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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.


The Collaborative Advantage

Most stakeholders in private public partnerships for parks agree that a good relationship – based on trust, competence and a shared vision – is the foundation for good collaboration toward realizing shared goals. The key part of collaboration is that it requires a close look at the behavior and strengths of both partners – generally through sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. The collaboration comes in when the experience of both partners can be leveraged, combined, and capitalized to enable a stronger project or program effort.

The park partnerships that are successful make it look easy. But collaboration requires good leadership to work. Recently, I caught up with Tupper Thomas, former President of the Prospect Park Alliance and Administrator of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Meg Cheever, current President and CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, to ask them about collaboration and its role in making park partnerships work. This blog is part 1 of 2 which describes our conversations.

The Prospect Park Alliance began its work in the late 1980s. The Pittsburgh Park Conservancy came later, beginning its work in 1998, building on the work of the Alliance and others who had broken ground on a new model of governance for parks. Both organizations remain hugely successful and influential and offer lessons for what works.

The Prospect Park Alliance

In partnership with the City of New York and the community, the Prospect Park Alliance restores, develops, and operates Prospect Park for the enjoyment of all by caring for the natural environment, preserving historic design, and serving the public through facilities and programs.

The Prospect Park Alliance was formed in 1987 to restore the park after years of budget cuts and a deterioration of both its natural areas and usage. The goal of the Alliance was to augment the park’s basic operating budget with private funds to help carry out capital projects and community programs. Its mission statement from the go-get made it clear that the goal of the organization was to operate the park in partnership with the parks department.



The Alliance, and the huge number of donors and supporters that it has cultivated, has not only been active in restoring Prospect Park’s physical well-being, transforming it into an important cultural institution and increasing usage of the park by 300% – it has become one of the vanguard partnerships that many new organizations look to when setting up their own park partnerships.

Tupper Thomas was hired by the city in 1980 with the assumption she would work to create the Alliance. Although the Alliance was ready to go by 1985, the mayor held up the process because he was concerned it would be too powerful in Brooklyn. By 1987, leadership had convinced the mayor to support it and announced the formation of Prospect Park Alliance with Tupper Thomas as both the park administrator and the head of the conservancy.

The Alliance is the partnership between the private sector and the City of New York that was integrated under Tupper’s leadership as the Prospect Park Administrator (salary paid by city) and the President of the Conservancy – one leader, two hats.

The Alliance board does not make policy regarding park rules, operations, etc. That is the Parks Department’s responsibility. The city and Alliance divide park operations 50/50 – a percentage that has taken a while to get to. The parks department provides the majority of basic services; the Alliance does additional work such as arboriculture, providing zone managers and a natural resources crew.



Tupper describes the beginning of the partnership:

“The city would put up some capital dollars, lead a public review of the project, do the design work and then we would find the remaining capital funds to get the restoration complete. We focused our efforts on raising money for maintenance and some restoration, providing long term maintenance for the large city funded capital projects.  And later, took over the programming. In the case of the woodlands restoration, twelve million dollars went into the project which took nearly 10 years. But then the Alliance committed raising much more money to maintain the forest and the natural area, for programming and to provide improved use of the space – not a capital budget but augmenting the maintenance budget.”

According to Tupper, the relationship with the city is all about “…equal power and comfort with the structure. That’s why it’s been quite successful. Having a hand in both camps wasn’t easy but it works well for the public.”

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

In early 1997, Meg Cheever left her job as publisher of Pittsburgh Magazine to lead a start-up venture to restore the city’s parks. In 1998, the Parks Conservancy entered into a public-private partnership with the city of Pittsburgh, working together to restore the city’s four regional parks: Frick, Highland, Riverview and Schenley. Since then, the Parks Conservancy has raised more than $60 million toward park improvements, and has recently expanded into other city parks as time and resources permit. Their mission includes restoring and supporting the whole park system in Pittsburgh:

Our mission is to improve quality of life for the people of Pittsburgh by restoring the park system to excellence in partnership with the City. Our vision is wide appreciation and enjoyment of a sustainable park system whose landscapes, facilities and programming set world standards of excellence.

Pittsburgh Parks

Pittsburgh Parks

“We started off with a goal to raise money and help with capital projects. Pretty soon after that we realized that maintenance was important and we probably needed to get involved with that, too,” recalls Meg.

But the context in Pittsburgh for a public private partnership was much different than in New York or other places. Thirty-five years ago, the bottom fell out of their economy. Following the 1981–1982 recession, the mills laid off 150,000 workers. The steel mills began to shut down and cause a ripple effect, as railroads, mines, and other factories across the region lost business and closed. Despite the economic turmoil, civic improvements continued as many sought to revitalize the city using historic preservation funded with private as well as public dollars.

Prior to the recession, Pittsburgh’s status as an industrial and banking center gave the city and the region a number of internationally-regarded museums, parks, libraries and cultural institutions. The people of Pittsburgh had come to expect quality in their public places. “There’s a different mindset in Pittsburgh. People in the city are used to government only being able to do so much. And people care about the parks and less about who does it.”

Meg says that the Conservancy took inspiration from Prospect Park and Tupper’s goal of blending the workforce of the city with the nonprofit under one mantra: “We work for the park.” In both cases, the two leaders agreed that the people who came to work in their parks were there because they loved the parks. The team approach built on the shared vision of what the parks could be.

Getting Started

In Prospect Park, teams of City and Alliance staff were combined from the start. The organization chart showed the Parks Commissioner and the Alliance Board Chair at the top and displayed shared leadership all the way down. According to Tupper, “We integrated the staff of both organizations who worked in the park. New hires came with money from either organization depending on who had it. Everybody worked as one team.”

In recalling the early years of building a collaborative partnership Tupper says, “In the beginning there were issues. We went through lots of team-building to get people working with each other better. We put people in each other’s offices. Those who worked there really loved the park – they all had that in common. And city people began to see how the private side could help with getting resources.”

In Pittsburgh, the Conservancy’s contract with the City was, and is, deceptively simple. The real work of defining how the partnership works is in the detail of the separate agreements that get negotiated for every project they work on together. Based on those more detailed work plans the city and Conservancy team meet at least on a quarterly basis for oversight meetings.

“In Schenley Plaza for example,” Meg says, “there is one key person from the city who knows what they need to be doing and he works with us. His work and ours is outlined in the lease for the plaza. If there is something unusual that comes up, we discuss it. The project agreement works pretty well. The same is true for Mellon Square – there is a lengthy agreement that spells out a protocol.”

Schenley Plaza

Schenley Plaza

Both leaders created an environment where the focus was on the park. “Lots of city staff wanted to stay in Prospect Park. The culture kept people because they wanted to be there.”

Recently, a new contract was signed between the Prospect Park Alliance and the City of New York. It basically says they are a partner; they can raise money, do events and pretty much do what both parties had been doing for the last 26 years – it just institutionalizes the partnership and roles they have played over all these years.
The same is true in Pittsburgh, where a new contract was also recently signed. It’s still a simple document that outlines the basic framework of a working relationship with the same process of negotiating a project agreement for each capital project that they do.

After 26 years in New York and 15 years in Pittsburgh, both partnerships were strong enough to leave the basic tenets of their contracts the same. So, what has changed? I’ll report on Part 2 of my interviews with Tupper Thomas and Meg Cheever next week.

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.

Prospect Park and City Park Selected as “Frontline Parks”

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes two “Frontline Parks” 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.

Parks are some of the most valuable assets a city can hold. Parks connect people to people. As such, they play a vital role in community building. Neighborhood-scale parks often serve as “third-places,” familiar locations where residents seek community with neighbors at the playground or dog park. Large parks often serve as the centers of their cities, reflecting community identity or brand through design and programming.

It is the enormity of this influence that demands investment to be sure that parks look good and function well, because a bad park can drag down a neighborhood, just as a good one can revitalize it.

The two parks featured last month have a long history of creating and sustaining community. By viewing their roles broadly as centers of community, they have stepped beyond “parks and recreation” and become vital civic places.

Prospect Park, New York.

Prospect Park

Prospect Park is a 585-acre urban oasis and boasts a stunning array of natural features, including Brooklyn’s only forest, shaded hillsides, beautiful waterfalls, and rolling meadows. The Park is home to a hand-carved carousel, the nation’s first urban Audubon Center, and a watercourse that can be explored by pedal boat or a turn-of-the-century style electric boat, the Independence. This historic urban space hosts activities year round, from ice skating and sledding in winter to team sports like football and soccer in the summer. The Park also has designated trails for horseback riding, seven playgrounds and a zoo.

Planning for the Future

Everything is operated by a partnership between the Prospect Park Alliance, the City of New York’s Parks and Recreation Department, and the community. This partnership has been instrumental in restoring the forest and lakeside, as well as offering a vast array of programming, historic preservation, and development. In order to ensure that the park will be loved long-term, Prospect Park is partnering with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the New York City Department of Education to assist the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment prepare the next generation of stewards.

For more information about Prospect Park, please visit www.prospectpark.org.

City Park, New Orleans.

City Park

New Orleans’ City Park, at 1,300 acres, is one of the largest urban parks in the United States. Each year, more than ten million visitors enjoy strolling beneath its 800 year-old live oaks, wandering through the Botanical Garden, visiting the New Orleans Museum of art, riding the carousel, picnicking, or fishing on the bayou. City Park is rich in New Orleans history. The original park, since enlarged, was the site of the Allard sugar plantation. During the Great Depression, it served as a key WPA investment-job-creation site, where workers dug more than 10 miles of lagoons by hand.  Site furnishings in City Park were manufactured by DuMor, Inc.

Restoring a Park and a Community

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused billions of dollars in property damage throughout New Orleans, including City Park. 95% of the park flooded after the levees failed, resulting in thousands of felled trees and hundreds of damaged buildings. After the floodwaters retreated, it was left with $43 million in damage and had to reduce staff by 90%. These challenges have made the park’s recovery all the more remarkable; to date, $83 million in funds have been raised and a force of 35,000 volunteers have worked countless hours to restore and improve City Park.

For more information about City Park, please visit www.neworleanscitypark.com.

Frontline Parks is generously supported by DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

Former Brownfield Becomes a Park with Music to Senator’s Ears

Concert in East River State Park, Brooklyn

The New York Times had an nice story over the weekend about Senator Chuck Schumer’s interest in music in a Brooklyn park. The Senator has fervently supported (and attended) the indie-music series popular among many of the city’s younger crowd in East River State Park. Interestingly, the part of this park home to the concerts was a brownfield only a few years ago, that the Trust for Public Land helped turn into this great riverfront venue.

Here’s a bit of history. The six-acre site was home to the Eastern District Terminal, a major rail-to-barge shipping facility until the middle of the 20th century and  abandoned for decades after shipping moved to the west side of New York Harbor. In the 1990s, a  waste transfer station was proposed for the property — a plan that the community organized successfully to oppose. With the support of local and state politicians, TPL negotiated to acquire the property. After the site was found to have soil contamination, remediation measures were taken and the property conveyed to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.  The parcel is now the core of a seven-block park along the waterfront in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, one of the hottest areas to live in the city.

The best areas for public land in many older industrial cities have in the past been taken by these industrial uses. For other cities looking to revive their once industrial waterfronts, parks are a great way to turn eyesores into assets.

Brooklyn Kids Take Learning to the Park

We’ve mentioned the National Wildlife Federaton’s Green Hour before. An initiative in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Audubon Center is effectively incorporating this into school curriculum through a program that gets local students out of the indoor classroom and into the big, outdoor classroom of Prospect Park. Early results suggest the program is a success, as students’ grades have already increased in their science courses, according staff at Prospect Park. The Mother Nature Blog writes about the effort:

One such program is Science for All, an environmental science outreach program for elementary school children in grades 2-5. It’s held in Brooklyn, New York’s Prospect Park Audubon Center. Teacher naturalists at the center facilitate program activities for each students, focusing on one of three topic areas: pond life, forests and birds (the current year’s program is called “Bonkers for Birds”). The program stresses hands-on learning activities, utilizing the interactive exhibits of the Audubon Center and the forest, water features and varied natural settings of 585-acre Prospect Park.

The Audobon Center also offers daily nature crafts and classess (such as introductory birdwatching) each day that are free and open to the public. It’s an amazing facility that brings nature into the lives of kids who might not normally be exposed to it.

More information can be found through the Prospect Park Alliance and its Audubon Center (a story that is itelf worth telling about the innovative revitalization of the historic Boathouse in the park).