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Greater and Greener: A Victory Lap in San Francisco’s Parks

GGPost1It was a kind of Bay Area parks ‘lovefest’ that evoked images of another set of park lovers from the 1960s. But this time the peace loving vibe was coming from civic leaders and park professionals attending  City Parks Alliance’s international urban parks conference, Greater and Greener: Innovative Parks, Vibrant Cities, a few weeks ago in sunny San Francisco – a city with more public open space than any metro area in the country.

One thousand global park leaders, city planning and design professionals, and urban park advocates from more than 200 cities and 17 countries shared stories, photographs, lessons, data and some good humor about how parks change and enhance our urban quality of life.

GGPost2The diversity of participants made for a vibrant and robust conversation about parks and their link to just about everything in our lives that has value – health, recreation, learning, clean water, play, education, economic development, social cohesion, urban resilience, and on and on. By making parks broadly relevant, the conference attracted and engaged leaders from health, science, technology, and other fields to collectively re-imagine parks in a new context of economic, environmental and social opportunities.

In addition to the 150 speakers leading workshop sessions inside classrooms, the conference also offered more than 80 expert-led tours of parks, mobile workshops and special events that featured San Francisco’s beautifully groomed parks and community facilities.

At the start of each day we heard from inspirational speakers that set the tone for the conference with humor, insight and new knowledge. Reverend Norman Fong, Executive Director for the Chinatown Community Development Center, made us laugh out loud with his personal experiences of greening the city’s neighborhood parks and alleys; Dr. Deborah Cohen from the RAND Corporation surprised us with the latest research on parks and health; Zynga founder and chairman Mark Pincus showed us that nature and technology in parks go together like…a horse and carriage in Central Park? And, a comment on Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom’s rising star that was made during his introduction had us dreaming about a national leader who would make city parks a priority.

One team of plenary speakers wowed us with innovations in resilience using green infrastructure in parks and another group, masterfully led by Benjamin de la Peña from one of the conference sponsors, Knight Foundation, charmed us with insights on the value of park designs that embrace community process and unconventional thinking.

Woven through all the workshop tracks was my favorite subject – park partnerships. I had the pleasure of moderating an expert panel on partnerships and capital campaigns with Caroline Cunningham from the Trust for the National Mall, Chris Nolan from Central Park Conservancy and Greg Moore from Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

City Parks Alliance’s 2008 conference in Pittsburgh was the first year that the organization actively reached out to attendees from other countries. This year, international participants played a much larger role at the conference, capturing seats at many of the plenary and workshop presentations and sharing their innovations from afar, such as David Escobar’s presentation on Medellín’s library parks and Nico Tillie’s resilience lessons using green infrastructure in Rotterdam.

UrbanTrek1At the root of all these terrific discussions is the simple fact that everyone loves parks but no one wants to pay for them. The good news is that even though most of us know that parks and green spaces can have a net positive effect in cities, the conference sessions were more sophisticated in their approach to measuring that benefit, building support, raising money and raising consciousness to make parks a priority.

Ending on a high note, the folks from Minneapolis and Saint Paul – where CPA and a local host team are already hard at work getting ready for the next conference – played a video showing their hometown parks to attract us all to the Twin Cities in 2017. Given what we saw and heard in San Francisco, I don’t think there will be much arm-twisting needed. I know all of us from Miami will be there!

Greater & Greener 2017 from City Parks Alliance on Vimeo.

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.

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