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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.


Volunteers Bring a Garden Back to Bloom

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 unique approach to partnerships and volunteer engagement, San Jose Municipal Rose Garden in San Jose, CA has been named a Frontline Park.

“To have the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden selected as a Frontline Park by the City Parks Alliance is a great honor for the City, and countless volunteers,” said Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio.  “This model of community partnership can be adopted by other cities to leverage their resources as a benefit for all.”

“We selected San Jose Municipal Rose Garden as a Frontline Park because it exemplifies the power of urban parks to build community and make our cities sustainable and vibrant,” said Catherine Nagel, Executive Director, City Parks Alliance. “We hope that by shining the spotlight on San Jose Municipal Rose Garden, we can raise awareness about the ways investment in our nation’s urban parks pays off.”
Continue reading

Seizing the Day with Parke Diem

By Matthew Shulman

In a single weekend, how many people could you rally to restore your city’s parks?

parkediem1How about 1,400?

That’s what the Portland Parks Foundation recently accomplished through Parke Diem, the largest citywide parks volunteer effort in Portland history. Carpe Diem, a Latin phrase coined in 23 B.C, literally translates to “seize the day.” “Parke Diem” plays homage to this historic aphorism by challenging Portland residents to go outdoors—in rain or shine—and show support for the city’s many beloved parks. For two days in October 2013, Portlanders of all ages logged an amazing 4,600 hours cleaning, repairing, and planting vegetation in 18 developed parks, 14 natural areas, 4 arboretums, 33 community gardens, and a recreation center.

Nick Hardigg, Executive Director of the Portland Parks Foundation, explained how “there were a lot of networks that were doing a lot of good stuff” for Portland’s parks. In an effort to merge these networks, the City, Forest Park Conservancy, No Ivy League and other park advocacy organizations worked to create a fun event dedicated to volunteerism. The Portland Parks Foundation spent approximately $20,000 worth of staff time to organize Parke Diem, with free summer concerts, outdoor film festivals and raffles providing many opportunities to garner support. “Not a single person said that they wouldn’t find it fun,” he explained. “There was a lot of energy—people wanted to come together and celebrate!” Continue reading

Creating and Financing Infill Parks in the Bay Area: Part III

The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence performed a study for the Association of Bay Area Governments, one component of which was identifying examples of how recently completed infill parks were financed. We will be publishing each of the four case studies (see the first here and the second here), with Oakland’s remarkable FROG Park as our third case study.


The city of Oakland has an impressive amount of parkland. In fact, of the nation’s densely populated cities, it has the most parkland per resident. But the land is unequally distributed: the hills are green but the more populous portions of the city are lacking. This fact was the impetus for the formation of the Friends of the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt (FROG), which began an effort to build a community park in the Rockridge neighborhood in 1997.  The story of FROG Park is a paragon of community initiative and drive.

The first effort to create a park failed. When a Department of Motor Vehicles licensing facility underwent renovation, green space advocates suggested converting half its parking lot into a park to mitigate the development impact. Other neighbors, however, protested, fearing the loss of parking, and the FROG proposal was rejected. Though unsuccessful, the group remained determined to find a space for a park, and began researching other nearby sites. They soon discovered an area that combined an underused basketball court and dog park with fenced-off land owned by the Alameda County Flood Control District.

The FROG Park playground during construction by community volunteers. Photo credit: Theresa Nelson.

The site was complicated, both in shape – it is long and narrow, and passed over by a major highway – and in ownership. But it also offered tremendous potential, with a creek and an already-existing 120-foot-long mural under the highway. The idea for a park gained additional traction when two FROG volunteers came up with a master plan inspired by the idea of building playgrounds – one for toddlers and one for older kids – to serve as anchors on either end of a linear park.

To secure a lease on the site from the city, FROG was required first to deal with a number of liability issues, negotiating with CalTrans for permission to improve the site below California 24, and assuring unfettered passage for the Alameda County Flood Control District to service the creek and its utility area.

By early 2000, it became clear that FROG would be able to secure the cobbled-together park site, and fundraising began in earnest.  By working with Oakland Vice Mayor Jane Brunner, FROG positioned itself to legally receive funding from city bond measures. (Later, Brunner also provided her entire $125,000 annual discretionary allotment to the park as a challenge grant.) Oakland’s Measure DD (the Trust for Clean Water and Safe Parks) provided $140,000. California Proposition 12 (the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000) supplied $493,000. They also manage to snag $60,000 for a tot lot under Measure I (the Oakland General Obligation Bonds for Parks) — and then, with the help of Friends of Oakland Parks, an amazing additional $400,000 of interest money on unspent Measure I funds.

Private fundraising followed in 2000, consisting of a mail campaign, monthly articles in the local newspaper, direct solicitations of businesses, a reception and a silent auction, generating well over $200,000, along with a critical $350,000 worth of volunteer labor and tools.

The park was built in two phases (with a third and final phase still to come). Phase I consisted of improved access to Temescal Creek (most of which flows below in an underground pipe), the construction of two playgrounds, the restoration of the 1972 mural (by the original artist along with students from a local arts college) and Phase II, completed in 2006, yielded paths, basketball hoops, swings and a water fountain, and the public art element: a series of obelisks equipped with small telescopes aimed at brass castings of animals that inhabit the landscape. (There is also a reproduction of the castings on a table so that the visually impaired can feel the sculptures.). The final addition will be a solar-powered restroom, as the park has only a porta-potty for 10 years, funded by FROG.

Total costs for Phases I and II totaled only $2.87 million, partly because FROG mobilized the entire community to help — 1,300 volunteers showed up over 10 days to construct the playgrounds under the direction of Leathers & Associates of Ithaca, New York. (FROG volunteers also prepared three meals a day for the volunteer workers and offered free child care during the entire period.)

The design of FROG Park incorporates land owned by the Alameda Couny Flood Control District. Photo credit: Theresa Nelson.

FROG now works to sustain community involvement, which remains the backbone of the park. All maintenance besides grass cutting and trash removal (done by the city), such as creek cleaning and refinishing the wooden play structures, is done by neighbors on semiannual work days. A local high school sends its entire freshman class each year to work on replanting the native garden.

The park is a seven-minute walk from the nearest BART station, and park co-founder Theresa Nelson reports that many park visitors arrive on public transit. The weekend farmer’s market, held in the DMV parking lot, brings in “probably a thousand people, from kids splashing in the creek and sailing boats to older couples walking to the market,” according to Nelson. FROG has also worked with the developers of two adjacent infill developments to extend the park into their properties. Realtors have begun to pitch the park in advertisements, and surrounding properties seem to have benefited: while Rockridge property values have generally remained stable since the park was constructed, Nelson estimates an average home near the park has increased in value by about $150,000.

Using the Web to Cultivate Park Volunteers

How can park agencies and park advocacy groups better cultivate volunteers? A New York Times article touches just on this and we have some thoughts on how this connects to parks.

In some cities, such as Portland and Seattle, parks benefit from a huge amount of yearly volunteer hours. In Philadelphia, TPL estimated that the economic value of friends group donations and volunteer hours in one year was $8.6 million.  But park groups can have a hard time recruiting good volunteers. The mentions one resource park agencies and support groups might want to utilize:

It is possible for nonprofits and volunteers to get more out of each other. Clearinghouses like VolunteerMatch.org help connect nonprofits and skilled volunteers, and individual nonprofits benefit when executives take time to find volunteers’ specific talents.

We checked out VolunteerMatch, searching for opportunities in Washington, D.C. under the term “parks.” What came up were listings for litter removal on the National Mall, upkeep of Rock Creek Park, bike patrol and working at a historic flour mill located in that park.

Park agencies and advocacy groups can sign up to be linked to searching volunteers on the website here. This could be one more tool in developing a cadre of interested and skilled volunteers.