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The Importance of volunteers in parks, continued.

By Charlie McCabe

Last week, as part of our press release for the 2017 edition of City Park Facts, we touted a number of examples covering the growing role and importance of volunteers in parks in the 100 largest US city park systems. Given that we’re nearing the end of National Volunteer Week (Apr 23-29), we wanted to add another post in what will be an ongoing series on volunteers working in parks.


Volunteers planning bulbs on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, Boston

Today, we’ll take a quick look at how park conservancies are working with volunteers. As part of a master’s thesis in 2016, I looked at what were the best practices of organizing and managing a volunteer program. I studied nine different parks conservancies in Austin, Boston, Brooklyn and Houston. I found a number of common practices and methods used, which we’ll cover in a future set of posts.  But, like our findings on the impact of volunteer in our 100 largest US cities, I found substantial impact for these nine park conservancies.

First, it’s very important to stress that all of these organizations work in partnership with their local park agencies to achieve mutual goals. As Doreen Stoller, Executive Director of the Hermann Park Conservancy noted in our 2015 publication, Public Parks/Private Money: “the City of Houston has allowed Hermann Park Conservancy to perform many duties on its behalf. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that our work is ‘on its behalf.’”

So, what’s the impact?  I looked at five years worth of data from each of the park conservancies.  The results are impressive.

  • In 2012, 12,250 volunteers donated 44,668 hours worth $1.04M or 21.47 FTEs
  • in 2013, 16,836 volunteers donated 49,767 hours worth $1.21M or 23.9 FTEs
  • In 2014, 15,426 volunteers donated 53,688 hours worth $1.34M or 25.81 FTEs
  • In 2015, 16,098 volunteers donated 59,461 hours worth $1.55M or 28.58 FTEs
  • In 2016, 18,727 volunteers donated 67,541 hours worth $1.75M or 32.47 FTEs

Overall, during the five year period, 79,337 volunteers donated 275,125 hours worth $6.9M.

(The value of hours is calculated using data collected by Independent Sector, a non-profit that calculates the annual hourly value of donated labor by state. FTE stands for full-time equivalent or one person working fulltime, calculated as 2,080 hours a year or 40 hours per week times 52 weeks in a year.)


Tree mulching demonstration at the start of volunteer workday, Pease Park, Austin.

In future posts, we’ll get into the details of what tasks volunteers tackle, how these non-profits organize and manage their volunteer programs, how they work with park agency and park conservancy staff and a host of other topics, including the origin of volunteers in our parks.

Further, one of our efforts in the coming year at the Center for City Park Excellence will be looking at park conservancies and their continued impacts alongside parks agencies in the 100 largest cities, we working to get a more complete picture of what all non-profits working in parks contribute in terms of funds, volunteer hours and “on the ground” work.

Note: The nine park conservancies studied in my thesis were: the Austin Parks Foundation, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, the Hermann Park Conservancy, the Hill Country Conservancy (for the Violet Crown Trail, specifically) the Pease Park Conservancy, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, and the Trail Foundation.

The Center for City Park Excellence is part of The Trust for Public Land, which creates parks and protects land for people. You can contact us at ccpe@tpl.org.


7,453 Miles of Parkland Bikeways


Butler Trail at Lady Bird Lake, Austin, TX

The growing popularity of bikeways (often called hike and bike trails or linear parks) in our parks continues to climb, based on our annual surveys for City Park Facts and Parkscore. Please note that parkland bikeways don’t include bike lanes, sidewalks and other on-street or off-street portions of a city bicycle network or system.

In terms of total miles Irvine leads the pack with 324 miles, Phoenix has 310 miles, Anchorage 295 miles, Scottsdale 269 miles, Jacksonville 244 miles, and Philadelphia 241 miles.


Grand Rounds Scenic Byway System, Minneapolis

In the Per 10,000 residents column, Number one is Irvine with 13.4 miles per 10,000 residents,  Scottsdale is second with 11.6 miles per 10,000 residents.  Third is Anchorage with 9.7 miles per 10,000 residents.


Beltline Map, Atlanta

Here are a few of our favorite bikeways, among hundreds to choose from.

Learn more about City Park trends in the 2017 edition of City Park Facts, coming in April to the Trust for Public Land website. If you have questions or comments about this or other city park facts, contact us at ccpe@tpl.org. The City Parks Blog is a joint project of the City Parks Alliance and the Trust for Public Land.

Disc Golf: Steady Growth

Have you played disc golf? It shares a lot in common with [regular] golf. A great video overview is here. A wikipedia overview of Disc Golf is here. But, the best way to learn is to head out with a group of golfers and try your hand (and wrist) at it.

According to our latest surveys of the 100 largest US cities, there are 186 disc golf courses in parks, with 51 new courses built and opened since we started collecting data on disc golf in 2013.

Which city is the capital of Disc Golf? In terms of sheer numbers, Charlotte boasts 14 courses, Houston in second place with six courses and Austin and Kansas City tied for third place with five courses each.

But in terms of courses per 100,000 residents, Tulsa (7 courses) leads the way with 1.7 courses per 100,000 residents, with Durham (4 courses) at 1.6 and Charlotte (14 courses) at 1.3, tied with Lexington, KY (4 courses), also at 1.3.  Overall, there are 186 disc golf courses in the 100 largest US cities, rising from 138 in 2013 when we began surveying cities about them.

And for those who want to know more about the professional side of things, visit the Professional Disc Golf association website. They report that there are over 5,000 disc golf courses in the United States, with “most open to the public.”

Learn more about City Park trends in the 2017 edition of City Park Facts, coming in April to tpl.org (weblink: https://www.tpl.org/keywords/center-city-park-excellence)  If you have questions or comments about this or other city park facts, contact us at ccpe@tpl.org

Benches Can Pay Their Way

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the third and final installment in a series on park benches. Read the previous two posts here and here.

Benches are some of the cheapest park furnishings or landscaping items (even cheaper than trees), but the cost of purchase, installation and maintenance still adds up. Steve Schuckman, superintendent of planning, design, and facilities with the Cincinnati Park Board, says that buying and installing a practical, aesthetically pleasing, and durable bench costs between $1,500 and $2,000. In Kansas City the standard design comes to about $900. The 2002 master plan for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Commons put the cost of modest benches at $1,200 each.

One way to cover expenses is through an adopt-a-bench program. Flourishing in many cities across the U.S., sponsorships take the shape of a small memorial plaque in return for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of a bench. (Many park agencies or conservancies stipulate that the memorial lasts for either the lifetime of the bench or for a certain number of years, whichever ends first). The cost varies by city and by park, but is generally around $2,000. In Austin, eleven of the city’s parks have already reached their bench donation limit. In New York’s Central Park, the Central Park Conservancy’s program (at $10,000 per bench) has yielded benefactors for over 4,200 of the park’s more than 9,000 benches. Kate O’Brien, development associate for the Broadway Mall Association, calls the Mall’s bench sponsorship program “a really good source of revenue.” Of the 340 benches from 70th Street to 168th Street, 39 are adopted.


A plaque on a bench in Central Park. Photo credit: Flickr user gigi_nyc

Because of the popularity, some programs have had to institute rules. The Pittsburgh Park Conservancy gives wording guidelines, has a character count, and does not allow logos. “This program is a nice way to honor loved ones,” says the conservancy’s Susan Rademacher, “but if we have too many memorial benches, it may detract from the feeling that the park is a common space meant for everyone.”

For O’Brien, seeking bench sponsorships is a joy of her job. She says, “Donors always have a great story about their connection to the park. Something like, ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years and always drink my coffee on this bench.’” Benches often have an association with an important moment or a special person. There are plaques commemorating births, deaths, marriages, and everything in between, including pets. Beyond helping to fund conservancies or park maintenance, bench sponsorship programs allow people to interact with and form a special, and tangible, connection to a certain park.

As this series of posts has illustrated, benches can be both a joy and a bane for park-goers and parks departments. But it does seem to be clear that when a bench is removed, its park loses more than just a piece of furniture. Maybe Adrian Benepe, senior vice president of The Trust for Public Land and former commissioner of parks for New York City, is correct when he says, “It’s like everything else — you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Or maybe it’s more alarming, as put by Tampa Parks Director Greg Bayor: “If you start removing benches then you’re on the way to removing everything else too.”

Right-Sizing Park Stewardship

The Central Park Conservancy manages 843 acres. Prospect Park Alliance partners with the city to oversee 585 acres. And the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy stewards over 1,700 acres with its parks department. On the other hand, Sister Cities Park in Philadelphia is less than five acres, and Republic Square in Austin is less than two acres.

The big parks have large conservancies that focus on the enormity of their job. But many of the smaller downtown parks tend to work in partnership with their neighbors, much more aggressively leveraging their amenities together. In many cases, like Sister Cities Park, a small downtown park is managed not by a parks conservancy but by a Business Improvement District (BID) or a downtown association. In fact, there are a large number of parks not managed by their own conservancy but by downtown associations who have seen the value of parks – the living room of the city – in leveraging a vibrant downtown.

Downtown Missoula

Downtown Missoula

A good example of this is in Missoula, Montana where the Missoula Downtown Association (MDA) manages the riverfront-based Caras Park. In 1986 the Parks Department introduced “Out to Lunch,” a downtown weekly lunchtime festival at Caras Park, featuring musicians and today, over 20 varied food vendors. It became clear after the first year of the program that the Parks and Recreation Department was not well suited to producing large events like Out to Lunch because of limited staff resources. In response, the Missoula Downtown Association took over the program and has produced it for more than 20 years – along with currently 75 other annual events.

“We look at the park in a way that it adds to making the whole downtown successful,” says Melanie Brock, Acting Director at the MDA which began as an extension of a committee that started within the Chamber in the 1970s. They grew and became more ambitious with the success of their weekly “out to lunch” program, taking on not just the park but a whole roster of downtown issues. But the park remains central to what they do.

Caras Park was enhanced and developed by the MDA in four phases over the last 25 years. First, seating and an events ring were created; then, creation of a brick plaza area. Phase three created a formal park entrance and parking lots along the riverfront. The fourth and final phase provided restrooms and storage.

The first tent on the site was purchased from a traveling circus show in the early 1980s. The permanent Caras Park Pavilion was constructed in 1997. That structure cost $600,000 with $280,000 of that cost covered by tax increment financing. More than $300,000 was raised and borrowed by the Missoula Downtown Association to complete the project.

The Partners
Since 1997, the City of Missoula has contracted with the Missoula Downtown Association to manage and lease the facilities for both public and private events. Rental fees pay for park operations. The MDA may take the lead on the park’s management and events, in partnership with the city Parks and Recreation Department, but there are a handful of organizations that work closely on a vision for the downtown that builds on that activity center.

Caras Park

Caras Park

MDA partnered with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) to originally develop the park site and the MRA retains a seat on the Downtown Association board; they are currently in a partnership to raise money to refurbish the park. The Business Improvement District (BID), housed in the MDA offices, also keeps a seat on the MDA board, as does the Missoula Parking Commission and the Missoula Urban Transportation District. “Everybody plays together really well,” says Rod Austin, Director of Operations for the BID.

In 2009, they jointly paid for a master plan that lays out a development plan for the downtown, including the park, for the next 20 years – along with 57 businesses, individuals and organizations that contributed financially to the creation of the plan.

“Anyone can rent the facility,” says Brock. “For large events we created a Caras Park Committee run out of Parks and Recreation that includes all the key neighborhood councils.” The committee meets annually to review the events schedule – in particular the extraordinary events, events likely to attract more than a few thousand people. They work out a schedule, deal with issues like noise, go over rules and develop a plan for the year.”

Caras Park

Caras Park

“People recognize this park as a pretty dynamically run place. We work together on almost everything. There is complete synergy in our downtown. We have something unique in Missoula – how everyone works together. We’re pretty fortunate to have such a compatible team,” says Brock.

Almost all successful downtown vitality strategies require the community to make the downtown more pedestrian-friendly, give the downtown a strong sense of place and program it with activity that invites visitation every day of the week. But how to do that is the question. All plans fail without a management strategy – what one blogger in talking about smart growth implementation calls, “…the software of the process: the personal leadership role of staff, advocates and elected officials.”

Missoula takes this idea of a team approach to its best incarnation – they provide a way to integrate the park into the planning and programming of downtown housing, commercial activity, transportation and infrastructure. The park becomes one more venue – and a public one – for getting people into the city. Then they invite downtown leaders who are investing in the downtown to be part of the park’s governance and management.

This idea of integrating a public park into the fabric of downtown is not a new one. Hundreds of downtown parks and plazas can be spotted across the country. But many are littered, homes for the homeless and have long since lost their visionary beginnings. So what keeps a park from turning into a no-man’s land? Generally, a failure to provide resources and a plan for governance and management after the ribbon gets cut.

Last week the City Parks Blog provided a link to a story about plans to revive Republic Plaza in downtown Austin. “What is there now has a ‘leftover’ feeling to it; it was not designed for the intense use that the park sees today,” said Marty Stump, a project management supervisor in the parks department.

“Downtown parks are highly coveted event spaces, but they are underutilized as daily public spaces,” said Melissa Barry, arts and parks director at the Downtown Austin Alliance, which represents downtown property owners.

It sounds like Austin now has a vision for the park that involves programming it both for events and as an everyday place for residents and downtown workers. Parks advocates say they expect Republic Square to become more popular as the downtown grows with new condo, hotel and retail projects in the works. Hopefully, the  new downtown plan will make management of the park clear including who will be taking the responsibility for ensuring the outcomes in this new place-making vision?

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.