Kathy's Park Blogs
”Partnerships are playing a central role in how we develop and manage parks these days. My hope is to bring you insights and experiences from some of the best practitioners and open a discussion with park leaders about lessons and recommendations for moving forward.”
 
Contents
 
 
March 3, 2017
The Creative Culture of Parks: Moving from Pop-ups to Permanent
 
January 31, 2017
Public Place-making and Place-Keeping: Where Do Public Parks Fit In?
 
January 31, 2017
Speaking for the Trees: The New Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan
 
June 17, 2016
Business Improvement Districts: Driving Investment in Public Parks
 
March 23, 2016
Change the Culture and the Rest Will Follow: Park Departments and Equity
 
February 25, 2016
Beyond Fairness: New Strategies for Achieving Equity in City Parks
 
December, 2015
Houston's Park Partners: Greening for the Future
 
October, 2015
Toronto's Park People: Making Sense of Community Engagement in the Parks Business
 
August 17, 2015
Returning the Boldness of the World's Fair to a San Antonio Park
 
August 4, 2015
A Different Kind of Tragedy of the Commons, Part 2
 
August 4, 2015
A Different Kind of Tragedy of the Commons
 
May 16, 2015
Greater and Greener: A Victory Lap in San Francisco’s Parks
 
May 16, 2015
Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece
 
May 16, 2015
City Park Conservancies: A Treasure Trove of New Knowledge
 
May 16, 2015
Greater and Greener: A Victory Lap in San Francisco’s Parks
 
February 9, 2015
Parks: In a Golden Age…Without Two Nickels?
 
January 14, 2015
Toward a Useful Teaching Strategy: City Park Partnerships
 
August 21, 2014
Denver Parks On Parade
 
August 21, 2014
Denver Parks On Parade
 
June 30, 2014
Community-Led Park Partnerships: It’s Not Just the Money
 
June 30, 2014
Balancing the “Private” in a Public-Private Partnership: Orange County Great Park
 
June 30, 2014
Urban Trails, Neighborhood Partnerships: DC’s Metropolitan Branch Trail
 
April 11, 2014
Casting a Broader Net for P3 Lessons
 
March 20, 2014
Breakthrough Public-Private Partnerships: The Work of New Yorkers for Parks (Part 1)
 
March 20, 2014
Breakthrough Public-Private Partnerships: The Work of New Yorkers for Parks (Part 1)
 
February 25, 2014
Mexico City Parks Revival: Partnerships in Action, Part 2
 
February 25, 2014
Mexico City Parks Revival: Partnerships in Action, Part 1
 
February 25, 2014
Seattle Parks and the Downtown Seattle Association: A Smart Marriage
 
November 5, 2013
Public-Private Partnerships, Seattle Style (Part 2 of 3)
 
October 28, 2013
Public-Private Partnerships, Seattle Style (Part 1 of 2)
 
September 27, 2013
Louisville: Private Resources for a Public Park
 
August 27, 2013
Philanthropy and Stewardship Meet Community Organizing in San Francisco
 
August 20, 2013
North of the 60th Parallel: Anchorage Park Partnerships
 
August 1, 2013
Piedmont Park - The Central Park of the South
 
June 27, 2013
Summertime and the Livin' in Parks Ain't Easy: The P3Debate
 
June 17, 2013
Denver’s Civic Center Park: A Gathering Place In Search of a Crowd
 
June 17, 2013
Denver’s Civic Center Park: A Gathering Place In Search of a Crowd
 
June 14, 2013
Los Angeles: Angels in the Parks
 
May 14, 2013
A P3 Throwdown
 
Apr 29, 2013
One More Time: Entrepreneurial Governance
 
Apr 19, 2013
Leadership Innovation
 
Apr 11, 2013
A Park for the Ages
 
Apr 5, 2013
Innovative Governance
 
Mar 28, 2013
Belle Isle Conservancy: One Step at a Time
 
Mar 21, 2013
Land Trusts and Park Conservancies: In the Same Business…or Not?
 
Apr 11, 2013
A Park for the Ages
 
Mar 14, 2013
Putting the Pieces Together
 
Mar 8, 2013
Rose Kennedy Greenway: Building a Three-Legged Stool
 
Feb 28, 2013
Right-Sizing Park Stewardship
 
Feb 21, 2013
The Collaborative Advantage: Part Two
 
Feb 15, 2013
The Collaborative Advantage
 
Feb 7, 2013
City Park Partnerships: The Governance Role
 
Jan 31, 2013
BIDs Serving Parks: A Philadelphia Story
 
Jan 24, 2013
P3s and Parks: Different than the Rest?
 
Jan 14, 2013
Lessons from the Masters: The City of New York and Central Park Conservancy’s Park Partnership
 
Jan 7, 2013
Public-Private Partnerships for Parks: Tapping the Wisdom of Their Success
 
Summer in the Parks Festivals and Overuse

Summer Festivals in the Park: Too Many People, Too Few Parks?

 

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." - Yogi Berra

 

Crowd enjoying a performance at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium ParkSummertime in our city parks means preparing for the millions of visitors expected looking for a place to spread their picnic blanket, toss a Frisbee and walk the dog.  The popularity of parks - city and national - is soaring, especially as the weather warms.  In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced a few weeks ago that Millennium Park has become the most visited destination in the Midwest, hosting 12.9 million visitors in the second half of 2016. 

 

But for every local resident looking for a lazy day at the park there is increasingly a tourist heading to the park to attend a summer music, art or food festival.   In the last few years the hosting of large public events in our prized parks has generated an active discussion about the type and scale of such events, their effects on other uses and users, and their role in funding parks. Local park users don’t like being shut out of the parks by the price of a ticket. And city park departments don’t like leaving them out - but nor do they like leaving money on the table when their public budgets are stretched thin.

 

The trouble is, too many people are converging on too few places:  Too much trash, too noisy, and too much turf and tree damage. Is there such a thing as parks being too busy?

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Miami’s Bayfront Park has hosted events for 100 years but in the last decade downtown Miami has doubled its population.  Hosting over 160,000 visitors from over 60 countries at the Ultra Music festival this year in March, for example, meant the park was closed for five weeks.   Ultra is not an event that many who live or work downtown look forward to - many leave town that weekend. But total operating costs for both Bayfront - and Museum Park next to it - totaled almost $6 million in FY 2014-15. Much of that operating revenue comes from large ticketed park events since the city provides the park with no funding.

 

Austin park goer’s willingness to give up much of their free access to Zilker Park for a month each year has netted the parks $20 million over the last ten years. 

 

As the Tour de Fat morphs from a bicycling parade to a music festival, Denver is moving the 2017 event from City Park to the National Western Complex; the city also put the kibosh on a second marijuana celebration in historic Cheeseman Park in April of this year after local residents said the hordes would be “…disrespectful to the historic park and the neighborhood.”

Piedmont Park in Atlanta hosts over 80% of the city’s festivals to help raise the over $3 million of operating funds. Even smaller cities like Traverse City, Michigan a few years ago reduced the number of events in its parks after suffering from “festival fatigue.”

If there's one thing these big events have in common, it's that they appeal primarily to out-of-towners. The hottest park destinations, like Millennium Park, are swarming with tourists.

 

Tourism is now one of the fastest growing sectors in a city’s economy and special events in parks, streets and public plazas have become one of tourism’s most important ways to attract visitors to a city. Check out TripAdvisor and you’ll see that city parks are increasingly ending up on America’s top lists of vacation attractions.

 

Where we choose to spend our vacation time says a lot about what we value.  Unfortunately, many inspiring and iconic parks and their managers can’t quite keep up.  

 

"People can do commercial activities anywhere," New York local activist Jonathan Burkan complained at the time. "Why do they have to choose a public park to do it?"

Though cities may benefit from the new money generated by these events the new revenue is often offset by both the direct and indirect costs of staging them.  It’s a fine balance, protecting the natural appeal of parks while hosting visitors whose expenditures can support park operations and capital improvements. The challenge for cities though is recognizing and managing all of the direct and indirect costs of these events to assure that local users find real benefit the rest of the season.

 

http://www.nationalmall.org/sites/default/files/styles/1280x925/public/Progress%20Background.JPG?itok=lR25QbRfLimited direct revenue streams return to the City as a result of special events. Typically for a park, there are permit fees - which range from simple calculations to more complicated calculations based on security, custodial, technical, and restorative services as well as event type and expected participation.  In addition, some cities charge for direct costs and repairs that are incurred as a result of the event.  

 

We all recognize that useful revenue can be generated by these large events, but this is a complicated problem. Fixing it means finding a solution that likely means some compromise but it also means being smarter about what the park needs - better policies regarding the type, frequency, duration and quality factors for these events that allows for full site restoration.

 

Though other cities have completed policies and handbooks, the now ten year-old National Park Service study (2006) completed for The National Mall remains the gold standard for talking about best practices for events in urban parks.  The Park Service investigated best management practices for heavily used parks in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, London, Ottawa and Canberra.  The report documents best practices in five areas - landscape standards, design, visitor information, maintenance, and events management.

 

Some of their recommendations around event management include a focus on how to manage events more proactively; facilitate the permitting process; charge fees and recover costs for use of these public areas.

Related imageKey to their recommendations is better cost management and recovery: What services are provided? Who benefits? What is the cost of providing these services?  “While different cost management systems may include different components, the indispensable element is an overall understanding of the interrelationship between activities and costs as well as the ability to manage these cost relationships to an organization’s advantage.”

 

Park managers owe it to the public to be fully engaged in overseeing these events and transparent about the cost-benefit calculation of such mass, ticketed events.

 

There is also a need for education regarding how an event can impact the park.  Challenges exist when trying to determine tree and turf damage: damage to trees can take 6-8 years for the tree to show impact; turf challenges are year round - before and after events.  The Central Park Conservancy has developed a set of six horticultural practices to maintain healthy, attractive turf under the most challenging park conditions and now they’re trying to help others adopt them.

 

If all else fails though, consider moving your music festivals into your old city cemeteries, following an idea from Atlanta.  Tunes from the Tombs, Historic Oakland Cemetery’s annual summer music festival brings music to the city’s most unique performance venue. Less than a mile from the heart of downtown Atlanta, this garden cemetery, at 48 acres, is where an estimated 70,000 quiet and peaceful souls are interred, untroubled by the music or the crowds.

 

 


The Creative Culture of parks: Moving from Pop-ups to Permanent

Can pop-up parks and public space projects trigger investment in new public parks?  Is there a role for community-generated projects in the formal planning process?

ccop2The Miami Foundation is working to find out with its Miami Public Space Challenge, now going into its fifth year.  The Public Space Challenge uncovers the best ideas for creating, improving and activating parks, plazas, and local gathering places. Since 2013 more than 1,432 project submissions have been made and $870,000 awarded for 70 projects. 

“We weren’t sure what would happen when we invented the program,” says Stuart Kennedy, director of program strategy and innovation for the Foundation. “We knew we wanted to elevate the conversation in Miami around public spaces and the value they bring to communities.”

The Miami Foundation knew that the long term solution was funding for new and improved public parks, but that their funding wouldn’t go very far toward that end.  Instead, they presented an opportunity for residents to think about their own neighborhoods as a way to help understand the desire for improvements and activating new spaces.  From the beginning, Stuart said, it was an effort to get the word out and engage individuals.

The Challenge has funded projects big and small across Miami-Dade County, from Homestead on the edge of the Everglades to mostly Spanish speaking Hialeah, to hip Wynwood to majority African-American Miami Gardens.  Most of them are submitted by local residents committed to improving Greater Miami.

“We work with a panel of local experts to narrow down the list of finalists they think are exciting and feasible. We make it easy to apply by asking them to answer two questions:  ‘What is your idea, and why?’ We’re providing super low barriers to entry.”

50 finalists work with a mentor to help them think through their idea and how to implement it. Then the foundation gets full proposals back – capped at 3 pages – and the selection committee chooses 15 to 20 for funding.

ccop3So what’s being funded?  The finalists range from pop-up installations to permanent projects. Bay Skate was invented by brothers who live in a condominium that overlooks Bayfront Park and who decided that the area around the fountain was often empty.  So they turned the Mildred and Claude Pepper Fountain  into a free skating rink for one night. It was so successful that they are working with the city and Bayfront Park Trust to bring it back.

ccop4A disc golfer saw the endless open acreage of Homestead Air Reserve Park as the perfect place for a disc golf course.  He won the funding and worked with the parks department to create the longest course in the southeast.

There are community gardens, open mic sessions, pop-up art, and even snow.  The Fiesta de Agua trucked in snow in an effort to attract families to Riverside Park in Little Havana, and 1,500 people came out to play.

The Foundation gives award winners one year to implement their projects. Many run into practical challenges such as permitting, and some of the individuals involved have no experience getting permits. Sometimes it takes longer than a year. But it’s healthy friction, says Stuart, who believes local governments are getting better at working with individuals (and vice versa) to make these projects happen.

ccop5Now the Foundation wants to see how it can leverage the Challenge and engage people in a deeper way.

“We’ve decided to try and more actively help the County in building out their parks master plan, Stuart says.  “This year, we’ll introduce information about the master plan and share maps so that when folks are interacting with the Challenge they will know about the master plan.  We want them to be thinking of ways in which their project ideas could leverage the implementation of the master plan.”

The Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department sees the role of the Challenge as helping them to build momentum for more and better parks, and gave the Foundation the William J. Matheson Award last April for their efforts to engage community residents around parks.

What is Stuart’s advice for others considering similar projects?  Keep it simple.  Be very direct.  Make it easy to apply – lower barriers to entry so you don’t lose people.

The Public Space Challenge is one good example of the creative culture of parks, an idea that will take shape at this summer’s Greater and Greener international urban parks conference hosted by City Parks Alliance in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The conference will explore how cities are linking arts and greenspace to revitalize downtown areas and neighborhoods, through creative placemaking.   How do communities, artists, arts groups, and city agencies work together to integrate art, pop-up parks and place-based events with public land? Come to Minneapolis and Saint Paul this summer and find out.

(All photos from Miami Foundation website)


Public Place-making and Place-Keeping: Where Do Public Parks Fit In?

 

Place management is defined by the Institute of Place Management as "a coordinated, area-based, multi-stakeholder approach to improve locations, harnessing the skills, experiences and resources of those in the private, public and voluntary sectors". How-ever, as a conceptual field it remains relatively underdeveloped because of its infancy.                                                                                                       --Wikipedia

 

Try Googling ‘public parks’ versus ‘public spaces.’ Then do the same search on YouTube and see what you get.

When you Google “public space” or “public realm” the results are rich with ideas about walkability, social diversity, design, programming and hundreds of observations on what makes a great public space and how to get there.  You also see that the ‘owners’ of these results - papers, videos, conferences, case studies, etc. - are not city park agencies and that, even the words,  ‘city park’ or ‘public park,’ are secondary - if mentioned at all - to the larger focus on streets, sidewalks and heretofore unused public and private city spaces.

With city planners increasingly focused on walkable places and downtowns we are witnessing a huge interest in the quality of public spaces. The redevelopment of these non-park public spaces - streets, plazas, parking lots, alleys, street medians and areas around transit stations - into places where people can sit, stroll, linger and be entertained is producing a robust discussion about how to develop, design and manage them.

A closer look at who is doing the development and management of these new public spaces shows that it is mostly not city park departments.  It is other public agencies like convention center authorities (Lawn on D Street in Boston), transportation agencies (Chicago Make Way for People), public works departments (San Francisco Parklets) and design and management consultants.

Or, it is developers and real estate professionals who increasingly see public space as being critical to the quality of life package that makes their new projects competitive.  

In their plans and promotion you see a new body of language that distinguishes between place-making and place-keeping and place management with an understanding of the need for site management strategies to ensure successful places.

In practice, park professionals know that creating good public spaces, including public parks, is complex. Processes that transform these spaces are not steered by good design or artful programming alone. 

These hybrid forms of public parks are emerging with more complex partnerships, lease arrangements, special districts and other tools that pilot shared roles and responsibilities for developing and managing - and funding - these new spaces.

So, why isn’t all this energy, funding and attention regarding the value of public space also embracing public parks?  My Google search on public parks gave me search results that mostly included citations for individual city park agencies or they showed sites with information on making the case for public parks - a case that public space projects presume with their greater focus on design and management.  It took a lot more searching to find more interesting public park discussions about innovation in management, programming and funding.

Why is there an abundance of robust experimentation and discussion by other public agencies and private developers about public spaces?  Are cities not receptive to new kinds of leadership and stakeholder participation for their parks?  And if not, how can city park agencies become more flexible ‘place-keepers’ to allow more innovation in public parks as other city agencies and private stakeholders appear to be in developing other public spaces?

Historically, cities have seen public parks - their creation and maintenance - as a protected public amenity, free and available for a mix of passive and active recreation.  But even though in most cases, public funding for city parks has increased it has not nearly been enough to keep pace with inflation, increased visitation and mandates for new programs.  The result has been a dramatic and on-going budget shortfall that make parks far less likely to be on the cutting edge in design, programming and even basic maintenance.

And, in practice, while local governments fiercely protect public parks from too much privatization, they are generally more willing to innovate around “flagship place-making projects” that are seen as opportunities for increasing the attractiveness of a city for investors. 

Sadly, this willingness to innovate around management and funding for non-park public spaces means parks remain on the life-support of limited public funding.  But if we distinguish park ownership - and the importance of its roots in democratic public space - from its management, or ‘place-keeping,’ you have the potential to open up a whole new set of players and processes that collaboratively might keep pace better with public expectations. 

One critical conversation surrounding the creation of both public spaces and public parks is about the lack of stakeholder involvement - the inclusion of neighbors, park users, non-profits and community organizations who can give a place a cultural connection, regular programs and users, and a secure place in the minds of the community connected to it. Increasing densities in cities means that public parks play a huge role in the lives of people who live there - especially so for underserved and immigrant families.

We know that successful place-keeping - or park management - is a multi-stakeholder effort that must be sustained with adequate funding and community engagement. But without a clear path for inviting and implementing new ideas and managing that process public parks are doomed to survive on the little they receive in the annual city budget allocation and the oversight of retro park commissions affecting to act in the public interest but more often, not acting at all. 

Despite years of studies and reports, city park departments have mostly not achieved the kind of vitality needed to respond to the breadth, diversity and demands of park users.  One way to enliven their work is by creating a more rigorous process for engagement and innovation that allows for more vitality and relevance for public parks and that makes public parks the leading creative public spaces.

Who better than public park professionals to be leaders in public space management - professionals who understand that the users and stakeholders in public parks and public spaces are critical to their innovation and productivity? What place-making and place-keeping discussions have reminded us is that the impact of higher density around public spaces means a more rigorous management strategy is needed for their success and that no single entity has the resources or the competences to act alone in their management.


Speaking for the Trees: The New Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan

Posted on City Parks Alliance blog site on August 1, 2016 by Kathy Blaha

“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

? Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Tree1To be a tree in the city is very hard.  A tree that would live 80 years in the forest has a life expectancy of 20 years in the suburbs, and less than that in an urban setting where trees are often planted in sidewalk cutouts. Let’s face it; even if a tree gets planted correctly and watered, it faces a host of other environmental and human challenges ranging from storms, insects, air pollution, and low-quality soil to road salt and reckless drivers.

Thanks to the National Urban and Community Advisory Council (NUCFAC) and their newly released 10-year Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan, there is a clear outline of all the reasons we should nurture our urban trees. I recently spoke with Liam Kavanagh, NUCFAC’s Plan Chair and New York City’s First Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Parks and Recreation, about the plan’s goals. 

What are the accomplishments from the last plan?

The good news is that we grew urban forestry plans and advocates by huge numbers. The number of communities with urban forestry plans rose by 70%; the majority of states now have urban forestry plans, and community tree policies and ordinances have increased by 58%.

How is the new plan different from the last plan put in place a decade ago?

Even with the jump in new plans, less than half of America lives in communities with programs to plant and maintain their urban forest. With a $2.4 trillion structural value delivering $17 billion in annual benefits, the urban forest remains an underappreciated asset. The new plan recommends increasing the annual investment in urban and community forestry to $85 million.

Tree 2And the new plan understands NUCFAC’s limitations – it wasn’t set up to deliver services.  This time we consciously reached out to local governments, forestry advocacy groups and others who can take on specific aspects of the plan and make advances. Like city parks, urban forests perform a wide set of services; the new plan argues that we need more policies that include community forestry as a core tool to address emerging challenges around public health, climate change, storm water management and clean air.

We hope to link trees to good community development practices, such as new urbanism, smart growth, low-impact and conservation development, walkable neighborhoods, multi-modal transportation systems, and transit-oriented development, while also ensuring that tree maintenance is enforced.

Another new thing about the plan is a larger focus on health – reducing stress, promoting healing, better attention, academic performance.  We are hoping people in the medical field will further appreciate and focus on the value of nature to health outcomes.

Lastly, we’re well aware of the importance of diversity and equity in implementing the plan.  It’s important for this work to be relevant and sustainable and we’re working hard to make wider connections.

What kind of research is in the works that can be a game changer for urban forestry? 

The I-Tree Suite is rapidly evolving into a robust tool for cities. Last year at the Partners in Community Forestry Conference, Dave Nowak presented 2 new suites – landscape and ecosystem – making the tool even more useful for understanding the economic value of the services that trees perform.  I-Tree is growing in sophistication and becoming more broadly accepted; we believe it will drive appreciation and understanding of how investments can pay off.

The human health angle is especially important in this plan with huge annual spending and broad impacts.  The USFS is doing a lot of research here but we need to reach out and partner better with health care organizations, and get them to look at things like parks and trees as an opportunity where they can get a return on their investment while making people healthier.

Who makes up the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council and how will they track implementation of the plan? 

Congress created NUCFA in 1990 to develop an Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan every ten years, evaluate results and develop criteria for the USDA Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Challenge Cost Share Grant Program.

Our members are drawn from a broad sector of public life and urban and community forestry professionals with representation from different sizes and types of cities.  I was on the team representing City Parks Alliance.  The council membership tries to capture a broad spectrum of interest and opportunity to communicate about forestry.  We create events and use membership to highlight the plan and how to implement it at the local scale.  We’re not allowed to lobby or request funding.  Our role is to make information available and demonstrate return on investment.  It’s a powerful case and NUCFAC is trying to raise the profile.

We are working closely with the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition – a network of organizations that range from traditional forestry groups to planning, architecture and health organizations.  It is a young but diverse group we are supporting to help promote the plan.  They are not in a position as an umbrella group to manage things directly but they can be a convener for promoting the goals outlined in the plan.  It’s a very interesting opportunity for the plan.

What is the available annual grant funding for the program?

About $900,000 is available annually, tied to goals in the plan.  We’re looking for projects and proposals to advance research and practice. For example, part of the plan has to do with the economic benefits of environmental services.  We’re hoping our next round of grants will get at this.  We believe that being able to monetize those services will be key to increasing funding. (Note: The deadline for 2017 proposals has passed.)

Tree 3How can city park managers and park partners use the plan? 

Become part of the campaign.  It’s hard to think about a park without trees.  Trees distinguish a park and it’s one of the reasons why people value parks.  If you look at the interrelations, there is a lot of crossover between urban forestry advocates and park advocates.  If we build support for trees, we build support for parks, too.

On the NUCFAC website you can view the plan; we’re hoping through partnerships to build online resources in support of our goals. One of our first goals is to create a nationwide urban forestry public awareness and education campaign that will expand awareness – and increase investment.  We’re consciously promoting the plan to those interested in quality of life in their city.


Business Improvement Districts: Driving Investment in Public Parks

Posted on June 9, 2016 by Kathy Blaha
BIDBlog1

Michael Stevens walks CPA board members through waterfront development plans

On a cool and rainy afternoon, the City Parks Alliance Board of Directors traveled to the DC waterfront to visit a few of the city’s newest parks and to hear how they are being managed in a creative partnership with the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID). Michael Stevens, President, Capitol Riverfront BID and Dan Melman, Vice President of Parks and the Public Realm for the BID, were our hosts for a tour of Canal and Yards parks and a discussion about the BID’s role in parks.

The Capitol Riverfront BID manages 10 acres of parks, including Yards Park and Canal Park, which are considered the “front yards” for the growing neighborhood and regularly host events attracting over 75,000 people.   

Located just south of Capitol Hill and to the east of Nationals Ballpark, Yards Park opened in 2011, and was built through a public-private partnership between the federal General Services Administration (GSA), the District of Columbia, and Forest City Washington.  The  $800,000 (approx.) budget for the park is provided through contributions from developer Forest City, CRBID assessments, and revenue from park events.

BIDBlog2

The Yards Park

The Yards Park, LLC was created with a Waterfront Park Maintenance and Programming Agreement between the District of Columbia, Forest City Washington, and the Capitol Riverfront BID.  The LLC, which works closely with the BID, maintains, manages, and programs the park using the BID’s Clean Team crew and Hospitality Ambassadors under the leadership of Melman.  In 2013, the 5.5-acre park received the 2013 Open Space Award from the Urban Land Institute, and in 2015 was designated a Frontline Park by City Parks Alliance.

BIDBlog3

Canal Park

Opened in 2012, the 3-acre Canal Park is operated by Canal Park Development Association Inc. (CPDA), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, also working in partnership with the Capitol Riverfront BID. The $27M in funding to construct the park came from a variety of sources, including developer payments, grants, new market tax credits and a contribution from the District.

Both parks are key public investments in the growing neighborhoods they serve – new developments will add 7 million square feet of office space to the District, and nearly 5,000 people consider themselves residents of “The Yards.”

BIDS and other downtown management organizations now top 2,500 across the country, investing $400 million a year through property assessments.  In cities like New York, Philadelphia, and San Diego, there is a growing partnership network of BIDs, nonprofit park managers, and cities to develop and manage downtown public spaces.  Businesses – and in some cases, residents – who choose to participate in BIDs are increasingly seeing parks and public spaces as essential to the economic vibrancy, marketing value, and quality of life for their neighborhoods.

Our group saw how the Capitol Riverfront BID – not unlike a park conservancy – is reshaping traditional ideas of public space management with multiple partnerships and finding new ways to pay for it.

BIDblog4Just in time, as we heard. South of Yards Park, a short walk away, is the site of the future 11th Street Bridge Park, which will be built on the original pillars of the old road bridge crossing the Anacostia River. The park will connect communities on each bank, as well as to the National Park Service’s Anacostia Park.

Scott Kratz, director of the 11th Street Bridge Park project, briefed us on the project, which is likely to include an environmental education center, performance spaces, public art, play spaces, urban agriculture, and kayak & canoe launches – all of which will take an expected 150 partnerships with the private and nonprofit sector and a lot of innovation to program and manage.

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.


Change the Culture and the Rest Will Follow: Park Departments and Equity

Posted on March 23, 2016 by Kathy Blaha

If a Google search of parks and equity was your only measure of who is taking on this issue, it would seem that New York is miles ahead of other cities, as it appears over and over in the search results. But in fact, New York is one of many major cities in the US focusing on the equity issue as best as they can.

Norm Krumholz, Cleveland city planner in the 1970s, was one of the first to define “equity planning,” which he described this way: “You keep your eye on who gets helped and who gets hurt and for the people who usually get hurt – you try to make sure they don’t get hurt as bad.”

Who gets helped and who gets hurt in a city may best be seen through the lens of our public parks – a potent symbol of a city’s equity balance.  In this ongoing struggle, two park agencies, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) and Portland (OR) Parks and Recreation, have hired staff specifically to address equity.  Art Hendricks is the Equity and Inclusion Director for Portland Parks & Recreation, and Michelle Kellogg is the Equity and Inclusion Project Manager for MPRB. 

In 2007, MPRB began implementing its Comprehensive Plan that lays a framework for equity. It has launched two independent assessments, expanded diversity training for employees, and modified hiring practices to recruit more diverse staff. After a group of staff attended a racial equity conference in 2014, the MPRB formed an equity work team with Michelle at the helm to begin to apply a racial equity lens to their work. At the time, MPRB staff did not even have a shared vocabulary to talk about race and equity. Two years later, nearly 30 full time MPRB staffers – largely decision makers within the agency – have attended training in racial equity.

In Portland, the Office of Equity and Human Rights was created by city ordinance in 2011 to focus on equity and reduce disparities within city government. The office provides guidance to all city bureaus as they develop capacity to achieve equitable outcomes in their services.  Art, already a parks department employee, was tapped to take on the new role of Equity and Inclusion Director in 2014.

Below are some excerpts from interviews with Michelle and Art, along with comments Portland Parks and Recreation Director Mike Abbate, that took place earlier this year.

Tell me a little bit about your job descriptions and what you are doing?  What kind of analysis did you do to help focus your work?

Mike Abbate: Portland’s demographics are rapidly changing as immigrant and minority populations have grown.  One in five Portlanders is foreign-born and they are changing the face of the city.  Four years ago the Office of Equity and Human Rights was created; then, three years ago, the parks department decided to look at its own equity issues.  As director for the last four years, I requested funding from city council to prioritize an equity review; in the end I reapportioned funds and Art was selected from his position as Security Manager to being our Equity and Inclusion Director.

Art Hendricks: I’ve been on the job twenty months now.  When I started the Bureau had an existing strategic plan that included a focus on equity and access for all residents to city parks and natural areas. A primary focus for us is increasing workforce diversity and collecting better data on how we’re serving residents through our Parks, Race and Ethnicity Project (PREP).  PREP asks folks their race and ethnicity when they sign up for classes.  We use the data to identify how our services are meeting the needs of communities. My primary role is to provide technical assistance and support to the operating departments within the bureau.  I focus on assisting managers and supervisors on recruitment and outreach to community organizations of color – both those serving traditional minority communities as well as new immigrants.

Michelle Kellogg: In 2011, the MPRB started a new community outreach department focused on our changing demographics and the need for the MPRB to connect better with under-served and under-represented residents.  There are big racial disparities in our city in almost every indicator of well being.  After the conference in Portland in 2014 we shifted our focus from diversity to equity. Our starting point, which we learned from other jurisdictions, is to create a common language and set of priorities, and to make it common to have conversations around race and equity. To date, we are primarily focused internally, looking at our workforce, contracting procedures, and developing the capacity of our staff to address racial equity through pilot projects.

Parks equity is made up of pieces – access, quality of space, programs and facilities.  How are you focusing on the problem in your cities?

Mike: We are looking both at access and programs.  Twenty percent of Portland residents don’t have access to a park within a half mile of their home.  With respect to our community centers, we have a 2-3 mile service area.  To close this gap, we’re actively buying land and building parks for better access.   Another important question for us is whether we are serving these communities with programs and activities that they want.  We’re trying to figure out who we’re serving and what they want.

Art:  We’re learning more about who is coming to the centers and what kinds of services they are using, looking more closely at registration through our PREP project.  We’re also looking for disparities – who’s attending and not attending based on neighborhood demographics. We know that one of the barriers to service is cost, so through these efforts I think we are getting back to the core roots of the recreation movement – essentially how parks can help facilitate the civic involvement of the entire community.

Michelle: The MPRB has been nationally recognized for providing parks that are within half a mile of 95 percent of all residents, but even though parks are in close proximity to communities of color, we know there can be barriers that make people feel unwelcome. Through our engagement efforts and relationship building, we are learning more about what different communities need in parks and programming; we recognize that often times treating everyone the same can perpetuate inequity.

In 2015 the MPRB launched two important initiatives. RecQuest is an in-depth assessment of our 47 recreation centers and their programs and services to find out what the community wants in these centers. The MPRB is also working to develop service area master plans for each park that focuses on the outdoor assets in a park: playgrounds, athletic fields, wading pools, sports courts, for example.

What kinds of tools and approaches are you using?

Art: We’re focused on managing access and user conflicts. We’re rethinking how you look at conflicts, and how to build effective stewardship and connect to the community. For instance, the two-acre Khunamokwst Park is a newly built park in a diverse, park-deficient neighborhood. In constructing the park we had the opportunity to engage with surrounding neighbors and partner with community organizations of color in our master planning process. In this process we were intent on engaging people by providing translators, printing bilingual flyers and conducting our meetings differently to encourage more conversation.  We try to focus on what all the residents need and find ways to encourage the entire community to participate through our work with community organizations of color.

As we move forward we are also looking at the kinds of programs that we offer.  We recently started the Parks for New Portlanders program, led by Som Nath Subedi – a native of Bhutan. Som started about a year ago to help immigrant and refugee families engage in our park system and create greater access to the city’s parks and recreational programs.

Are public park departments in transition from being transactional – offering programs or places for having fun – to being change agents?

Art: Any parks department needs to be focused on how it can continue to provide spaces that support diverse communities. As a public agency we are responsible for the stewardship of public spaces and effective management of those spaces. Additionally, a key focus is how we program those public spaces and how we provide recreation services.

We are also a major employer in the city – from designing and constructing parks, providing maintenance and engaging residents through recreational activities. Staff members we hire typically have long tenures, staying with our bureau for five, ten, twenty years or longer. With that in mind a key question that we ask is how can we assure that the people we are bringing to the organization today be effective in meeting the needs of a diverse community five, ten, twenty-five years from now?  The diversity of our staff and their cultural responsiveness has to reflect and be in step with our community.  50% of children in Portland are people of color, therefore our staff needs to understand and communicate with people from all backgrounds.

Mike: We’re having intentional conversations with staff about language and issues around equity.  A big part of our effort is seeing how our staff can become culturally responsive and competent. We’re drafting policy recommendations and creating training programs for all staff – as a white male, I recognize that I have been afforded certain privileges others haven’t received based on my status. I believe that this work has to come from the heart and I have a responsibility to lead others in this conversation.  A recent training program I attended focused on developing critical leadership skills in the area of diversity and equity. Historically, people of color and women have done most of the work in educating white men in diversity; I know that if we are going to make progress, I have to lead in this conversation.

Michelle:  Like Portland Parks, we also recognize the need to have a workforce that is reflective of the community.  In our workforce equity work, we have made progress in how job descriptions are written and where we advertise available positions to have diverse applicant pools.  We are now focusing on providing bias training for interview panelists and developing pipeline programs to attract diverse candidates.

We expanded our Teen Teamworks Program, the MPRB’s employment and job training program for at-risk youth and young adults, to include park and recreation career exploration and internship opportunities.  We are also participating in a program created by the City of Minneapolis called Urban Scholars, a college and graduate level internship program providing students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds with government job experience.  Both programs provide opportunities for young people to come into the parks world and see it as a potential career path that they never would have considered before. 

Are either cities drafting any policy or guidelines yet regarding expenditures for operating or capital dollars based on achieving equity?

Michelle: That is, quite literally, the million dollar question. We have made great strides since 2007 and the adoption of our Comprehensive Plan, in achieving equity in capital improvement investments. We built a new community center in one of the most diverse and economically challenged areas of the city; we built the first natural swimming pool in North America in another part of the city that has concentrated areas of poverty, but does not have the same access to lakes as other parts of the city. We are purchasing Mississippi River properties that were previously industrial and inaccessible to the nearby community in low-income areas of the city.  Our biggest expansion in recreation has been in serving at-risk minority youth and families.  In 2016 alone, the recreation services budget was increased by 9.5% to meet the need – compared to an overall increase of 4% for the MPRB.

We are instituting a criteria-based method for development of our 5-year capital improvement plan that incorporates Areas of Concentrated Poverty (ACP), where residents are People of Color (POC); population density; youth population by park; and park crime statistics. A next step will be to weave equity into our full budget process. I imagine that we will be spending quite a bit of time on that topic in 2016.

How are you measuring success?

Art: In Portland, it’s the community driving the interest, asking local government to focus on equity.  We’re creating the ‘scaffolding’ and imbedding the tools within the organization for the long term.  Ultimately leadership will be key – it’s not just about one person talking about equity.  Our city council adopted citywide goals related to equity that are focused on increasing the diversity of our workforce, effectively engaging communities of color in decision making processes – collaborating with the community to eliminate racial injustice. We are required to ensure that our bureau’s budget is tied to addressing these goals.

Michelle:  Success will be measured over time. For us, advancing racial equity means a shift in the way that our organization thinks about its work and translates that thinking to how it operates – it’s a culture change.  We are embedding equity into our policy decisions and will be developing systems to hold staff accountable.  We’re focusing on changing behavior, not attitudes, by giving staff tools and training and creating expectations for their work.  Over the next year, we will be developing the racial equity action plan. We expect that it will also include recommendations for organizational performance measures that we can use to monitor our progress.

Any lessons learned that you would like to share?

Michelle: Park departments don’t need to invent the wheel. Find other people who are doing it.  Start with shared definitions and direction setting by leadership.

Mike: Talk to your employees. Hear their stories to help you understand where they are – there are folks who can help you take the temperature of your organization.  Once you understand better where you are then there are other resources, efforts in other cities for gaining insight about what to do.


Beyond Fairness: New Strategies for Achieving Equity in City Parks

Posted on February 25, 2016 by Kathy Blaha

Despite widespread acceptance regarding the value of city parks, we have surprisingly few ways to measure their individual and collective success. The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore Index is one tool that measures how well the 75 largest cities are meeting their park needs. The City Parks Project’s green access and equity maps for Los Angeles Equity1also look to capture equitable access to parks. These and other efforts are finding ways to measure access and investment to help guide city spending. But equity is more than access and even more than spending.

At a time when cities are looking to new models for operating their parks more equitably and efficiently, more effective tools and data are needed to make the case for strategic investment.  In particular, making the case for equity is important since new strategies are often employed in those neighborhoods where there is a strong voice, potential partners and a perceived greater chance of success, leaving neighborhoods that lack resources – and clout – behind. 

I recently caught up with Mickey Fearn, City Parks Alliance Board member and Professor of Practice, North Carolina State University, College of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, for his thoughts on what is happening in cities regarding efforts to create more equitable access to parks and good park experiences for users.

He reminded me that while city park departments face budget challenges that limit investment in both new and existing parks, they also face park usership challenges, straining to serve current residents as well as new immigrant populations who have their own – and new – ideas about the value of parks and recreation and how they want to use parks.

Equity2Fearn has spoken before about the need for park departments to work more diligently to connect to underserved communities, saying “…for decades the leadership of parks and recreation agencies has asserted that lack of money, transportation, equipment and awareness are to blame in not reaching a more diverse and equitable park usership. But ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomics must also be considered in getting to the complex causes of this challenge.” For sure, the parks challenges we face will require both internal changes in departments as well as external solutions.

Equity for parks can mean a number of different things. There’s a lot of talk these days about park equity in terms of access – how far city residents are from a park and how many barriers exist for them to get there. Park equity can also be viewed in terms of spending – on capital investment and maintenance to make a park safe and beautiful. But maybe more important is a look at park equity in terms of the programs, services and learning opportunities available in a park. What’s happening in a park that makes people want to go there at all?

Equity3Understanding where a city ranks on any of these measures requires a deeper research dive than what most cities are doing and a few cities around the country are starting to make park equity, in all its forms, a priority. Starting with data gathering and new kinds of analysis to help them understand their city better their goal is to develop new policies that will ensure that funding and partnership resources get to where they are needed most.

The Community Parks Initiative in New York, a $130 million investment to rebuild 35 parks in communities with the greatest need, is relying on the analysis of 20 years of data to identify parks with less than $250,000 of capital investment. They reviewed inspection data, maintenance and operations reports, consulted with field staff and performed detailed, on-the-ground surveys of more than a hundred parks to determine where and how to target their resources.

In Chicago, Park District officials say they are examining data at every level, from the entire city to block-by-block numbers, considering population characteristics including race, ethnicity and income. “We’re good planners,” says Gia Biagi, former Chicago Park District Chief Planner. “So we look at everything and we look to serve communities that need us the most.”

Equity4Both cities are also mindful that in many neighborhoods where high-quality parks and playgrounds could make the greatest difference for kids there are no community advocates, park advisory councils or other local leadership to support parks. The Chicago Park District records show an advisory council in only a third of city parks. In these neighborhoods it will take more than capital resources to make a difference. Fearn believes that it will take a better understanding of their needs and values, and finding ways that parks can connect to those values.

“Yes, we have park deserts – more money being invested in middle class neighborhoods than poorer neighborhoods,” says Fearn. “It’s not easy to reach residents in poorer neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods one thing we know for sure is that people care about their children. What do those children need? Parks and recreation departments can expand their choices.”

Fearn believes that equity is less about just offering the usual set of services and more about engaging with residents to identify what their needs are.   In a lot of cities, park programs and services are results of the skill of the director – e.g., physical training, sports, art – but the surrounding neighborhood interests aren’t always a match for those programs. When community centers show under-utilization it may be time to let community organizations who understand their neighborhoods help to make decisions about programs and services.

Equity 5In the midst of addressing these complex park equity issues is another issue that is both a challenge and an opportunity in this mix.   “Sixty-five percent of park and recreation leaders in the next five years are eligible to retire,” says Fearn. “These folks are leaving. What’s the bench for replacing them look like – kind of empty?”

Fearn sees this changing of the guard as an opportunity to achieve racial equity – compliance and having the right mix of employees – as well as park equity by bringing in divergent thought with a next generation who understands the power of parks beyond just recreation – in creating civility, job opportunity and stronger communities.

If our parks and park programs aren’t reaching those who need them – either because they are not physically accessible or they are not safe or their programs are too anglocentric for new immigrant populations, where does that leave us? Looking closely at what just a few cities are up to appears to leave us back at square one: listening and engaging.

In my next post I’ll talk to city park professionals in Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis, Minnesota – two cities who have hired and dedicated new staff to focus on equity and engagement and who are doing the research to make their case. Their efforts show both the dearth of data most cities have about their parks and the people who use them, and the opportunities and revelations for fairer park spending and increased usership when a better understanding is reached. These are two of a growing number of cities who believe that the first step toward gaining fairness in park access, services and programs must begin with a look the role that city parks departments can play in raising the profile of this complex problem.


Houston’s Park Partners: Greening for the Future

 

Something is up in Texas.  Philanthropy has discovered parks.  In Dallas, the Belo Foundation, looking to build on the success of Klyde Warren Park, Belo Garden, and Main Street Garden, has just announced an ambitious plan – and $30 million in funding – to realize a vision for downtown by creating 17 acres of new green space through the construction of four major parks.

And in Houston, Hermann Park recently opened McGovern Centennial Gardens after a $31 million renovation.  Memorial Park has a new master plan and funding stream; and the Kinder Foundation, which provided substantial funding for Discovery Green, has also funded the new Buffalo Bayou Park and the Bayou Greenway 2020 Plan.

HPB1Discovery Green changed the way people think about parks in Houston, and making the transition from being a city known for having the widest freeway in the world to a city that understands parks is fundamental to its prosperity.  Leading the charge has been the philanthropic community which sees that “green is good” for health, recreation, and the economy, allowing the city to enhance its quality of life in order to attract and retain engineers, scientists, and other professionals.  

HPB2In October the City Parks Alliance Board of Directors made a visit to Houston, hosted by CPA board member and Executive Director of the Hermann Parks Conservancy, Doreen Stoller.  In addition to meetings at Hermann Park’s Centennial Gardens and a ride on the Hermann Park Train, the visit included tours of Discovery Green and Buffalo Bayou.

Bill Fulton, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research kicked off the CPA Board meeting by describing Houston as a place with an “empowering personality,” meaning that if you have an idea, you can run with it. “The city is resource-constrained and the philanthropic community is probably more important here than any other city in America,” said Fulton. Some even argue that one of the things that make Houston one of the fastest growing cities in America is its strong philanthropic capacity.

Joe Turner, Director of Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department, has his own thoughts on the city’s growth, the role of philanthropy and the growing number of park partnerships in Houston.  Turner told me that Houston has just finished a master planning process that took two years and focused on ways to keep up with growth and equity issues.

Houston has a creative approach to parks financing based on a 2007 ordinance that organized the city’s 656 square miles into park sectors. Developers are required to include private or public parkland in their plans or to submit a fee that goes into the park fund, and can only be spent within the same sector.

“There is a lot of development going on in Houston these days but only in high growth areas,” says Turner. The challenge is how to spread the wealth.  “We are trying to find ways to buy land in places where prices are still low.  Once development begins the prices go up.”

HPB3Given the pace of development in Houston, Turner is working more and more with conservancies and park partners who can help him to balance his spending by shifting funds to those parks with less philanthropic support.

Hermann Park is one of their primary conservancy partners and Turner describes their partnership as focused on development, restoration and deferred maintenance. “Together, we deliver a service and we all have the same customer base.”  They stay in regular communication. “If Doreen texts, I answer and if I text, Doreen answers.”

“I could never have delivered the level of service the Conservancy wanted for McGovern Centennial Gardens.  So everything inside that fence belongs to them.  But we still support them – because they help us in other pieces of the park.  We created a business agreement and we partner to make it work.”

HPB4Plans for Buffalo Bayou were jump-started with the Kinder Foundation’s $30M gift, but it wasn’t until the city shifted the boundaries of its downtown special taxing district to help provide the estimated $2 million in annual funds for ongoing operations and maintenance that donors felt comfortable making capital gifts.   “Donors are now requesting the city provide a commitment to maintenance funding,” says Turner.

Turner spent 30 years in the fast food business and thinks about his park and their partners like restaurant franchises in that the city owns the system but needs partnerships to make it work. “I’m willing to listen to any deal on any park,” says Turner, “but it’s always going to remain a public park.”

Most Houston park partnerships have written agreements and work on the basis of master plans.  “When the plan is finished we have something to sell and an opportunity to work together on the same vision to find supporters,” says Turner.

Another partner for the city is the nonprofit Houston Parks Board – which people often get mixed up with the city’s parks department.  Turner worked to clarify roles with them and create an informal agreement that allows the Board to take the lead on fundraising for projects and then work with the city on a plan for spending the money.

HPB5But it’s the Houston Parks Board’s leadership on the Bayou Greenways 2020 (BG 2020)  plan that Turner believes will be a game-changer for the city. “BG 2020 is a fabulous project for this city.  It will create ‘trunk lines’ which will be the basis for a neighborhood trail system that will allow people to move throughout the city.”

The project is expected to significantly expand and enhance Houston’s parks system, creating 150 miles of parks and trails along Houston’s bayous.  The cost of the project is estimated at $215 million and is being funded with a mix of private and public funding.  In 2012 voters approved a bond (with 68% of the vote) dedicating $100 million of public funding to the project.  The remaining funding will be privately raised.  The list of project stakeholders is a mile long.

“One of our biggest challenges is getting private dollars outside the downtown loop,” says Turner.  BG 2020 will help to do that.  The parks department worked with the city’s health department to create a database that puts information about health and education into the park sector framework to show needs and park access issues for each city neighborhood.  “Social equity, health and wellness or conservation – that’s how we frame our work. How do we put a package together that appeals?”

HPB6 “When we finished the plan for Memorial Park – one of the city’s signature parks – we took the plan to a broad set of neighborhoods across the city to show them what was happening and how they could get access to the park. BG 2020 trails will connect even more people to our signature parks.”  One of Memorial Park’s master plan designers surveyed walkers, runners and bicyclists traveling through the park and found that they came from more than 130 different zip codes.

In spite of plenty of mega-donors in Houston, Turner brought up the loss of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, reinforcing the value to cities of even limited funding.  LWCF, which Congress allowed to expire at the end of September, had provided support for federal, state and local park and open space projects for over 50 years.  Turner told me that, “…a lot of land acquisition for the BG 2020 plan occurred in the 1970s with funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  What a blow for cities that it was not reauthorized.  We are lucky to have that land base to help us get started.  It’s still relevant.  They’re a lost partner.”

Public-private park partnerships, even with more money coming from private donors, need public funding to keep the parks public and fully maintained.  To highlight exactly why Congress should fully empower LWCF, City Parks Alliance has released a report on the health benefits of parks and is working hard on support for reauthorization.

Photos courtesy of Hermann Park Conservancy, Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Houston Parks Board aand Memorial Park Conservancy.


Toronto’s Park People: Making Sense of Community Engagement in the Parks Business

Involving citizens and communities in the process of managing city parks may represent a new way of doing business for public park agencies, but it is an increasing necessity to have a constituency that supports and advocates for what the agency does. How a parks department is organized to accept and use different kinds of resources – including funding and volunteer support – will require unprecedented collaboration between the networks of public, private, and philanthropic actors, with a strong community base. Cities across the U.S. are coming to understand this, and so are some of our neighbors to the north.

In 2011, Peter Harnik at the Center for City Park Excellence suggested to Dave Harvey that he “throw everyone into a room” to talk about the need and value of a park partnership organization in Toronto. And he did. Representatives from 25-year old friends groups met newer friends of the parks’ groups and none knew of the existence of the others. As one person noted, “I’ve been working for years on my parks friends group and you are the first person to call and offer help.” The first meeting offered an opportunity for a wealth of pent-up sharing that turned into Toronto’s Park People

Toronto1Many factors led to the creation of Park People, but one key event was the 1998 amalgamation of six municipalities comprising Metropolitan Toronto. The merger was proposed as a cost-saving measure but the move caused turmoil for the city in its efforts to blend the policies, practices, priorities of six different cities – combined with budget cutbacks.

In the city of Toronto, access and equity had been long-standing policy priorities. Recreation was subsidized and effectively ‘free’ to residents. After amalgamation, which focused on efficiency and cost-effectiveness, many recreational activities had user fees associated with them.

Toronto2“The city had long done excellent work around parks but after the amalgamation and its budget cuts, the parks department was shell-shocked and didn’t have time to focus on constituency-building while it was trying to re-build its department,” says Dave Harvey, now Executive Director of Park People.

On the whole, park partnerships are quite new in Canada. “There’s a different culture up here that relies on government to take care of things – and historically government has done a good job of supporting city parks,” says Harvey. But over the last few decades, pressure to keep taxes low along with densifying cities have made it harder for the parks department to meet growing needs. “We’ve been in a bind with governments that can’t meet increasing needs but believing it was their job alone to do so.”

In general, cities are moving away from simply assessing a community’s “needs” and “wants”, which can result in a long wish list and unrealistic expectations of how they can meet these desires, and more toward an approach that is participatory and collaborative. As Harvey puts it, “…the city needs to transform the parks department from an asset-management business to more of a community-engagement business.”

Toronto3And Toronto is working on doing just that. “We’re making good progress,” says Harvey. “We’re building trust from both sides and learning. The city is seeing the opportunity of working with volunteers and what they can bring to the table; the elected officials got it right away.”

Park People has eight staff and a core budget of about $600,000. “We’re in the community engagement business through toolkits, summits, newsletters and social media. We’re especially hands on with groups in low-income neighborhoods.”

Toronto4Park People has an innovative partnership with The W. Garfield Weston Foundation and the Ontario Trillium Foundation to administer and bring expertise to the Weston Family Parks Challenge. The program supports projects that enhance the natural elements in parks, engage a broad range of partners and the local community and have the potential to be replicated in other jurisdictions.

With a commitment of $5 million over three years, The W. Garfield Weston Foundation launched the program to ensure the long-term sustainability of Toronto’s parks. Building on the success of the first year, the Ontario Trillium Foundation joined in 2014 with an additional commitment of $1.125 million towards the initiative. “In Canada, this level of philanthropy for city parks is unheard of,” says Harvey.

Toronto5Park People has also started the TD Park Builders program, in partnership with TD Bank. “Our work with communities has evolved,” says Harvey. “Originally we were working mostly in downtown, more affluent and connected neighborhoods. But our key challenge now is really in the inner suburbs where apartment buildings from the 1960s and 1970s now house hundreds of thousands of new immigrants often with little connection to community spaces.”

Park Builders supports these neighborhood groups with micro grants for the start-up of new friends groups and their early projects – typically community gardens, festivals, programming, etc. “Thousand dollar grants go a long way in making something happen quickly that builds community confidence and ownership of a park,” says Harvey. This year, a partnership with the Toronto International Film Festival provided movies in 10 parks in low income neighborhoods.

The biggest challenge for Park People is finding the right balance in bringing the city to the table as a real partner in public spaces.  “Are we an advocate or a partnership organization for improving communities and engaging constituency? Is our work best achieved by pounding the table or do we try to solve our challenges with collaboration? We’re learning that it’s a little bit of both and we’re evolving. It has been helpful to talk to other organizations like San Francisco Parks Alliance to learn how they amalgamated two different organizations and now manage to balance advocacy, fundraising and neighborhood partnerships,” says Harvey.

As in other cities, where parks are being used much more intensively now, Park People wants to help the city realize the potential of parks and public spaces as community building spaces. Government’s role in maximizing those opportunities is critical. Says Harvey, “We all need to be more creative about how to meet people’s changing needs in public parks.”

Toronto 7Building a parks culture that promotes volunteering and welcomes community engagement as something more than a temporal and transactional effort is hard. It will take time and long-term commitment from agency leaders to shift the beliefs, habits and mindsets of public officials away from the way things have always been done.

So what lessons does Harvey offer for other cities?

“You can’t succeed without the city. You have to work with them. As much effort as you put into building the neighborhood network you have to put into working with the city; your neighborhood network won’t be sustainable without a good way of working with the city. In our experience, success breeds success. By reaching out to the city and showing the positive outcomes that can come out of these partnerships we’re building trust and support. Both of you, at the end of the day should look at each other and say we couldn’t do it without the other.”

One indication of the progress that Park People is making is their work in and around public housing projects, helping to re-imagine their redevelopment with more public space, gardens and parks. Park People is also championing the Green Line, a potential new 3-mile linear park through a utility corridor being built out of some existing park spaces, brownfields, and parking lots.

Toronto8

Next summer you’ll have a chance to see it all for yourself. In 2016, Park People is collaborating with the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division and the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation to host City Parks Alliance’s next urban parks study tour, highlighting projects around waterfront redevelopment; parks serving large new immigrant communities/population increases; and partnerships with non-profits and communities. Mark your calendars for July 22-23 and reserve your spot today for the Toronto Urban Parks Study Tour.


Returning the Boldness of the World’s Fair to a San Antonio Park

“…the fair is fun, southwest style, but what San Antonio does with the center-city site after October will be the real measure of Hemisfair’s success.”

Ada Louise Huxtable, Architecture Critic
New York Times, April 4, 1968

Hemisfair1The 1968 world’s fair is the beginning of this story. The fair was built on a 92-acre site on the southeastern edge of downtown San Antonio, acquired mainly through eminent domain. Many structures in what was considered a blighted area were demolished and moved to make room for the fair, with some more important historic sites spared and preserved.

From April to October in 1968, about six million visitors came to the city. In typical fair planning, once the fair was complete the city lacked a good transition plan. So they put a fence around it and the site sat unimproved for 47 years.

It was a fantastic location for the fair, on the River Walk and near the convention center. In fact, the fair changed perceptions about the struggling River Walk and the city that reinvigorated its draw as a tourist destination. 

The fair site just east of the downtown had been a neighborhood of mixed uses – homes, churches, pharmacies, grocery stores and bars. When the city council decided to transform the HemisFair site into a series of urban parks embraced by a walkable neighborhood, the nonprofit Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC) was born with the goal of re-establishing the urban fabric of the old neighborhood.

Yes – the Hemisfair project is really about parks first. The mission of HPARC is to expand the existing park and to improve its quality.

“We looked at 36 parks around the country from New York to San Francisco and decided that a well-sized, well designed park with activators on its perimeter and connectivity to neighborhoods beyond will make the park successful with a built-in audience,” says Andres Andujar, CEO for HPARC.

In 2012, HPARC completed the renovation of three structures on the site which now serve as offices (Eagar House), conference center (Carriage House), and support services (Eagar Dependency) for HPARC. Along with the renovations, the San Antonio City Council voted to approve HPARC’s master plan for the redevelopment of the site.

“The goal is the re-branding of Hemisfair – with 3 parks and a neighborhood that seeks to bring the density back that existed previously,” says Andujar.

Plans are to develop a mix of 15 acres of residential, commercial and neighborhood amenities for 2,000 residents, along with 19 acres of parkland, close to the city’s convention center. Hemisfair is a city-designated historic district with many structures also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, all of which will be preserved.

Three phases of development are planned, beginning with the four-acre Yanaguana Garden, serving a “pre-K to gray” audience expected to open in October 2015. Says Andujar, “The measurement of this first phase isn’t how much money we make – although we need to be financially sustainable – but the goal is to once again energize the site.”

The Park-First Partnership

The key component for making the project work was the formation of the local government corporation, HPARC. HPARC is governed by an 11-member board comprised of representatives from a cross-section of local stakeholders. Board members are approved by the San Antonio City Council to serve two or four-year terms.

Hemisfair 2The public benefit corporation is not a city organization. Andujar and his team are not city employees and they don’t report to the city. But in this initial stage they are receiving funding from the city; by 2021 they expect to be independently funded.

“In the partnership we are highly engaged and communicative with the city, the conservancy and our partner developers. It is necessary for our potential success. The city has the resources and equipment to make this happen. But when you are hand-building a series of parks, the city doesn’t have the capacity to manage all the details and meet the expectations of city residents. Allowing a group of people who are specialists and dedicated 24/7 to that assignment is the beauty of the separate organization. That dedication is a huge advantage to accomplishing the parks,” Andujar explains.

HPARC is in constant contact with the city. Assistant City Manager Lori Houston is designated ex-officio by the city manager as Andres’ counterpart. She is a board member and serves on their executive committee. Andres and his team meet with the Mayor’s staff monthly, city council quarterly, and with city leadership every two weeks.

HPARC is a team of 15 people, including a project management team, separate from the city. HPARC staff takes the lead on design and programming for the parks. It also has the authority to solicit partnerships with the private sector for development and to determine how to manage private sector developers under a long term ground lease. None of the public land will be sold.

All of this is governed by a 114-page master agreement. “The master agreement is the mother agreement; it gives us the authority to do what we are doing – to manage the park space and the historic buildings for 99 years at $10/year on developable [sic] parcels. All the funds raised in the district will go to the park maintenance and programming.”

The Hemisfair Conservancy is the third leg of the stool and was set up as an independent nonprofit organization with a separate board of directors. Andres is an “observer” on their board and Conservancy director Anne Krause is an observer on his board.

Hemisfair Conservancy’s purpose is fundraising – not park operations. That’s the job of HPARC and, initially, the Park & Recreation Department of the City.

A Mix of Revenue Sources for Hemisfair

Hemisfair 3HPARC is currently funded by the city through a series of voter-approved bond measures for capital projects and the general fund for overhead expenses. But over the next 5-6 years they expect to draw their funding mostly from four revenue sources to meet their expected $6 million operating budget.

Fifty percent of revenue will come from long term ground leases from developers building mixed-use projects. A tax increment zone (TIF) is being created that will yield about 30% of income stream; all the TIFs in San Antonio are currently being used for capital; this one will also be for operating costs. Thirdly, the creation of a parking benefit district will provide about 10% of the budget for Hemisfair. They are creating boundaries for a district that will include curb-side parking outside of district property line e.g. across the streets from property. Parking is the first and last impression of a park visitor and they want to control that, including offering free parking when they want, or lowering the price for certain events.

The last source of revenue for the Hemisfair budget is donor recognition and the work of the conservancy. The Conservancy has put together a packet for donor recognition – naming rights – for each park. Each of the parks can be named for a gift of 70% of capital costs. Donors will also be able to name amenities. Funds raised through naming rights will be used for building the anticipated $50 million endowment.

Community-Driven

Yes, Andres says, there has been conversation about gentrification. His first response is that they are increasing the density of the district. There are currently no residences within the footprint of the project. The goal of HPARC is to bring back the 2,000 that were displaced in the 1960s through eminent domain.

But HPARC knows the project will impact property values in surrounding areas; some older residents will be protected by state legislation that freezes property tax based on age. They have created a policy regarding the provision of workforce housing. All of their developer partners are required to provide a minimum of 10% and a maximum of 50% workforce housing.

“Early on the biggest issue for us was building trust,” says Andujar. “You’re not sure what it means exactly when you start – but you know you can’t succeed without it. If you don’t communicate something well, it can become very complicated. So we communicate all the time and remain transparent about all of our work; the city has the right to audit us, we are an open records organization.

“We are aggressive about outreach during the park and street design stages. We have 30 different stakeholder groups that we talk to all the time, e.g., business owners, neighborhood associations, hotel operators, artists, developers, etc. 250 people showed up when we held a public session on street design.”

Unlike the 1968 redevelopment that created Hemisfair Park, the public-private partnership working on Hemisfair is taking the long view, planning for a legacy that is focused on San Antonio residents and their needs.

Says Andujar about the partnerships and the public feedback, “The things we have learned…oh my God, there is no way we would have what we have now without that aggressive public participation.”

KBlaha

Kathy 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.


A Different Kind of Tragedy of the Commons (Part 2)

“The question is: How do you improve access to parks and open space but not trigger this shift in property values and land uses that completely transform a community?”

Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley

My last blog post included a look at Chicago’s new 606 trail and related discussions about gentrification and how the project will impact the neighborhoods it passes through. Beth White, Chicago Director for The Trust for Public Land, a sponsor of the project, says that the overall goal is “to give everyone a walk in the park and connect people to nature, each other, public transit, and bike trails.” She notes that the Bloomingdale Trail will reunite four ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods and that their 80,000 residents, nearly a third of them children, have been separated by the railway since it was built in 1910.

GF1But fears have already set in regarding whether the new trail and park system will be so attractive as to raise property values and displace current residents. With a growing deficit of urban parks and the task of improving the quality at existing parks, cities are looking for ways to manage neighborhood investment and development plans, including parks, in ways that don’t disrupt community cohesiveness with gentrification.

Just about every major city in the country is struggling with gentrification and affordable housing shortages, from Portland, OR to New York City. Other factors like an aging population, increased diversity, and population growth can impact the mission and management policies of city park agencies and make “keeping up” with neighborhood demographic and real estate market pattern shifts hard to do.

Increasing urban density tends to involve the loss of overlooked places like abandoned rail lines, industrial waterfronts and brownfields – often redeveloped for parks and trails – leaving the heretofore unknown neighborhoods surrounding them to deal with all the market-related impacts of this sudden private and public investment.

I took a look at a few cities to see what kinds of approaches they are using to manage what happens when parks collide with market forces.

GF2The Portland Metro region in Oregon has been trying to find ways to link park improvement with permanent investments in affordable housing. Affordable housing advocates are focusing on securing more ongoing, sustainable solutions through the Welcome Home Coalition, a cooperative of 51 organizations working together in an effort to secure a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing. Their goal is also to play a larger role in managing public investments in neighborhoods.

Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, says that as inevitable as this process of “eco-gentrification” might seem, it doesn’t have to be. Wolch and some research collaborators who have tracked the trend recommend an intervention they call “just green enough“—a delicate balance of sustainability and equity. But Wolch’s ideas are controversial and have met with resistance from park advocates who argue that the solution is not to “dumb down” park design, but to build enough housing and to ensure affordability to avoid displacement.

GF3Eleventh Street Bridge Park, in Washington, DC, is still in the planning stages; construction isn’t expected to begin until 2017. Even at this stage, though, the organizers are considering how it will transform the surrounding communities, especially since—like the Bloomingdale Trail—it will connect economically disparate neighborhoods. And so they’ve created an equitable-development task force to guide programs and policies in order to avoid displacement, focusing on affordable housing, workforce development, and small business enterprises.

Many cities around the country are using community benefit agreements to solidify their bargaining ability and control over new investment. A community benefit agreement (CBA) is a contract signed by community groups and developers. Under a CBA, any new investment requires the developer to provide specific amenities and/or mitigations to the local community or neighborhood. In exchange, the community groups agree to publicly support the project. CBAs are seen as a way of ensuring real benefit to the neighborhood, especially when public subsidies like tax abatements and other incentives are being offered by the city.

GF4Detroit is looking to become the first city in the country to require that developers invite community members to the table when negotiating megaprojects. The city council is working to pass a new community benefit agreements ordinance; a bill in the state house is trying to block the city’s efforts, which some see as a way of getting around state wage rules.

With the Obama presidential library set to come to either Jackson Park or Washington Park in Chicago, a local group there is seeking help in crafting a proposed CBA to ensure local residents and businesses are not displaced by the possible gentrification that could come with the project. The collective’s seven-point vision for the CBA includes requirements that the library and foundation support the creation of new business, create legal protections against displacement of residents, and create a community impact fund.

Incentive-based zoning is also being used by cities. These zones provide developers with rewards like density bonuses, greater height or floor-area allowances, or parking space reductions in exchange for meeting certain public benefit objectives like affordable housing, transit or parks.  New York City may have pioneered this technique with a 1961 zoning ordinance revision, when it allowed extra floor area to office buildings in return for developers creating public plazas around the base of those buildings.  The downside of incentive zoning is that it will only produce a public benefit if the market can absorb the increased density easily, and that won’t work for every neighborhood.

GF5In California, the legislature has approved the use of Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFD), a new tax-sharing law that Los Angeles River advocates hope to use for creating a recreational corridor along the waterway. The master plan calls for parks and bike paths, wildlife habitat for animals, and the likely neighborhood economic revitalization that will follow the estimated $5.4 billion in development and 18,000 new jobs.

The idea behind the EIFD proposed for the Los Angeles River is that the people who live and own property in the surrounding neighborhoods will benefit through public investment.

Not surprisingly, community engagement is essential to making any of these methods work – and may be part of the reason that the field is ripe with new tools, as some argue that public planning efforts have not resulted in enough community engagement.

The CBA model was created in the late 1990s as a way for the communities most impacted by economic development projects to participate in the planning process. But CBAs – the right idea of bringing existing community members to the table when major neighborhood investment is at stake – are not without controversy. Professional planners argue that there is no way to ensure that the community is truly represented in a CBA, and that it cannot be a substitute for a true engagement effort in local planning.

Four CBAs negotiated in New York have been criticized as lacking strong inclusive community participation and being a means for working outside the city’s comprehensive plan. Other CBAs create problems for cities when privately negotiated agreements conflict with local zoning laws and master plans.

GF6One more tool on the rise for assuring community engagement in a neighborhood planning process – and managing the various public investments in parks and housing – is the public benefit corporation. Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City and the Hemisfair project in San Antonio are two examples of public benefit corporations.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park is a public park run by the nonprofit Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation. The 17-member board of directors is appointed by the city and works closely with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Its mission has been to plan, construct and maintain the park – and to use the construction of housing on a portion of the parkland to sustain the park’s operations.

GF7The public corporation behind Hemisfair in San Antonio works much the same way. The San Antonio City Council set up the nonprofit Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC) in 2009 to transform the Hemisfair site into a series of urban parks within a vibrant and walkable neighborhood.  HPARC is run by an 11-member volunteer board of directors approved by the city council. Residential units in various building types, densities, and heights will be constructed at Hemisfair, but never on parkland, and will include mixed-income housing.

Both Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation and Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation are examples of an effort to link parks and other public benefitswith public and private investments in housing in such a way as to preserve or create the kind of mixed-income community that can support the park.

The bottom line in planning for new and revitalized public parks is that in order to ensure that parks are not exclusive, they must be considered as another critical part of a city’s infrastructure, like water, schools and transportation. Cities have to find ways of including and involving community residents in the conversation about neighborhood transition – whether through public benefit corporations, infrastructure districts, and community benefit agreements or planning department-sponsored small area planning discussions. Because cities never want to be the position of saying no to a new park because of the socio-economic impact it might have.

Let’s hope the folks in Chicago working on the 606 make sure that the project serves those who need it the most.

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.


A Different Kind of Tragedy of the Commons?

606lineThe new 606 is open in Chicago – a mix of 2.7 miles of elevated trail with four ground-level parks along the route. Amidst the excitement of this new linear park, which will bridge four neighborhoods historically underserved by parks, is the familiar cautionary tale about its potential gentrifying impact. Like New York’s High Line, the badly needed park amenity is being viewed partly in light of its negative effects on the neighborhood it was designed to serve. (The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said about the High Line, “As a catalyst of neighborhood change, the High Line has been to usual gentrification what a bomb is to bottle rockets.”)

But the issue of the impact of a new park on property values – and the resulting displacement of longtime residents by the rising cost of housing – is worth a thoughtful analysis. Are we blaming parks for increasing property values, or might that be better explained as the result of the state of the housing market and public policy? 

Chicago pundits say that the construction of the trail is a conspicuous explanation for rising housing prices in the surrounding area, but it’s not the only one. An article in Chicago Reader argues that there may be more going on than just the park:

Real estate prices in Chicago overall are going up, still in recovery from the housing market crash of 2008. And Logan Square, and to a lesser extent Humboldt Park, were gentrifying well before plans to create the trail were part of the public consciousness; the media frenzy around the trail began only about three years ago, after the project began to move forward in earnest. Residents have been worried about being priced out for longer than that….

Any improvement in neighborhood quality is capable of increasing property values and rents. Yet it doesn’t seem like good policy to make the argument that in a park-poor neighborhood you don’t want to make park investments because it’s going to trigger gentrification, or that you make lesser investments so as to not tip the scale.

Stephen Sheppard, Professor of Economics and Director at the Center for Creative Community Development at Williams College says:

Reducing environmental pollution or crime will also increase house values and no person concerned with good public policies would propose increasing pollution or crime in a neighborhood in order to make housing more affordable….

The solution may be to take a wider look at creating and enhancing city parks through a “whole city” approach that considers not only the value of greening but other things going on around real estate, transportation, and broader access to parks.

The public-private partnerships investing in many urban park projects, both old and new, may be examples of worthy investments that don’t have enough partners. The well-intentioned efforts often don’t take into consideration the wider socioeconomic impact of new investment or the potential context for it: an affordable housing shortage, a growing deficit of good and accessible parks, or, a lack of sustainability policies that unite housing, parks, and transportation.

BrookBP2Brooklyn Bridge Park advocates in New York City have been torn over the right balance of parks and housing for the waterfront site for years. The City administration has proposed putting two residential towers within the boundaries of the park. The original idea was to create a maintenance revenue stream for the park but the idea has been contentious – including whether the project should embrace affordable housing – and no solution has emerged to satisfy advocates who desire not only a first-rate park with great public access but also a way to address overcrowding at neighborhood schools and create a diverse mix of badly needed new housing.

“People need to get out of this paradigm,” said Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, in an interview with the New York Times last year. “These are two legitimate public policy objectives we can achieve here. We are able to maintain this park and advance the public good.”

NoADIt’s not just parks causing gentrification worries but other cultural amenities, too. When the Museum of Contemporary Art opened its doors in 1999 on the site of a former brownfield in North Adams, Mass. – injecting a sudden infusion of $56 million in private and public funding into a depressed former industrial city – community development advocates feared the worst in terms of gentrification.

This well-studied cultural amenity investment turned out to be responsible for nearly 60% of the region’s net economic growth in the three years following its opening. And it had an impact on real estate prices, but the relative rise in property values turned out to be small given the abundance of affordable housing stock due to the city’s history of population loss. And so instead of driving residents from their homes, the influx of new businesses and jobs due to the museum increased the stability of the city.

When it comes to creative investment for parks in cities, public agencies may need to take greater responsibility and learn to anticipate the wider impacts of new parks. Park investments may need to be balanced with social policy and stronger community engagement tactics that recognize the impacts that these investments make. That way we don’t have to worry about the unintended consequence of a great new park like Chicago’s 606 – that it may never end up serving those who need it the most.

So, what are cities, including Chicago, doing to try and address greater access to parks without jeopardizing community cohesion? Visit the City Parks Blog again next week for Part 2 on parks and gentrification, where I will discuss the methods and tools people are using to tackle the issue.

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.


Greater and Greener: A Victory Lap in San Francisco’s Parks

Posted on May 16, 2015 by Kathy Blaha

GGPost1It was a kind of Bay Area parks ‘lovefest’ that evoked images of another set of park lovers from the 1960s. But this time the peace loving vibe was coming from civic leaders and park professionals attending  City Parks Alliance’s international urban parks conference, Greater and Greener: Innovative Parks, Vibrant Cities, a few weeks ago in sunny San Francisco – a city with more public open space than any metro area in the country.

One thousand global park leaders, city planning and design professionals, and urban park advocates from more than 200 cities and 17 countries shared stories, photographs, lessons, data and some good humor about how parks change and enhance our urban quality of life.

GGPost2The diversity of participants made for a vibrant and robust conversation about parks and their link to just about everything in our lives that has value – health, recreation, learning, clean water, play, education, economic development, social cohesion, urban resilience, and on and on. By making parks broadly relevant, the conference attracted and engaged leaders from health, science, technology, and other fields to collectively re-imagine parks in a new context of economic, environmental and social opportunities.

In addition to the 150 speakers leading workshop sessions inside classrooms, the conference also offered more than 80 expert-led tours of parks, mobile workshops and special events that featured San Francisco’s beautifully groomed parks and community facilities.

At the start of each day we heard from inspirational speakers that set the tone for the conference with humor, insight and new knowledge. Reverend Norman Fong, Executive Director for the Chinatown Community Development Center, made us laugh out loud with his personal experiences of greening the city’s neighborhood parks and alleys; Dr. Deborah Cohen from the RAND Corporation surprised us with the latest research on parks and health; Zynga founder and chairman Mark Pincus showed us that nature and technology in parks go together like…a horse and carriage in Central Park? And, a comment on Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom’s rising star that was made during his introduction had us dreaming about a national leader who would make city parks a priority.

One team of plenary speakers wowed us with innovations in resilience using green infrastructure in parks and another group, masterfully led by Benjamin de la Peña from one of the conference sponsors, Knight Foundation, charmed us with insights on the value of park designs that embrace community process and unconventional thinking.

Woven through all the workshop tracks was my favorite subject – park partnerships. I had the pleasure of moderating an expert panel on partnerships and capital campaigns with Caroline Cunningham from the Trust for the National Mall, Chris Nolan from Central Park Conservancy and Greg Moore from Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

City Parks Alliance’s 2008 conference in Pittsburgh was the first year that the organization actively reached out to attendees from other countries. This year, international participants played a much larger role at the conference, capturing seats at many of the plenary and workshop presentations and sharing their innovations from afar, such as David Escobar’s presentation on Medellín’s library parks and Nico Tillie’s resilience lessons using green infrastructure in Rotterdam.

UrbanTrek1At the root of all these terrific discussions is the simple fact that everyone loves parks but no one wants to pay for them. The good news is that even though most of us know that parks and green spaces can have a net positive effect in cities, the conference sessions were more sophisticated in their approach to measuring that benefit, building support, raising money and raising consciousness to make parks a priority.

Ending on a high note, the folks from Minneapolis and Saint Paul – where CPA and a local host team are already hard at work getting ready for the next conference – played a video showing their hometown parks to attract us all to the Twin Cities in 2017. Given what we saw and heard in San Francisco, I don’t think there will be much arm-twisting needed. I know all of us from Miami will be there!

Greater & Greener 2017 from City Parks Alliance on Vimeo.


Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece

Posted on February 27, 2015 by Kathy Blaha

Susan Rademacher, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Curator, has written a new book on Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, its history and its recent rehabilitation by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy which, at first glance, is a paean to great landscape design. It is a jewel of an example of how a small public space when designed right can have a huge impact on a downtown or in this case, an entire city and over time.

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece, the second in a series by the Cultural Landscape Foundation (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95), traces the Square from its original design and construction in 1955 through its evolution as a public space that manages to stay relevant and foundational for over 50 years in a city that suffered its share of economic ups and downs.  

Mellon1The Square, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, not only transitions the city’s socio-economic setbacks but provides a focal point for revitalization efforts time and again.  The strength of its original design and defining features continue to define the character of the new space even in its most recent renewal.

The book provides historical context for both urban renewal and landscape architecture, featuring the acclaimed Simonds & Simonds landscape architectural firm and a setting that reminds us of how the field of landscape architecture was evolving as a design discipline when the Square was first designed.

Designed by landscape architect John O. Simonds, in collaboration with architect James Ritchey, of Mitchell and Ritchey, Simonds worked to mix the tradition of landscape gardening with city planning to meet the city’s goal for the site: a quiet, unspoiled haven of beauty, rest and relaxation for individuals and small groups open to the public at all times.

Mellon2But for me, what is of most interest is that alongside the book’s history of the design of the Square – and message of the enduring values of good design – is a compelling backdrop story of the leadership, partnership and city planning initiative that was critical to creating the original Square and its most recent rehabilitation.

The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, an organization backed by Mellon was created in 1943 to improve air quality, control downtown flooding and revitalize downtown; in 1946 the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh was created to work as a partner to the ACCD to carry out major municipal development projects – and one of their first challenges was to meet the city’s growing need for parking.  They were some of the first organizations of their kind to focus on a city’s development.

Mellon3In addition to the ACCD and the URA, Susan tells of the leadership that aligned around the city’s revitalization goals – Edgar Kaufmann, a businessman, Mayor David Lawrence, and Richard King Mellon in particular – and who used the city’s parking challenge to devise a new vision for the city, including the creation of a downtown park.

Mitchell and Ritchey, along with Simonds & Simonds and consulting engineer George Richardson developed the framework idea of a square or park over a garage.  Kaufmann also invited Frank Lloyd Wright into the city to devise a new civic center and later invited Mitchell and Ritchey to develop ideas for shaping the future of downtown.

The nascent public-private partnership that, “…combined public authority with civic leadership and private funding…” was instrumental in influencing the design, funding and building of the Square in such a way that their vision and their partnership did shape downtown development following the completion of Mellon Square.

In the 1980s when demographic shifts and economic decline took over the city a renewed public-private partnership emerged to rescue the Square from overuse, maintenance challenges and evolving purposes; but like many downtown public squares, plazas and parks, even with privately supported planning and capital improvements, public maintenance did not keep up with need and by 2007 Mellon Square was once again showing signs of disrepair.

Mellon 4By 2007, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy had been in existence for just over ten years and was well-respected for its work on some of the city’s other historic public parks – Frick, Highland, Riverview and Schenley – and had completed 14 capital projects for the city, raising over $76 million in the process.  With major funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Bank of New York Mellon – and a partnership with the City, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership – the Conservancy began work on a new plan for restoration of the Square and engaged a planning team led by Patricia M. O’Donnell.

Their goal in the redesign was to balance the strength of the original design with newer needs and newer resource limitations.  In addition to preservation and restoration they understood the need for an extended partnership that could develop a plan along with the resources to maintain the space, make it safe and sustainable.

They wanted to increase usership and create a more engaging experience – and like most park conservancies today they wanted to appeal to those users who could become stewards and a stronger constituency for helping to manage and maintain the Square.

The completed project is a beautiful success and is being welcomed as one of the most important landscape architecture projects of the year.  The Conservancy has entered into an operating agreement with the city for a 29-year period that requires the city to continue to provide its current level of maintenance resources with the conservancy meeting custodial, security, programming and repair needs.

One of the important things that the book highlights is that Pittsburgh thrives on public-private partnerships.  When I interviewed Meg Cheever, the Conservancy’s Executive Director, in 2013 she told me when I asked her about the challenges of creating a good partnership that, “…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.”

Susan’s book on Mellon Square captures that culture nicely with a thorough design history of the Square, the underlying evolution of the field of landscape architecture and the role a significant public plaza has played in Pittsburgh’s downtown development – all woven nicely together with a captivating look at the civic partnerships that continue to set the tone for a city comfortable with innovation around planning, design and governance.


City Park Conservancies: A Treasure Trove of New Knowledge

Posted on March 27, 2015 by Kathy Blaha

Peter Harnik at The Trust for Public Land has once again added to the foundation of knowledge about city parks with a new report issued by the Center for City Park Excellence. Public Spaces/Private Money: The Triumphs and Pitfalls of Urban Park Conservancies is a report by Harnik and Abby Martin that looks at 41 organizations from around the nation that are partnering with public agencies to plan, design, operate and manage city parks.

Starting with the ‘roots’ of the conservancy movement in New York and San Francisco, the report provides a good overview and much data about the growing number of park conservancies. Most conversations about the history of park conservancies start with the formation of the Central Park Conservancy in 1980 but Harnik and Martin’s report enlightens the discussion with what was happening on the west coast with the creation of the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy at roughly the same time in 1981. 

Since then, the idea of park partners has taken hold in cities around the country – almost 50% of major cities have at least one conservancy. Harnik and Martin’s report looks at 41 of these organizations who in 2012, collectively spent $158 million dollars on operations and capital construction. As Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, director of Denver’s Civic Center Conservancy says in the report, “Conservancies exist because the projects they’re working on are really difficult.”

Up until recently, management of city parks was most often the purview of public agencies. It is only in the last twenty years that varying models of partnerships – with other public agencies, nonprofits and for-profit corporations have become more common. According to Paul Eagles, the Canadian planner and academic at the University of Waterloo, not only is park management changing but so is the governance of them – which determines the effectiveness of management. The framework of new partners in governance is what is driving many of the changes in how our parks are operated and programmed.

KBblog1Public Spaces/Private Money cites the value that private partnerships and their resources have brought to parks but also cites the growing concerns around equity and the possibility of displacement of public agency resources and responsibility. The report provides recommendations to minimizing both issues by being deliberate in working in partnership, including developing formal agreements and park master plans, as well as defining clear roles and responsibilities for public officials and for the leadership of the conservancy.

The relationship between a well-connected and passionate board of directors and city officials is crucial to a good partnership. Quoting from the report, “Participation by public officials reaffirms to volunteer board members that their work is important and appreciated …and guarantees that the public interest will be represented while protecting the board from “privatization” accusations.”

At least much of the time. Many of the early conservancies are finding that as their capabilities and performance success has grown so has the call for them to do more, in some cases taking responsibility for planning, capital improvements, and as much as 85% of daily maintenance as is the case for the Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta. To do so well, many conservancies are mindful of a third partner in their efforts – the community of surrounding residents and users of the park – and are creating mechanisms to engage and keep them at the table.

kbblog2“We made the mistake of relying on our board members or allied community members to disseminate ideas. It wasn’t enough to counter suspicions that we were privatizing the park,” cites one conservancy director in the report. Many directors interviewed for the report say that programming the parks as much as anything allows for more outreach and more engagement and more assurance that the park stays true to its public values.

Six case studies illustrate the creation and growth of conservancies in cities around the country with data and stories about how they are responding to challenges that vary from building new parks, renovating old ones and operating, managing and programming them to serve growing numbers of users. But interspersed in the report are multiple lessons from conservancy directors and public agency officials that underline the fact that these partnerships are an ongoing project. Having twenty or thirty years of experience is terrific but as circumstances change – elected officials and founding board members move on, for example, and higher park use demands more frequent restoration – the tips from these leaders are all the more valuable.

The work of the Center for City Park Excellence and the City Parks Alliance will be front and center at the City Parks Alliance’s upcoming Greater and Greener 2015 conference on April 11-14 in San Francisco. This is truly a not-to-miss conference for urban park leaders, city officials, planners, designers, architects and advocates who believe in the power of parks and are working in partnership to make them more resilient and vibrant.

Two workshops will occur at the conference that focus on park partnerships – one for new partnerships that will focus on how to get started; and a second, which I’ll be moderating, on leveraging and sustaining partnerships during fundraising, especially capital campaigns. Both panels will be filled with some of the best and most experienced park partners in the field – many of whom are featured in Public Spaces/Private Money. So don’t waste any time in getting registered. Between the panel sessions, field trips and networking you’re likely to get every penny back – and then some – on your registration fees in the learning that will go on. And pick up a copy of the new report before you go for reading on your flight!


Greater and Greener: A Victory Lap in San Francisco’s Parks

Posted on May 14, 2015 by Kathy Blaha

GGPost1It was a kind of Bay Area parks ‘lovefest’ that evoked images of another set of park lovers from the 1960s. But this time the peace loving vibe was coming from civic leaders and park professionals attending  City Parks Alliance’s international urban parks conference, Greater and Greener: Innovative Parks, Vibrant Cities, a few weeks ago in sunny San Francisco – a city with more public open space than any metro area in the country.

One thousand global park leaders, city planning and design professionals, and urban park advocates from more than 200 cities and 17 countries shared stories, photographs, lessons, data and some good humor about how parks change and enhance our urban quality of life.

GGPost2The diversity of participants made for a vibrant and robust conversation about parks and their link to just about everything in our lives that has value – health, recreation, learning, clean water, play, education, economic development, social cohesion, urban resilience, and on and on. By making parks broadly relevant, the conference attracted and engaged leaders from health, science, technology, and other fields to collectively re-imagine parks in a new context of economic, environmental and social opportunities.

In addition to the 150 speakers leading workshop sessions inside classrooms, the conference also offered more than 80 expert-led tours of parks, mobile workshops and special events that featured San Francisco’s beautifully groomed parks and community facilities.

At the start of each day we heard from inspirational speakers that set the tone for the conference with humor, insight and new knowledge. Reverend Norman Fong, Executive Director for the Chinatown Community Development Center, made us laugh out loud with his personal experiences of greening the city’s neighborhood parks and alleys; Dr. Deborah Cohen from the RAND Corporation surprised us with the latest research on parks and health; Zynga founder and chairman Mark Pincus showed us that nature and technology in parks go together like…a horse and carriage in Central Park? And, a comment on Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom’s rising star that was made during his introduction had us dreaming about a national leader who would make city parks a priority.

One team of plenary speakers wowed us with innovations in resilience using green infrastructure in parks and another group, masterfully led by Benjamin de la Peña from one of the conference sponsors, Knight Foundation, charmed us with insights on the value of park designs that embrace community process and unconventional thinking.

Woven through all the workshop tracks was my favorite subject – park partnerships. I had the pleasure of moderating an expert panel on partnerships and capital campaigns with Caroline Cunningham from the Trust for the National Mall, Chris Nolan from Central Park Conservancy and Greg Moore from Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

City Parks Alliance’s 2008 conference in Pittsburgh was the first year that the organization actively reached out to attendees from other countries. This year, international participants played a much larger role at the conference, capturing seats at many of the plenary and workshop presentations and sharing their innovations from afar, such as David Escobar’s presentation on Medellín’s library parks and Nico Tillie’s resilience lessons using green infrastructure in Rotterdam.

UrbanTrek1At the root of all these terrific discussions is the simple fact that everyone loves parks but no one wants to pay for them. The good news is that even though most of us know that parks and green spaces can have a net positive effect in cities, the conference sessions were more sophisticated in their approach to measuring that benefit, building support, raising money and raising consciousness to make parks a priority.

Ending on a high note, the folks from Minneapolis and Saint Paul – where CPA and a local host team are already hard at work getting ready for the next conference – played a video showing their hometown parks to attract us all to the Twin Cities in 2017. Given what we saw and heard in San Francisco, I don’t think there will be much arm-twisting needed. I know all of us from Miami will be there!

Greater & Greener 2017 from City Parks Alliance on Vimeo.


Parks: In a Golden Age…Without Two Nickels?

Posted on November 7, 2014 by Kathy Blaha

Dallas1It has been a good couple of weeks for news about city parks. Many of them have been featured in the press with a focus on the value they bring to cities.

Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre deck park built over a recessed freeway in Texas, was awarded the 2014 ULI Urban Open Space Award for bridging the downtown Dallas cultural district with burgeoning mixed-use neighborhoods, “…reshaping the city and catalyzing economic development.” Klyde Warren Park is expected to generate $312.7 million in economic development and $12.7 million in tax revenue for the city of Dallas.

At the Philly Parks Future Forum, park experts from five city agencies – Seattle, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Chicago – gathered to talk about characteristics of good city parks departments. Presented by the City Parks Alliance, the forum was focused on how city parks are one of the greatest assets to the country and how they are progressing nationally.  San Francisco Recreation & Park’s General Manager, Phil Ginsberg, spoke about his city finally coming out of the recession with modest growth in their budget, saying, “The ROI for parks solving urban issues is high.”  And on the issue of equity, Jayne Miller, Superintendent for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, said, “We know parks do more for cities to address the great divide – we reach everybody with our parks.” 

NY2Earlier this month Mayor Bill de Blasio once again asked park conservancies in New York City to voluntarily provide financial aid to poorer parks, as his administration announced plans to invest $130 million of public funding to help 35 parks that have been underfunded for decades. First Deputy Commissioner for New York City Parks, Liam Kavanagh, provided more details at the Philly Parks Future Forum, commenting on the city’s efforts to link park investment with health and wellness issues in dense lower income neighborhoods.  Recently, New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman challenged the mayor to do much more.

And the Urban Land Institute’s Fall meeting in New York City last week featured a panel with Peter Harnik, Center for City Park Excellence – who said that parks were in a golden age thanks to private sector alliances; Dan Biederman, Biederman Redevelopment Ventures; and Tupper Thomas, New Yorkers for Parks, on parks and economic value. The take-away for the media was, “Open spaces in urban areas not only improve communities but can add billions of dollars to adjacent commercial real estate properties.”

Still, in spite of all this really terrific news about parks and all the value they are generating, most cities are still struggling to find enough revenue to operate and maintain them. The search continues for a business model that will lift all parks to a better and more sustainable standard for operations and maintenance.

The most common way of funding parks has been for cities to increase the annual budget for their parks and recreation agencies – but the reality today is that most cities are seeing these revenues decrease.

Another way to fund parks is to create new taxing districts – through a business improvement district (BID), e.g., Bryant Park’s district, which Dan Biederman spoke about at the ULI panel, saying, “We’re not comfortable taking money from the government or private philanthropies. We wrote off government funding completely in 1997.”

SEA 3Or, a citywide special district as in the case of Seattle where city voters agreed in August to tax themselves with a new park district. The measure is expected to generate $48 million a year – with a property tax rate set at 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or about $149 annually for the owner of a $450,000 home. Acting Superintendent for Seattle Parks and Recreation, Christopher Williams, said the new funding and their strong citizen advisory board will create the resources and engagement needed to take on operations and maintenance for a growing system.

In the middle of the country, extreme philanthropy is creating new parks. Thanks to a generous gift of $350 million from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, in partnership with the city of Tulsa, the foundation is leading an effort to revitalize Tulsa’s riverfront by connecting three adjacent waterfront parcels to the existing River Parks system, creating a new and larger central open space for the city.

Possibly the most sustainable revenue source for parks is to leverage all that added real estate value they provide to their neighborhoods, as in the case of the controversial efforts at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a park which exists today because of a hybrid public-private model and an agreement between the state and the city that requires that the park be funded by private development.

BBP4In Philadelphia, Gia Biagi, Chief of Staff for the Chicago Park District, shared their efforts to mine the data on property valuation and parks to better understand the impact that parks are having on surrounding real estate. In studying the land value impact of properties within a two block radius of each park, the Park District found that, on average, 1.5% of property value is due to the neighboring park. And small parks performed the best, with up to 3.5-4% of property value being leveraged by nearby parks.

Much remains to be done for parks to become sustainable in this golden age of philanthropy and private investment. Part of the solution is finding an equity and public interest balance with the increasing private funding and shared governance. As Gia Biagi said in Philadelphia, “The voices speaking for parks must be diverse, authentic and local.”

But part of the solution is also holding onto the public dollars that still flow to parks, as Tupper Thomas addressed nicely in her response to Mayor De Blasio’s proposed capital investment for community parks: “The Community Parks Initiative is smart parks policy that takes the long view. There are, of course, alternate ways to fund parks…but the key to addressing park equity issues has always been meaningful public-sector investment.”

 


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
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!

 

 

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

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.  

We experimented with learning strategies, such as panels, small group discussions, storyboarding, case studies and facilitated Q&A sessions.  The workshop was well-received and since the group was small enough, we were able to delve a little deeper in our discussions about how and why things worked out the way they did as well as strategies for changing things that didn’t work well.  Above all, we talked about the “holy trinity” of fairness, transparency and inclusiveness – setting the right tone to be effective and accountable.

But we have much to learn in order to create a more complete learning experience.  We know that there are competencies around collaboration and engagement including good leadership, good process (group dynamic) skills, being strategic and creative, being inclusive, and being accountable.  Some people can do it naturally; others need help in breaking down the steps. That’s what we’re working to figure out at City Parks Alliance.

If the average American city works with private partners to perform 23 of 65 basic municipal services (according to Rick Norment of the National Council on Public Private Partnerships) then we know that P3s are changing the way cities work.  We in the urban parks field need to know what’s happening and how we can position parks to succeed in the midst of changing governance roles.

P3P3Our next workshops – one for getting started and one advanced discussion – will be held at City Parks Alliance’s Greater & Greener conference in April 2015 in San Francisco. They will again be offered in the spirit of teaching, sharing and learning from the speakers and participants.  Over the next year, it is City Parks Alliance’s goal to create an intellectual foundation for park partnerships that includes a framework for cataloguing their myriad types, an understanding of the skills needed to be effective partners, case studies around successful partnerships and, most importantly, effective teaching strategies.

I believe we’re up to the challenge with a terrific network of members and partners all around the United States and the world who are the creative force behind this new movement.  I welcome your ideas and your participation at Greater & Greener 2015 where we’ll be sharing lessons from Los Angeles and other cities during several conference sessions.


Denver Parks on Parade

Posted on August 21, 2014 by Kathy Blaha

Earlier this month, more than 30 park professionals from the US and Canada were hosted by Denver Parks and Recreation Department in collaboration with City Parks Alliance for a tour of their park system. Eighteen cities were represented, including teams from Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

Photo courtesy of Hope GibsonThe Denver team put on a first class demonstration of their expertise in planning, design, construction and programming – from the smallest neighborhood park to Red Rocks Amphitheater, a part of Denver’s mountain parks system – and in every case showing us how a twenty-first century city parks department operates: seamlessly.

From the neighborhood partnerships to the collaboration with their own city departments to alliances with social service providers, arts and music organizations, and other parks programmers, Denver’s parks department uses and leverages all the value that parks offer and its mission can muster. Citywide partners like the Trust for Public Land – perfectly exemplifying its urban mission - and the Colorado Health Foundation are working closely with the department on many of its projects; as are local developers, transit, and bicycling partners. On some of our park visits it was hard to tell who worked for whom; in fact, most said  they worked for the parks.

Photo courtesy of Hope Gibson.

DEN2The parks staff showed themselves to be sophisticated players who understand the role of parks in making a great city and have earned their seat at the table for project planning for much of Denver’s visionary redevelopment. We heard about the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, a compelling vision from Mayor Michael B. Hancock to re-create and connect North Denver neighborhoods with trails, parks and river access; transit development; a next generation Denver Coliseum and reconstruction of I-70 – with a project timeline of more than 10 years driven by public-private partnerships and innovative use of the South Platte River.

A bus trip through Stapleton, the redeveloped former Denver international airport property, revealed nearly 1,200 acres of new parkland – 35% of the redevelopment project – at the center of which is the 80-acre Stapleton Central Park beautifully anchoring the community to its high plains context.

DEN5Classic downtown parks like Civic Center Park and Cheesman Park act as both gathering places for civic events and a nexus for art, history, and landscape architecture. And new neighborhood parks, like Triangle Park, showed how art and gardens could go hand in hand with warehouse redevelopment.

Right through the city runs the South Platte River Greenway, one of the most ambitious urban waterfront projects in the nation – and it’s still growing partly to reach more neighborhoods and partly as it is redesigned to accommodate soaring use – such as at Confluence Park, where the South Platte meets up with Cherry Creek. Word has it that real estate prices around the confluence are some of the highest in the state, second only to Aspen.

The Denver area has had much rain this season and the landscape was in its full glory – green grass, rushing streams and rivers, an abundance of flowers, and, of course, an abundance of park visitors. Every park we visited was filled with users – even the ones that had yet to open had a bevy of young fans hanging on the fences, wondering when the park was going to open.

DEN6Not only does the parks team perform seamlessly in their partnerships, but the parks are connected to each other via the river corridors, transit and trails, making one feel like you never had to get in your car – except maybe for below zero temps in the winter. During our visit to the downtown area we were shown the newly re-opened Union Station, entering via the flower-filled promenade and seeing the underground passenger station with 22 bus stations that links local and regional travel – with a connector to the airport on schedule for early 2016.

What did the visiting guests take away from all this?

Design. Everywhere you looked there was careful attention to detail that made the user experience more comfortable, beautiful, and practical.

Leadership. Lauri Dannemiller and Gordon Robertson are doing something right to be a regular part of the Mayor’s vision team for the city.

Capability. How many city park departments include 14,000 acres of mountain parks that are maintained and programmed by the same team working in the city’s playgrounds?

Innovation. Parks are linked in creative ways to economic development, stormwater management, flood control, and transit that make the movement from parks to work to home appear…yes, seamless.


Denver Parks on Parade

Posted on August 21, 2014 by Kathy Blaha

Earlier this month, more than 30 park professionals from the US and Canada were hosted by Denver Parks and Recreation Department in collaboration with City Parks Alliance for a tour of their park system. Eighteen cities were represented, including teams from Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

Photo courtesy of Hope GibsonThe Denver team put on a first class demonstration of their expertise in planning, design, construction and programming – from the smallest neighborhood park to Red Rocks Amphitheater, a part of Denver’s mountain parks system – and in every case showing us how a twenty-first century city parks department operates: seamlessly.

From the neighborhood partnerships to the collaboration with their own city departments to alliances with social service providers, arts and music organizations, and other parks programmers, Denver’s parks department uses and leverages all the value that parks offer and its mission can muster. Citywide partners like the Trust for Public Land – perfectly exemplifying its urban mission - and the Colorado Health Foundation are working closely with the department on many of its projects; as are local developers, transit, and bicycling partners. On some of our park visits it was hard to tell who worked for whom; in fact, most simply said they worked for the parks.

DEN2The parks staff showed themselves to be sophisticated players who understand the role of parks in making a great city and have earned their seat at the table for project planning for much of Denver’s visionary redevelopment. We heard about the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, a compelling vision from Mayor Michael B. Hancock to re-create and connect North Denver neighborhoods with trails, parks and river access; transit development; a next generation Denver Coliseum and reconstruction of I-70 – with a project timeline of more than 10 years driven by public-private partnerships and innovative use of the South Platte River.

A bus trip through Stapleton, the redeveloped former Denver international airport property, revealed nearly 1,200 acres of new parkland – 35% of the redevelopment project – at the center of which is the 80-acre Stapleton Central Park beautifully anchoring the community to its high plains context.

DEN5Classic downtown parks like Civic Center Park and Cheesman Park act as both gathering places for civic events and a nexus for art, history, and landscape architecture. And new neighborhood parks, like Triangle Park, showed how art and gardens could go hand in hand with warehouse redevelopment.

Right through the city runs the South Platte River Greenway, one of the most ambitious urban waterfront projects in the nation – and it’s still growing partly to reach more neighborhoods and partly as it is redesigned to accommodate soaring use – such as at Confluence Park, where the South Platte meets up with Cherry Creek. Word has it that real estate prices around the confluence are some of the highest in the state, second only to Aspen.

The Denver area has had much rain this season and the landscape was in its full glory – green grass, rushing streams and rivers, an abundance of flowers, and, of course, an abundance of park visitors. Every park we visited was filled with users – even the ones that had yet to open had a bevy of young fans hanging on the fences, wondering when the park was going to open.

DEN6Not only does the parks team perform seamlessly in their partnerships, but the parks are connected to each other via the river corridors, transit and trails, making one feel like you never had to get in your car – except maybe for below zero temps in the winter. During our visit to the downtown area we were shown the newly re-opened Union Station, entering via the flower-filled promenade and seeing the underground passenger station with 22 bus stations that links local and regional travel – with a connector to the airport on schedule for early 2016.

What did the visiting guests take away from all this?

Design. Everywhere you looked there was careful attention to detail that made the user experience more comfortable, beautiful, and practical.

Leadership. Lauri Dannemiller and Gordon Robertson are doing something right to be a regular part of the Mayor’s vision team for the city.

Capability. How many city park departments include 14,000 acres of mountain parks that are maintained and programmed by the same team working in the city’s playgrounds?

Innovation. Parks are linked in creative ways to economic development, stormwater management, flood control, and transit that make the movement from parks to work to home appear…yes, seamless.


Community-Led Park Partnerships: It’s Not Just the Money

Posted on May 1, 2014 by Kathy Blaha | Edit

The Cully neighborhood is considered the most “parks-deficient” neighborhood in Portland. Citywide, 40 percent of residents live within a quarter-mile of a park. In Cully, only 24 percent do, with almost 23 percent of neighborhood children living in poverty.

Cully 1For over twenty years, Cully residents set their sights on the conversion of a 25-acre grassy field in the neighborhood, well-located and large enough for a range of community activities – even if it happened to be the site of a former landfill.

Tony DeFalco, Coordinator for Let Us Build Cully Park! (LUBCP!) recalls, “The community wanted it badly enough to figure out a way to build it. You had 25 acres, active methane collection and multiple partners involved in managing the site. We knew we needed to raise capital to organize a working coalition.”

Verde, a non-profit dedicated to building wealth in low-income communities, has been working with residents of Cully Park but as early as 1996, residents and the Cully Association of Neighbors negotiated with the mayor for a parks master plan. In 2010, Verde spearheaded development of LUBCP!, which was formed with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Northwest Health Foundation. Their coalition included 16 other organizations to maintain the community’s presence with municipal, environmental, and public health agencies through the redevelopment process for the site.

Cully 2Members of the coalition served as connections to communities living near the park, including youth, Latinos, Somalis, low-income people, low-income housing providers, tribal people, longtime neighborhood residents, and newcomers to the neighborhood. For the first time in Portland, residents were involved during the actual sampling of soil at a brownfield site.

“Partnerships were borne out of necessity,” says Tony. “The first ones were with Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Oregon Health Authority. We needed health and safety to be the primary consideration – we had to get past the distrust and show that the issues around health and safety were being addressed – as well as efforts toward building a park.”

The park site is surrounded by a mix of uses. On three sides are light industrial uses and a rail line; another side is residential, and another is a major street. The area is a mish-mash, poorly planned and not easy to access thanks to poor sidewalks, limited legal access, and a lack of transit. Related to building the park are efforts to work with surrounding business owners and residents to build safe ways to get there.

So how do you attract partners and engage the community to convert a former landfill site – that’s not very accessible – into a park?

“The easy part has been responding to strong desire, said Tony. “People were inspired to be involved. They had a vision for what the site could be. The grant helped community development corporations pay for staff time to engage their constituencies in the park planning process. The Native American youth group, for example, got involved around the proposed playground and tribal garden. LUBCP! created the capacity to be the lead partner on the community side.”Cully 3

The park is being built under a “design-build” contract which has allowed the local coalition to engage local, women-owned, and minority businesses to develop the site.   When designed and built the park will be turned over to the city for management and maintenance – with some co-management for at least the tribal gathering garden. The agreement made through the Portland Parks Foundation is the first the city has done with tribal people.

“This park is part of an anti-displacement strategy,” said Tony. “Park creation often leads to gentrification and displacement. We want to control as much as possible the investments coming into this neighborhood. This park is part of a series of investments in the neighborhood – housing, job creation and green infrastructure – called ‘Living Cully.’ We’re delivering needed assets in a way that puts money into the pockets of people in the community.”

The community garden is open to people who have garden plots but the full park is not officially open yet. Expected to open in the Fall of 2015, it will create a public space for 775 families in the area.

Cully 4Encouraging this level of community leadership took work on both the part of the neighborhood and the city as well as the state health and environmental organizations. The community’s ability to articulate its need and vision for the park, personalize the issue and mobilize large groups of residents to help lead the process captured the attention of the public agencies including the parks department. Success thus far has been resident-driven but maintaining that resident engagement will be challenging.

“We haven’t completely answered the question of programming,” said Tony. “Our fall back is that the parks department will manage the site and co-manage the Inter-Tribal Gathering Garden.   Our current group meets every two months with agency partners to work on a variety of issues around the park.”

While financial resources are a key factor in sustainability, it takes more than money to sustain community park partnerships. One upside to the Cully Park project is that the public agencies involved were encouraged by the success of the collaboration. If the coalition can maintain its leadership role in the park project, they can help to manage, program and sustain park operations. Maybe one outcome of this success story is that the park department uses this experience as a springboard for developing technical assistance resources to help more neighborhood partners. Supporting community-based leadership can only help both sustain their success in their overlapping mission.


Balancing the “Private” in a Public-Private Partnership: Orange County Great Park

Posted on May 14, 2014 by Kathy Blaha | Edit

Recently I talked with Mike Ellzey, the Chief Executive Officer of the Orange County Great Park Corporation, the nonprofit public benefit organization charged with the design, construction, and maintenance of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. We spoke soon after the city struck a new deal with the project’s related housing developer that puts the park back on solid ground after the 2008 real estate crash and the state’s dissolution of its redevelopment agencies threatened its completion.

OCGP2The Orange County Great Park is the official name for the park portion of a reuse plan for the decommissioned Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, in Irvine, California. The 2002 voter approval for this very ambitious project ($1.4 billion budget) – after 3 previous initiatives failed – envisioned a team of partners to bring off the project, including a public nonprofit corporation charged with the design, construction, and maintenance of the Orange County Great Park.

Following the annexation of the property by the city of Irvine in 2003, the Navy held an online auction for the El Toro property. Miami-based Lennar Corporation purchased the entire property for $650 million and entered into a development agreement with the City of Irvine. Under the terms of the development agreement, Lennar was granted limited development rights to build the Great Park Neighborhoods in return for land and capital – $200 million – to allow the construction of the Great Park.

Just as the partners got started, the real estate market crashed, slowing the arrival of the expected homes and the property tax revenue they were expected to bring.  At the same time, the state eliminated local redevelopment agencies — the financial engine generating tax funds to continue construction of the park — and dealt a crushing blow to Irvine’s plans.

City officials spent much of the original $200 million for the park completing about 230 acres but much of the land remains fenced off, dotted with old military barracks and crisscrossed by aging runways – but ready for implementation.

Now, ten years after the creation of the Orange County Great Park Corporation, the project is taking shape in a very different way than was envisioned, with the balance in the public-private partnership tipping back toward the private side where funding is now available to realize the compelling iteration of the original plan. Orange County Great Park and its continuing development history provides some great lessons in the evolving leadership roles for the city, the Orange County Great Park Corporation, the Foundation for the Great Park and the developer in building one of the largest parks in America today.

OCGP 3The History

“The original idea for managing the park was to create a public corporation supported by a private foundation,” says Mike Ellzey. “In 2003 the Orange County Great Park Corporation was created and operated out of the city manager’s office with a nine member board – 5 city council members and 4 independent county-wide directors appointed by the elected officials on the board. The park was expected to become a regional asset. Staff was hired as city employees accountable to the board. The Great Park Corporation managed its operations separately from city hall but was essentially accountable to the city, subject to all its public rules.”

By 2005 the corporation operated independently, chaired by Larry Agran, former mayor of Irvine who held that seat for six years. Through his leadership the board was able to move initiatives for the park forward and progress was made in implementing the park plan. In January 2013 the minority on the council became the majority and dismissed the 4 independent directors. Their goal was to change the way the park was being developed, shifting more responsibility to the private sector.

“Separately, the Foundation for the Great Park had been formed – even before the corporation. The idea was that the city would function as the city and the foundation would function as the NGO partner. As Larry Agran began evaluating other models in other cities he decided to form a corporation – essentially a public agency – right in the middle of the relationship between the city and the foundation which essentially destabilized the foundation. At that point the corporation was in play and had money – a $200 million developer fee and the strength of the city behind it, and as a nonprofit organization, able to raise its own money,” says Mike.  The foundation’s role became superfluous.

Mike was appointed CEO in 2008 – the 5th CEO of the corporation in 5 years – and he’s still there. He arrived at a time of growing pains for the corporation, including the real estate depression and the decision to nix the funding stream for California’s redevelopment authorities.

OCGP 5In late 2011 the California Supreme Court threw hundreds of redevelopment agencies out of business in an effort to improve the state budget, but for local economic development – and the Great Park – it cut off the lifeblood of their project funding. And it meant that the Orange County Great Park had to find a new way to develop itself.

Once the redevelopment agencies were dissolved, the city of Irvine sued but the state declared that the Great Park project was not entitled to an exception in the new law. That meant that the property taxes that would have come from the new homes and commercial sites built on the rest of the 4,682-acre decommissioned military base was no longer available – roughly $30 million in revenue annually that would have come over 45 years to pay back debt incurred in creating the park. The lost funding appeared to signal a significantly scaled down park from what previous plans had promised.

A New Plan

Fast forward to the last sixty days and the city is seeking settlement of the lawsuit with the state and has executed a new deal for the park that will bring $210 million in new development value for the park from the developer. In a split vote, City Council members granted approval to FivePoint Communities to build an extra 4,606 homes in return for constructing 688 acres of the Great Park.

FivePoint Communties, a Lennar spinoff, will provide the funding and develop the next 688 acres then turn over the completed parkland to the city. Their return is a more fully developed park that will attract home buyers and make their property more valuable. The park will eventually be surrounded by development including a renovated train station and transit-oriented development.

OCGP 6The agreement is a departure from earlier plans – less bucolic parkland and more recreation focused but, Mike says, “The public benefit associated with the entitlement is a win-win giving the park the resources it needs to continue to develop. We needed other alternatives to bring revenue for the park.”

Now the roles have shifted a bit putting the private developer, the Foundation for the Great Park and the Great Park Corporation in a more well-defined partnership. “The Foundation up to now has had a hard time getting a toe-hold,” says Mike. “Along with the politics of this project that made it confusing for the community the foundation also had a hard time raising money since it seemed their role was supplanted. Where this is going to end up I believe is that we’ll get back to the way that it was ten years ago: a foundation and a municipal operation; the corporation may eventually look like a more traditional redevelopment agency.”

“We’re already working with the foundation on a day to day relationship planning events, conducting planning studies and managing programs. Now we’ll begin working with the developer as well – focused both on constructing the 688 acres of parkland and developing a new plan for an operational budget.”

FivePoint Communities will pay the park $1.25 million a year for operations for 8 years. The Great Park currently receives another $9.5 million from a community facilities district; a secondary maintenance allowance from the district will kick in in the future. Says Mike, “We’re now planning for how we can generate additional revenue for this new park addition – a cash flow model for the future.”

One other piece of the park and its residential neighborhood that could anchor their efforts is the planned transit oriented district – a transit station that incorporates a cultural district with museums, a library – and additional community facilities district funding.

“Our job next is to demonstrate that we can take care of the new park as it grows. At the moment the corporation has complete responsibility for maintaining, programming and operating. As we move forward and construct an additional 688 acres, we’re planning for how to receive and maintain the new acreage,” Mike says.

“We’re currently making $8-10 million in earned revenue. But a lot of this is being generated on undeveloped property. As the park gets developed that revenue-generating undeveloped space – such as agricultural land – will disappear so we’ll need new sources of revenues.”

In the midst of all these leadership and funding challenges the good news is that the park’s visitation has continued to grow. There were nearly 800,000 visitors in 2012. In 2013 this figure was somewhat reduced since new city council began charging fees for some programs with fewer programs overall when the park’s budget was cut by 20-25%.

OCGP7“We still expect to approach 1 million visitors but new policies may slow that goal. We’re holding fewer events but still have attractive attendance for those. That’s why the foundation becomes more and more important. We are now asking the city council to consider providing a multi-year seed grant to the foundation to transfer over responsibilities for programs to the foundation and give them a head start in generating their own support.

“The 688 acres will be leased – or offered in a management agreement to the developer for developing the acreage. A concept plan and design will guide their construction using private funds and contractors and working with the city through the permitting process following a modification to the master plan. As amenities are developed the land will be returned to the city.”

So what does all this say about the challenges of public private partnerships and the difficulty of realizing a plan for over 1000 acres of new parkland?

OCGP8“The majority of our leaders now see that stronger private partners are needed. For years now we’ve had no development and no redevelopment agency funds. We’ve been working piecemeal on individual private partnerships in the interim, e.g., a soccer academy, the potential of an ice center on the property built in partnership with the Anaheim Ducks. But now we can again focus on our master plan and develop a working relationship with FivePoint,” Mike says.

As other park leaders interviewed for this blog have said, in building these partnerships balance is key and in a changing political and economic climate such as the one Orange County California has seen, the right balance may be a moving target.

“It’s been very, very challenging but it really is one of the great projects in the country right now,” says Mike. “We are an example of almost everything I read about that’s going on in great city parks today. We have cutting edge programs including a great urban agriculture program for feeding the hungry. We’re doing all sorts of things that public parks should do while working on figuring out that right balance of private and public leadership. Too private and it feels like a sharp elbow; too public and progress bogs down in political process. Here at the Great Park we are right in the middle of it all and it’s fascinating.”

 


Urban Trails, Neighborhood Partnerships: DC’s Metropolitan Branch Trail

Posted on June 25, 2014 by Kathy Blaha | Edit

Abandoned rail lines running through city neighborhoods can be the perfect solution for creating a park in a high density city with little other available real estate. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has nearly a 30 year history of providing leadership in the creation of more than 20,000 miles of new trail across the country. Today, it finds itself increasingly working in cities to forge the last connection to a regional trail system. This means tackling the shorter rail lines where their proximity to where people live, work and play make them a good choice for getting people walking and cycling.

But these urban trails require a lot more attention to get people to use them for recreation and transportation, and RTC finds itself increasingly involved in programming trails as well as building them.

“RTC used to say ‘build it and they will come,’” says Kelly Pack, RTC’s Director of Trail Development. “Now we say ‘build it, maintain it, program it and they will come.’ In urban areas people have a lot more choices. Being more engaged on the programming side really helps to build awareness and get people hooked on their own neighborhood trails – and then hopefully onto regional trail systems.” 

Photo Credit: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Photo Credit: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Stretching 8.25 miles from Union Station in downtown Washington, DC, to just across the border in Silver Spring, MD, the Metropolitan Branch Trail has long been a goal of neighborhood residents and planners in the region. RTC has been extremely active in organizing activities that encourage greater use of the Met Branch Trail.

“Part of it was involvement before the trail was built,” says Kelly. “We started with a lot of community outreach. All the property owners along the trail were contacted. We went to neighborhood advisory community meetings, public safety meetings, and reached out to local schools. It turned out to be the best way to figure out who would be the best partners for programming. There is a large housing development near the trail with 1,000 residents and they, along with the school, turned out to be a big partner in summer youth and after school programs.”

With support from Kaiser Permanente, RTC partnered with a public charter school to install an educational garden along the trail and added a part-time instructor to offer classes on nutrition and gardening. RTC also worked with the local citizen-led safety patrol, the Guardian Angels, to help institute a volunteer patrol along the trail that has helped improve safety. RTC developed a video around safety issues and trails and included the Met Branch as a case study.

Photo Credit: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Photo Credit: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

“We partnered with the District Department of Transportation to create and install neighborhood identity and way-finding signage. We worked to artistically connect it to neighborhood features to make it a part of the community fabric,” said Kelly. “We hosted meet-ups on the trail with local police and residents and partners to talk about concerns. We established trail patrols – and established a public listserv so that people could organize walks and rides together.”

RTC began tracking trail use when a new section of the Met Branch Trail opened in 2010; soon it will be part of a new RTC national counting program. Automated sensors have been placed along the trail and are counting about 15,000 users a month.

“The more it gets used the less we have to do to,” Kelly says. “The trail has a Facebook page along with its online listserv to help informally connect people. Neighbors are now telling each other about activities. We even used sidewalk chalk to write on the trail surface what people needed to know about activities and news.”

Like any park, the trail needs a partner who can provide oversight and activate the pathway for collaborative efforts with public agencies, neighborhood nonprofits and schools. But are there key lessons for all cities?

Photo Credit: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Photo Credit: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Kelly says that lesson one is to identify someone who is the neighborhood champion who has the time, interest, and political know-how to work in the city and neighborhood as an advocate for the trail – and to ensure that there is a local established ‘friends of the trail’ group.

“At Met Branch we are working with solid and long-standing neighborhood organizations that are already stretched thin, says Kelly. “It’s hard to add one more cause to their list. Our goal is to find those one or two key people who are excited and to help them to foster a friends group. There’s a ton of people interested in helping out. But they need a leader. RTC started the effort but ultimately it needs to be at the local level.”

The second lesson is that conducting community outreach is essential to encouraging trail use among neighborhood residents.

“We worked with dozens of partners,” says Kelly. “We used our support from Kaiser Permanente which gave us the capacity to reach out. RTC is not currently involved in trail programming – but those partnerships we helped to create have sustained.”


Casting a Broader Net for P3 Lessons

Posted on April 11, 2014 by Kathy Blaha

Lately I’ve been reading about the growing number of for-profit companies offering their service to local governments to manage certain agency functions. Since the 1980s, when outsourcing became popular, local governments hoping to create cost efficiencies have turned over many of their service needs to private contractors – waste collection, landscaping, IT, and public transit.

But increasingly, smaller cities are contracting to have private companies run whole departments or whole cities. Elected officials and even some voters see this as a cost cutting move and an efficient use of tax dollars. Companies offering this service can proudly show their success with improved management, lower costs, and better value for the tax dollar. There is, of course, a lot of debate about all this.

I started thinking about what is different about outsourcing in the context of nonprofit partnerships with park agencies where the idea of privatizing in some quarters has taken on a bad name. There is a fear that privatizing services may mean that the work becomes tied more to the bottom line than to public service – let alone the debate about whether this contracting drives down price and offers better service.

One observation is that those public agencies most successful in their private partnerships are ones who have created capacity to understand and manage them; and, simple outsourcing is different from public-private partnerships both in their level of service and in the relationship between the two parties. Since government is increasingly about governance partnerships, we in the parks world should be more mindful about what it takes to do them right.

It’s not that there’s a huge difference between park partners and city park departments in their goals. Most partnerships around parks are with nonprofit organizations with missions not dissimilar from their public agency partners – albeit with a parks-centric focus and a fiercely loyal constituency.

The partner’s ability to bring robust citizen engagement to the process separates it from the typical efficiency partner. What happens in parks is not just a matter of efficiency but of sorting out a community’s complex set of hopes, wishes and needs. Parks are about beauty, recreation, nature, public health, economics, and a respite for the eye and body. It’s a tall order for any manager and thus best accomplished by a team skilled and delighted in the hard work of reaching out to many stakeholders with differing views. It takes time, and time is money.

Those of us in the parks world are following the leading trends in New York and other big cities around their signature parks – parks often just as important for their economic development benefit as their beauty and recreation potential – and trying to figure out what the best framework is for making these partnerships work. But there are thousands of smaller cities and smaller parks that hold lessons too, for their careful cultivation of community partners, goal-setting and management style. In the coming weeks my goal is to cover some of these smaller efforts for their lessons in transparency, accountability, and community engagement.

Partnerships are complex and demand a high level of skill and expertise to sustain. There is a need to capture the lessons and stories about what’s working and turn them into a basis for a new understanding of public private governance around parks that can be shared as real learning and less as anecdotal anomalies. City Parks Alliance and others are working on a way to capture these lessons. In the mean time I’ll be working on rounding up some of them.


Breakthrough Public Private Partnerships: The Work of New Yorkers for Parks (Part 2)

Posted on March 6, 2014 by Kathy Blaha

This post continues from last week on the work of New Yorkers for Parks and public private partnerships, gathered through an interview with outgoing Executive Director Holly Leicht.

 In 2012, NY4P undertook a detailed analysis of the growing number of private park conservancies in New York City, closely scrutinizing the 25 legal agreements between conservancies and the Parks Department.  The result was a set of recommendations to encourage greater consistency, transparency and accountability in public private partnerships.  The report found that partnerships are indeed augmenting the public budget, but that the city needs to do a better job of tracking funds and should require more consistent financial reporting that is made public on the Parks Department’s website.

“There’s no question that these organizations are value added to the parks they’re working in,” Holly told me, “but we also found that there was value added to the whole system since other parks benefit from freed-up public money, but the Parks Department does not quantify this dollar value.  It’s evident private money is making Central Park work, for example, but we have no real data to prove the benefit at the neighborhood park level.”“The public shouldn’t have to filter through 25 Form 990s to find out the budgets of these public private organizations.  Let’s develop a simple reporting template that shows what’s coming in and how are they spending it, and put this on the Parks Department website. There is a common misconception that these groups are bringing in tons of money, but with a couple exceptions, we found that most groups are doing good work operating on relatively tight margins.”

LeichtBlog3NY4P found that more public transparency and more consistency about how the department works with each group could dispel many misconceptions – but with 25 conservancies and the number growing, what about best practices and alignment of how the city works with them?  Couldn’t there be a simpler template for creating the partnerships?

“We had our intern develop a matrix comparing the terms of all of these agreements. He came back with a tome – about 25 pieces of paper taped together that covered most of my office!  There was so little consistency among them. They all developed under different circumstances and were negotiated with the Parks Department without a standard framework. What we found made us see the value of creating a consistent template to unify them more going forward, without sacrificing necessary flexibility to tailor them to specific parks. These partnerships are still a relatively new model, and a lot have been started only in the last 10 years.  It’s time to look at what we’ve learned during this period and pick out the best elements to replicate and serve as the foundation for a more consistent template.”

The inclination always is to rush to get everything memorialized but if you go too fast you won’t learn; letting things play out a bit so you can see how the relationship will work is usually better.  Like Central Park Conservancy, Prospect Park Alliance, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and other early examples, seeing what happens in practice before you lock people in usually turns out to be a pretty good idea.

Partnerships and Park Equity
Mayor DiBlasio has made park equity an important issue and has proposed to effectively tax the most profitable nonprofits in order to provide revenue to parks with smaller or no private support.  NY4P has followed this issue closely and does not think this approach is the answer.

LeichtBlog4“We have real concerns about this idea at multiple levels,” says Holly.  “First, it’s a misconception that this would raise a lot of money for underserved parks. Focusing on public private partnerships as the source of inequity has diverted the discussion from how we are allocating our public dollars across the system. That’s the biggest problem.  Only seven conservancies are big enough to qualify for the proposed tax on their budgets, and even supporters acknowledge it would generate at most $10-12 million annually. That’s hardly going to address inequitable conditions among 1,900 park properties. The Parks Department capital budget is about $350 million, and its expense budget, much of which goes toward maintenance personnel, is close to the same amount. How we spend that money is the game changer.”

The Bloomberg administration invested a huge amount of capital dollars in parks, but much of that funding went into a small number of large, destination park projects.  NY4P advocates giving the same amount of funding to the Parks Department to spread across the park system in a more equitable way, focusing on those most in need.  “If the new administration commits to keeping this robust budget but spending it differently by empowering the department to target the lowest performing parks, you will see inequitable conditions addressed in relatively short order,” says Holly.

The New Yorker blogged on this issue, agreeing that some kind of new funding is needed to reach parks not now being reached by private funding, but it saw the shortcoming of taking from the wealthier parks:  “It pins its egalitarian hopes on a reallocation of private resources, rather than a more progressive scheme of taxation that would leave the city with fuller coffers to channel toward all the city’s parks.” Could the new Mayor lead an effort to increase parks funding?

“NY4P will do everything we can to try and promote this message,” Holly says. “We honed our 10 points to 5 that focus on real causes and real solutions. Taxing the large conservancies is a token gesture, not a substantive solution.  People in underserved neighborhoods aren’t looking for symbolism; they are looking for meaningful, game-changing solutions.  It is not that complicated to get more funding in a lot more parks.”

Here’s how the budget works in New York.  There are actually two budgets – capital and expense (which is mostly personnel).   The capital budget has been healthy under Bloomberg, but it’s not discretionary for the department.  The way that the budget has evolved is that the department gets mayoral funding for specific projects, and about 1/3 of its budget is earmarked for large projects like Governors Island, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the High Line.

Over a second 1/3 of their budget comes from discretionary allocations given by individual City Council members. Almost all small neighborhood park projects are funded by Council allocations.  The Parks Department essentially has to lobby elected officials to fund these projects, politicizing the process and sucking up staff time to work with elected officials in an effort to align their priorities with department priorities.  Council members do not all receive equal funding, and even the luckier ones do not typically receive enough to cover an entire project in a single year, so budgeting for a park project often takes multiple budget cycles.

“It takes a long time and is hardest on lower income neighborhoods which tend to have a lot more demands for Council members’ funding. We don’t necessarily need more dollars on the capital side, but we have to rethink the current reliance on City Council discretionary funds, which leads to inefficient and inequitable outcomes,” says Holly.

Lessons from New York
NY4P has raised the level of the conversation in New York in a way that has lessons for parks across the country.  It did so by gathering the facts, fighting misconceptions, and reaching out to park users in every council district in the city.  So now, when the organization speaks, it does so with knowledge and credibility.  I asked Holly what lessons can be taken away for other cities.  Here’s what she said.

“First, we are really sold on the value and benefit of using public private partnerships to make the parks budget go further. But the Parks Department should know the cost to maintain every city parkas well as the amount of public and private funding that supports each.

“Secondly, transparency is critical.  It is important for the Parks Department to show that private money is augmenting the budget – not displacing it.  The department needs to set a standard for financial reporting and transparency.  We would be better off had we been doing that from the start.  It holds the conservancies accountable, and we can identify and replicate best practices.


leichtblog5

“Sharing best practices is another important lesson; the more that private partners and conservancies talk to each other – within and between cities – the more their experiences can be shared. We’re really at a place where we don’t need to be inventing a new model every time a new partnership is launched.

“The last thing we’ve learned is that the public private partnership model particularly benefits larger and more resource-intensive parks. Big parks have so many different features, stakeholders and even diverse topography – they are hardest to maintain and struggle the most if they don’t have a way to augment their public funding. I’m not sure in today’s budget climate it would be possible for Central Park or Prospect Park to look the way they do without their private partners.”


Breakthrough Public-Private Partnerships: The Work of New Yorkers for Parks (Part 1)

Posted on February 25, 2014 by Kathy Blaha

Executive Director Holly Leicht’s last day with New Yorkers for Parks was January 10.  She has been appointed by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan to serve as Regional Administrator of HUD Region II, which comprises New York and New Jersey. In her new role, Leicht will be instrumental in carrying out ongoing Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.

Last month I had a chance to talk with Holly about public-private partnerships in New York, the new mayor, and the work of New Yorkers for Parks.  I’m glad I did, as her new job will take her far beyond park boundaries and the work of the more than 100-year old New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P).  Founded in 1908 because there were not enough resources for children’s play in the city, it’s only been within the last two decades that research to substantiate advocacy has become an important part of what they do.

New Yorkers for Parks
Around the time that the Bloomberg administration took office in 2002, the former Parks Council took on its new name and broader mission.  “But,” says Holly, “one issue that has crossed our 100 years is that we are a watchdog on alienation issues – protecting parkland all the way back to the Moses era.  We work to maintain the ‘public’ in public parks.”

Holly arrived at NY4P in 2011 just as NY4P was solidifying its reputation for airtight research and reporting on the city’s parks, essentially creating a database that now supports the efforts of both citizen advocates and elected officials.

“Because we’ve collected and analyzed data on the same issues across a number of years now, more people look for and rely on it,” says Holly. “We’ve refined our methodologies, are doin