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Toward a Useful Teaching Strategy: City Park Partnerships

Last month the City Parks Alliance (CPA) held a pilot workshop in a concerted effort to develop a teaching strategy for helping park professionals learn and understand partnerships and collaboration.  More than twenty participants attended the day-long event held at Augustus Hawkins Natural Park in Los Angeles, supported by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and hosted by the Los Angeles Parks Foundation.

(L t R): Jackie Carrera, Gordon Robertson, and Dale Larsen

(L to R): Jackie Carrera, Gordon Robertson, and Dale Larsen

I had the privilege of facilitating the discussion and was supported by City Parks Alliance staffers, Executive Director Catherine Nagel and Outreach & Program Manager Angie Horn, as well as a team of three experienced urban park professionals: Jackie Carrera, a recent transplant to Los Angeles after 21 years as CEO for Parks and People in Baltimore; Gordon Robertson, Director of Planning and Design for Denver Parks and Recreation; and Dale Larsen, Professor of Practice & Honors Faculty at Arizona State University and former Director of Parks & Recreation in Phoenix.  Collectively they represented more than 100 years of experience in city park partnerships!

We structured an agenda based on surveying park partners in California to find out what they wanted to learn.  Response to the survey centered on four ideas for shaping an agenda:

  • Understanding the need for partnership; why and how partners should work together
  • Getting started by scoping out responsibilities and structuring agreements
  • Working together day to day, communicating, team-building, and establishing trust
  • Building a culture of collaboration and shared vision for the long run

And so for the day-long session we shaped our workshop around these four areas.  The small size of the group meant that we could use our time for discussion, storytelling, and sharing successes and failures.  The experts in the room shared lessons and reflected on their experiences with public and private partners.   Continue reading

One More Time: Entrepreneurial Governance

In the past few weeks, I’ve heard too many stories about incremental change and bureaucratic hurdles when it comes to rethinking city park management, and am reminded again how the business labs in many of our cities have lessons for not just our business culture but our civic culture.  Entrepreneurship is about change.  Big business and bureaucracies tend to resist change, forcing entrepreneurs to start new organizations in order to pursue innovative activity – pursuing opportunity without regard to power. We can see evidence of this when we look across the parks world at the number of new park conservancies.

But getting there takes more than a capital campaign.  Public policies and a civic culture that promotes entrepreneurship play a central role not just in driving small business but in driving new models for the parks business, and the engagement of private partners.  Entrepreneurial thinking is key to revitalizing park management and park investment in a world where government can no longer pick up the whole bill.  Good public policy around innovation and entrepreneurialism can help to build a new and more thoughtful generation of civic leaders, and a new way of working that links public policy and private management to visionary giving.

In last week’s blog I talked about Boston and its focus on innovation and invention.  I also talked about Philadelphia winning the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge for its efforts to link private entrepreneurs with public policy challenges.  And this week comes the news that Baltimore is in the game too, with a more direct focus on making the link between innovation and parks.  The Greater Baltimore Tech Council – gb.tc – is using its innovation platform and angel investors to promote “hacking” its parks:

The power to make Baltimore’s parks (and the city, as a whole) sustainable, livable and vibrant lies with us. So we are calling on the citizens of Baltimore to “hack” the city’s parks. By hacking we mean citizens develop their own applications (whether they be technology-based or not) which create simple, tangible benefits for the community.

gb.tc has partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology and Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks to give Baltimoreans a real opportunity to change our urban green spaces. The goal isn’t just to better life in Baltimore, but to give citizens the chance to build real, sustainable businesses which help achieve this end.

Hack the Parks is making grants available to support the most innovative park improvement proposals. We encourage you to think small, at least to start. The funded projects are all pilots. In addition to seed money, the selected pilot projects will also be given park space or other Rec and Parks resources to test their plans, pivot, and evolve into truly viable products.

GBTCThe gb.tc effort is about understanding the link between private sector innovation and public sector innovation policy, facilitating interaction among not only the tech community but potential investors and community stakeholders who care about the public realm.  In government, control is vested at the top much more so than in almost any business. If you want an organization to become more entrepreneurial and alert (in this case, to park users), you must give a lot more control to the people who understand the parks ‘market’ and deal with park users.  Connections create innovation.

Once again our friends in Canada are thinking two steps ahead of us in looking at how to blend our public and private leadership for a more potent result.  David Wolfe, in his work looking at economic development and civic governance, talks about building collaborative leadership:

The essential criterion for success in building these new collaborative relationships is finding the right mechanisms to engage members of the community in a sustained effort to advance its economic opportunities. The recruitment of a committed, creative and collaborative leadership is the most essential element for the success of these efforts. These kinds of collaborative leaders invariably share certain characteristics:

  • They can see the opportunities;
  • They exhibit an entrepreneurial personality, in both a business and a ‘civic’ sense;
  • They are willing to cross functional, political and geographic boundaries in pursuit of their strategic goals;
  • They demand a sharing of both responsibility and results, and consequently are trusted as credible intermediaries; and
  • They are committed to and comfortable working in teams (Montana, Reamer, et al. 2001).

Right from the start, the founders of the Central Park Conservancy understood that a successful park partnership was as much about management as it was about money.

In 1976, Gilder and Soros funded a study of how Central Park could be revived, calling for a private board and modern management. The idea went nowhere; at the time, many thought the park was beyond rescue. Then they met a young landscape planner named Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, whose Central Park Task Force was likewise struggling. In 1978, newly elected Mayor Ed Koch took an interest in this handful of citizen-activists. To capitalize on their opportunity, Gilder and Rogers merged their organizations, creating the Central Park Conservancy in 1980.

“You don’t throw money at the problem,” Rogers realized. “You throw management.”

Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

The conservancy gradually took the driver’s seat in New York and has become a model for countless other efforts.  A new private partner that raises funds for parks or provides other resources won’t be nearly as successful as one who can take the reins and change business as usual.  For a private partner to provide benefits, they must have the flexibility to bring entrepreneurial ideas to the table and the authority to implement them and make change.

As cities, park departments and friends groups struggle to find a new way of working together, it is important to remember that much depends on the ability of cities to develop the organizational capacity and the civic culture for formulating and implementing new management strategies.  Some cities are trying – because they have parks that are failing or new parks that need private support to get off the ground – but others haven’t figured out that parks are part of a city’s business strategy and to be successful, must be operated in a way that ‘hacks’ the old methods and experiments relentlessly until it finds a new normal.  There is no single blueprint for how this should be done; ultimately, it involves a process of social learning for the civic leadership in each city.

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 solution

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