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Can Parks Do Double Duty? Philadelphia Shows How

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the fifteenth installment in a series of 20 posts.

Can a park be both a stormwater management unit and a recreation area? With proper negotiation, conversation, and careful planning, yes! However, it’s not common that goals easily jibe and that multiple benefits are received enthusiastically by every constituent. A rain garden can be beautiful, but if it replaces a soccer field, it might raise objections unless that sports venue is replaced. Philadelphia handles this problem with a Stormwater Plan Review Team, which brings together water department and parks department staff to evaluate green infrastructure projects for potential conflicts with park uses.

The city has not canceled any stormwater management projects because of recreation conflicts. However, Jessica Brooks, manager of the Green Stormwater Infrastructure program at the water department, says, “We’ve definitely moved them, made the surface portions smaller, or made them completely subsurface in order to allow for other uses to be maintained.” She notes, “We need to be very sensitive that we’re not taking out a space that is used for picnicking, sports, or other gatherings. This is often less obvious than you might think. It requires us to talk to the park users to really understand what they do and what they love.”

Cliveden spring rain 6 - credit Jessica Brooks

Terraced weirs in Philadelphia’s Cliveden Park slow water during a rainstorm. (Jessica Brooks)

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Philly Pumptrack Offers a New Twist on Cycling in Fairmount Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. In recognition of its partnerships and community engagement, the Philly Pumptrack has been named a Frontline Park.

The Pumptrack is located in historic Fairmount Park, the heart of Philadelphia’s park system.  Although it is well-loved and boasts a healthy number of visitors, the park’s design (or lack thereof) has created some issues with programming and accessibility.  Some areas have no amenities at all, and others become degraded due to misuse.  Where Fairmount wings into the West Parkside neighborhood, the area was used as an illegal dumping ground, and more than a playground would be required to attract local residents and community investment.  Continue reading

Parks: One of the Most Important Ingredients of a Successful City

(Republished from NextCity)

An audience member at the Philly Parks Future Forum last week called the panelists assembled a “dream team.” The experts represented parks agencies from Seattle, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Chicago. Presented by the City Parks Alliance, the forum wasn’t so much an event to unravel the issues that Philly parks will face specifically, but to discuss how city parks are one of the greatest assets to our country and how they are progressing nationally. Philadelphia Daily News writer Sandra Shea moderated the panel of parks and recreation officials, who shared what’s been working in their necks of the woods. Here are five important takeaways from the Forum.

1. Seattle’s New Park District Was 20 Years in the Making
Proposition 1, which called for the creation of a Seattle Park District, passed with 53 percent of the vote in August. Prop 1 did away with the need to return to voters to secure funding, permanently backing parks through property taxes. (This new source of revenue will be in addition to the $89.5 million that Seattle already receives each year from the city’s general fund.)

What turned the tide? Seattle Parks and Recreation Acting Superintendent Christopher Williams said it was Mayor Ed Murray’s outspokenness on the issue. Since city officials at Parks and Recreation don’t run for their jobs, they don’t campaign on their stances. Williams said having a public face mattered. “I can’t say enough about advocacy,” he stated.

Williams said the Seattle department knows it still answers to voters, and because of that responsibility, he suggested, parks departments everywhere should be using a strong performance management model, relying on spreadsheets and data and report cards to track success.

2. 96 Percent of San Franciscans Can Walk From Their Homes to a Park in 10 Minutes or Less
According to The Trust for Public Land, close to 10 million Americans live within a 10-minute walk to a park. According to San Francisco Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg, some 800,000 of them live in San Francisco. Ginsburg got more than a few laughs from the Forum audience when he pointed out that many of those park visitors have four legs: San Francisco’s a city of 80,000 children … and 150,000 dogs.

Of course, just having abundant park space isn’t enough. Ginsburg pointed out that as San Francisco’s population continues to grow, his department is focused on modernizing one of the oldest park systems in the U.S. by acquiring more land to create new parks. He pointed out that prioritizing long-term capital planning (thanks to former Mayor Gavin Newsom and current Mayor Ed Lee) is making that expansion possible. Ginsburg emphasized that investing in children — in their health and public safety — with parks improvements was better than paying on the “back end in emergency rooms.”  Continue reading

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.

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