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[Commentary] Thoughts on the Greater and Greener: Innovative Parks, Vibrant Cities Conference

May 11, 2015 Category: Purpose

This series, titled Thoughts on a Movement, is intended to explore the philosophical implications and systems changes that are made possible by our society’s shift to sustainable practices. The author hopes to offer thoughts, opinions, and analysis on issues and innovations in the sustainability movement that inspire readers to both connect with and critique sustainable practices.

This past April I had the privilege to attend the Greater and Greener: Innovative Parks, Vibrant Cities conference in San Francisco, presented by the City Parks Alliance (CPA). Philadelphia Parks and Recreation used a combination of private foundation funds and state grant funds to send a contingent of employees to the conference to represent Philly and bring some of the best and brightest ideas back home.

As the title of the conference suggests, the CPA believes that there is a direct connection between the vibrancy of a city and the quality, creativity and innovation found in its parks. Parks are a city’s backyard, and they represent the best of what our community and even democracy have to offer. They also represent the difficulties that our communities and democracy face.

This is something I continue to see in Philadelphia through community engagement processes, such as the new Love Park design. In addition, the fact that almost a third of the Knight Cities grants awarded to Philadelphia are direct partnerships with Parks and Recreation, shows this as well. Those include the proposed improvements of amenities at our city pools through the Pop-Up Pools Project to the creation of an urban arboreta for propagating more planting materials for Philadelphia’s parks.

What was even more inspiring is that this is not only happening here in Philadelphia, but really all over the country.

The following are three aspects of the conference that I found will enhance the sustainability of our cities and parks in the 21st century: stewardship, maintenance and technology.

San Francisco’s Parks

I must admit that I went to San Francisco with some preconceived notions. Philadelphia’s challenges include the highest poverty rate among the biggest cities, pollution and blight left behind by our legacy of heavy industry, and an unsustainable tax base. San Francisco, on the other hand, has one of the lowest unemployment rates, lowest poverty rates, and highest per capita income in the country.

From our Partners

Because of this, I believed I was going to see some beautiful neighborhood parks. But as I got into the Presidio, which is San Francisco’s premiere national park and a great example of collaboration between city, federal and private partners, the first thing I saw on the sign leading into the trail was graffiti that manipulated the word “rocks” into another phrase not appropriate to reprint.

When I went to Delores Park, one of my favorite parks in The Mission District, I saw one of the coolest playgrounds I have ever seen and improvements such as the installation of a lush, new lawn. But I also saw a homeless encampment, tucked away in the corner beneath a tree.

Although graffiti and homelessness are just a fraction of the challenges Philadelphia faces, it still showed me that no city or park system can ever get to this place of utopian functionality and aesthetics.

It is unrealistic to think that urban areas will ever be alleviated from the duties of community organizing for positive solutions to issues such as homelessness and vandalism, which in my mind is a good thing: It means that we can never stop moving our city and our citizens toward even greater equality and prosperity.

Maintenance in Parks

Although I did find that common challenge among cities, I still could not deny feeling the inequities between Philly and other cities represented at the conference.

I was really impressed by places like Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and even Rotterdam in the Netherlands. However, I was most reminded of Philly’s standing in the urban redevelopment world when I ran into folks hailing from our neighbor to the north, New York City.

I stopped trying to wrap my head around the differences between New York and Philly a long time ago. When it comes to parks, New York has three times the park and recreation land as Philadelphia and six times the parks and recreation budget.

However, while listening to a panel consisting of folks from New York City, Rotterdam, and the national organization the Trust For Public Land, each speaker pointed out that the biggest challenge they face is maintenance.

It should be intuitive that with larger budgets comes more capacity for maintenance. However, this issue reveals a broader problem that I see in current approaches to maintenance. I feel that too often architects and planners feel as if they can design maintenance into a project using modern technology and more efficient building practices.

But even the cities that have the money for higher end, LEED certified developments stated that without human maintenance, these projects will not survive 30 years, 15 years, even five years.

Maintenance leads to sustainability. It was a lesson I took to heart, and one I hope the next mayoral administration learns as it takes the helm of a rapidly developing city.


The last lesson I learned ties both the community engagement piece and the maintenance piece together. And that’s the emerging emphasis on data systems for Parks and Recreation.

During the panel “Measuring Eco-System Performance,” Bram Gunther from the Natural Areas Conservancy of New York City Parks Department spoke on using technology and about 20 volunteers to take a comprehensive inventory of the entire New York Parks system, using the data for things like succession planting of forests by knowing how many trees were dead, dying or in good health. They also did resiliency tracking of ecosystems ranging from wetlands to rivers to forests to get a data-driven gauge on where money should be invested.

During the panel “If We Don’t Count, We Don’t Count” Kate Bickert from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy spoke on San Francisco hiring a public information coordinator to track how many people are using a park, who these people are, and what they want from their parks by using the old fashion mix of volunteers and paper surveys to capture info. The assessment of this data led to programs such as buses that operate in predominantly low-income areas to transport people to the larger parks since they come from neighborhoods cut off from these areas.

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation has a few tech-based pilot programs in the works, such as releasing an inventory of data sets collected by its Program Division, which oversees programming and activities for the department. Much like the City is seeking input on which L&I information citizens would like to see released, users can comment about what information they’d like to see released in regards to Parks and Rec’s data — including programming schedules, weekly attendance, amenities, and more here.

I think it was a testament to the direction of the city that Philadelphia was represented at this conference not just by me, but by many Parks and Recreation employees. I look forward to see how these practices get integrated into the fabric of our sustainable world-class city.

Image via Flickr User Kent Wang

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