway” (an archway that invites the public both symbolically and physically) costs about $450,000. Boston schoolyards, which are considerably smaller, cost about $320,000 each for a new drainage system, plantings, hard surface area, play equipment, fences, decorative art, and an “outdoor classroom” with a micro-meadow, -woodland, and -garden.

As with so many other innovative ideas about the use of urban space, conflicts have arisen about cars. At one Boston site, a bitter battle broke out when some parents proposed converting a school parking lot into a soccer field; ultimately the soccer moms raised $200,000 in private funds and got their way.

Another successful program is Spark (School Park Program) in Houston, where the facilities are called Spark Parks. The program is run by a nonprofit in close cooperation with the mayor’s office. It works only with Houston-area school boards, not with any park department, but it has a strict requirement that the public must have access to the Spark parks after school hours and on weekends. The average Spark park costs between $75,000 and $100,000 and consists of modular play equipment, picnic tables, benches, an outdoor classroom (concrete steps and stage), a butterfly garden, a paved or crushed granite trail, and native trees. Founded in 1983, Spark created 203 parks in its first 25 years. Since 1990 the Spark program has put special emphasis on artwork, often murals or mosaics that the children help with. “It has become extremely popular,” said Spark Director Kathleen Ownby. “We’ve become one of the largest providers of outdoor art in the Houston area.”

The primary users of schoolyards are schoolchildren whose needs predominate. Because of the children, schoolyards are generally locked during school hours. While theoretically a minor issue, locks can cause unending problems, particularly if there is no park attendant or custodian on the premises. The central issue is: Who’s in charge? If the school system, the grounds are likely to be more tightly monitored but not as well maintained. If the park department controls and if the schoolyard is truly open as a neighborhood space, upkeep may be better but oversight of the children might be slightly compromised–there have been complaints of young early-morning users sometimes finding drug and sex paraphernalia in school parks that were open to the community the night before. (Others claim that the increased community use makes them safer than if they are locked.)

Many joint-use agreements break down over what seems to be an issue of legal liability but in fact is a smokescreen for more subjective factors of personality, power, and control. In Houston, the liability issue was resolved when the state of Texas agreed to indemnify schools and cities from certain incidents that occur on public grounds (aside from those due to inadequate maintenance). But in Philadelphia agreement over liability was never reached because there was no higher authority to force deadlocked negotiations to continue. (Until 2009, neither the Board of Education nor the Fairmount Park Commission was under the control of the mayor.) Creating a multiagency urban schoolyard park program succeeds more frequently when all the agencies are under the control of the mayor.

Chicago and New York are among the few cities where, because of mayoral interest, a partnership operates successfully between the board of education and the department of parks. In Chicago, in 1996, Mayor Richard M. Daley set an ambitious goal of converting 100 asphalt schoolyards into small parks. Called the Campus Park Program, it included playgrounds, baseball fields, basketball and tennis courts, and running tracks on a total of 150 acres. It was completed in four years at a cost of $43 million–$20 million each from the school system and the city, plus $3 million from the park district. Design was handled by the park district, construction by the Public Buildings Commission, and the process included community organizations. Ongoing maintenance is handled by the school district with as-needed assistance from the park district for larger properties.

The colorful new school and community playground at I.S. 62-The Ditmas School on opening day in Brooklyn, NY. Credit: Julieth Rivera.

New York City has taken the concept the furthest. There, with the blessing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, The Trust for Public Land entered into a partnership with the Department of Education, the Department of Parks and Recreation and private funders (including MetLife, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation) to convert scores of decrepit and uninviting schoolyards into showcase parks. The program is simple in concept, complex in practice. The school recreation grounds are owned by the Department of Education, but the renovation work is overseen by the Department of Parks and TPL. Many decisions are made by the principal, the parent-teacher association, and the community. Proposals can be killed by teachers who don’t want to lose parking spaces, by custodians who don’t want to handle park maintenance, or by communities that don’t want kids out late playing basketball.

“This program is community-run,” says Mary Alice Lee, director of TPL’s New York City Playground Program. While all properties are fenced and have locks, in some places it’s the school custodial staff that has the only key, while in others it’s held by the neighborhood sponsoring organization or a block association. A few of the parks are left permanently unlocked. Also, each community sets its own hours. Most common is a schedule of 8 a.m. to dusk seven days a week except when school is in session. In some tougher neighborhoods the community wants the park closed earlier; the most restrictive schedule is 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, and closed on Sundays.

Designing the space itself is a delicate balancing act that can take up to three months. The children themselves are the lead designers, responding to a set of questions and opportunities posed by TPL, but of course there are a bevy of realities that also affect decisions, including liability, equipment breakability, horticultural survivability, cost, and life lessons from previous play-parks. The children learn how to innovate, compromise, and reach a consensus when their initial ideas turn out to be too expensive or require too much space.

“Because of the kids,” says Lee, “we’ve created murals and mosaics, a hair-braiding area, a jump-rope zone, planting gardens, performance stages, outdoor classrooms, rain gardens, and bowling lanes–as well as the usual soccer fields, running tracks, basketball and tennis courts, and play equipment.”

Maintenance is the responsibility of the school custodial staff. Often they turn down a particular piece of equipment; in some cases they have nixed the playground entirely. As for natural grass, it has proven impossible to maintain under intense usage, and TPL now uses only artificial turf for the play-parks’ ballfields. Houston’s Spark program, in contrast, forbids artificial turf and uses only natural grass.

Turning Redfields to Greenfields in Philadelphia and Beyond

This post is a follow-up to our previous entry about Philadelphia’s plan to turn 500 acres of underused land into city parks by 2015.

When a single good-sized maple tree can add over $7,000 to a home’s sale value, according to a study in Portland, Oregon, it’s not difficult to imagine the effect of turning large swaths of derelict urban land into parks, gardens, and playgrounds. Private properties in financial distress, or “redfields,” are the focus of a number of cities, such as Philadelphia, that are developing creative re-utilization strategies for underused land.

Increased property values are expected to be one of the most profound impacts of the Green 2015 initiative; the report states that vacant properties can reduce adjacent home values by 6-20%, adding up to a total of $3.6 billion in lost household wealth across the city.

Parks can significantly increase nearby property values, as evidenced in the real estate that surrounds Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.

Well-tended parks could not only eliminate this negative effect, but also significantly improve the value of nearby residences. The Center for City Park Excellence has calculated that Philadelphia’s 10,000 acre park system is responsible for adding $220 million to the assessed value of nearby homes. Though the study only included parks larger than one acre, it is known that even small green spaces can influence property values. 

As part of its Green City Blue Lake initiative, Cleveland began the ReImagining a Greater Cleveland program in 2008, which is focused largely on promoting urban agriculture and green infrastructure. Cleveland has 20,000 vacant lots, 5,000 of which are held in a land bank. With funds from the Surdna Foundation, Neighborhood Progress, Inc., and Cleveland’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, 56 community groups have started pilot projects which the city will examine to develop best practices moving forwards.

Residents of Baltimore have undertaken many self-motivated conversions of city-owned vacant land.  Community gardens, pocket parks, and horseshoe courts, often marked with handmade signs, have sprouted up in unused lots. When the city recently announced efforts to accelerate the sale of 14,000 of its vacant lots, a group called Baltimore Green Space responded by enlisting residents to help catalog the vacant properties which they had converted, which the city plans to use to help preserve up to 300 green spaces.

Miami-Dade County’s redfields to greenfields plan, centered on the creation of transit-oriented parks alongside the Metrorail line and Miami River greenways, emphasizes job creation as a primary benefit. The construction industry (hit hard by the same recession responsible for the glut of abandoned properties in the region) could stand to gain over 14,000 jobs per year over five years, reports the City Parks Alliance.

The process of cleaning up vacant sites can be green and economical, too. The Dirt (ASLA blog) featured an article recently detailing how abandoned brownfield sites can be cleaned up with a process called phytoremediation, in which plants absorb toxins into their tissue. Some plants eliminate the toxins entirely, while others have to be removed as hazardous waste. In any case, the process, used by Cleveland in some of its pilot projects, can be 90% cheaper than traditional methods while providing the added bonus of improved air quality and stormwater retention.

Cities pursuing redfield to greenfield strategies are varied in terms of geography and economic history, but their ethos, summed up nicely by ReImagining a Greater Cleveland, is the same:

A city’s weakness is only as weak as their lack of ability to see potential in the opportunity any ‘crisis’ affords.

500 Acres: Philadelphia’s Park Plan

“What’s your park?”

When the City of Philadelphia asked its residents that simple question, they found that 1 in 8 residents – 200,000 people – couldn’t come up with an answer. Why? Because there isn’t a city park within a 10-minute walk of where they live.

Green2015

Philadelphia is understandably proud of its 4,000-acre Fairmount Park, but much of the city’s population lacks access to neighborhood green spaces which provide recreation space, manage stormwater, and raise property values.  The city’s response is a plan called Green2015. It aims to turn 500 acres of vacant and underused land into parks, which would make the distribution of parkland far more equitable and provide manifold financial and environmental benefits. 

Though privately owned vacant rowhouse lots cover 5 percent of the city’s land area, the plan focuses on tapping into 2,400 acres of available public land, over half of which is schoolyards. Park development will be targeted towards park-poor areas with high populations of children, seniors, and low-income households.

The report notes that the new green spaces won’t necessarily resemble traditional city parks. For example, many of the parks will be made by adding trees, running tracks, and small lawns to asphalt-covered recreation centers and school playgrounds. Schoolyards represent a great resource: there are over 400 acres of schoolyards supporting a population of 36,000 students in park-poor areas of the city. It is calculated that every acre of greened schoolyard provides 260 residents with park access.

The city will achieve this goal without any new taxes in part by relying on cooperation from foundations and community organizations. The report highlights an initiative in Detroit as a model for increasing tree cover in the city while also putting vacant lots to productive use. A group called The Greening of Detroit runs a program which uses vacant lots as urban tree farms (a single acre, if fully devoted to growing, can yield up to 1,400 trees). The trees are tended for 3-5 years, and then transplanted into the community.

A secondary priority of the city is better stormwater management, in part because the Water Department can provide funds for park development through its Green City, Clean Waters program. A greened city acre can prevent 900,000 gallons of water from entering the sewer system each year.

In addition to these recreational and environmental benefits, Philadelphia sees significant economic value in this initiative. In a later post, we’ll expand on some of the other effects that Green2015 could have on Philadelphia’s property values. We’ll also highlight some creative land re-utilization strategies employed by other cities burdened with large quantities of vacant land.

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