Post 3: Open the Parks for Improvement by People, Please!

A Crying Need for An Open Door to the Public to Work Together with Government for Better Parks: A slightly long post exploring this idea

New York City long ago saw the need to unleash citizen power on parks.   Maintenance needs grew, funding shrunk.   There was a need for a program of encouragement and facilitation; citizens could take on development and maintenance, AND bring parks to life with their own vision and energy.   One result was the New York Partnership for Parks, and its People Make Parks program — please click the link to get a taste of what they do:

“We equip people, organizations and government with the skills and tools they need to transform these [park] spaces into dynamic community assets.”


Why develop a People Make Parks program here in Fairfax?

  • We have a pressing need for an infusion of public energy, time, and money into our parks, especially as their role in our urbanizing county grows.
  • Unlike other public assets with fixed functions (schools, fire stations, even libraries), the park experience is owned by the public.  Aside from general classifications (“nature preserve,”  “community recreations”), the community, the public, is best suited to mold and put a vision of park use in place.
  • Pairing public spending with citizen contributions is smart spending.
  • Strategies can be applied to ensure that all parks receive the benefits of public development, not just those where more wealth and free time is available.
  • We all gain in other ways from the progress made in parks:  stronger communities, more citizen technical capacity, more local philanthropy.  Existing partnership organizations will grow and strengthen, and new ones will be created.
  • We have invested lots of public money in our parks.  Why let them languish, whether they are in poor shape or in good shape but unvisited?  Have you passed or entered a park and thought “this could be a very special place, if only…”?  It would be refreshing and energizing to discard the sense of permanently waiting, or worse, forgetting what you ever waited for, and instead pick up tools to work with your fellow citizens.

What could our “People Make Parks” program look like?

It would be an office, a system, a campaign, at its heart a strategy, that would make it:

  • easy to organize a children’s festival, a nature fair, an outdoor yoga class, a fitness club in your local park – to start bringing it to life and building community around it;
  • easy to obtain permission to build a pizza oven or a shed where you store your community’s bocce ball and badminton sets for weekly game days – to make the park central to your community;
  • easy to put together a community visioning session –“how can we make our park better?” with and office of people to encourage, guide, train, link you to other organizations and people – to transform that park;
  • possible and inviting for an established park ‘friends’ or other group to propose  and execute a major shared responsibility: a conservancy or similar partnership – to take ownership of what will make it the most successful public-serving place it can be..
  • Fundamentally, it would place people at the heart of  planning and implementation..

Without the place to go to vet and launch an initiative, the idea fades or is never even brought out; the citizen goes home, taking with him or her the badly needed creative energy, willingness to offer labor and attention, social capital, and fund-raising potential.  The park languishes.  The maintenance experience itself suffers, for when the community park is empty and uninviting,  no one will be wowed or inspired by the mowing and trash removal alone. Urban life scholar Jane Jacobs wrote of “the ability of a neighborhood park to stimulate passionate attachment or, conversely, only apathy.”

We have many parks in need of a citizens program:  community parks in densely populated areas…cultural sites intended as stunning retreats for art or other focused use, such as Leahy Lost Valley Park (PDF link) … parks with a master plan that is several years old and not started — after all, it was considered worth the time and expense to develop the plan…parks in under-served or stressed areas that would benefit from a stimulation program…parks with a nearby community organization willing to lead…parks where a citizen or two has offered to lead a campaign to make the park successful.

The National Recreation and Park Association’s NRPA Smart Brief newsletter has a link to a recent Baltimore Sun opinion piece advocating that Baltimore look to New York’s Partnership for Parks Program to improve its parks. “Giving the groups true authority over their respective parks would better engage communities,” writes University of Maryland graduate student Ted Walsh.

To close:  the county recently implemented a conservancy program dedicated exclusively to the occupancy and conservation of historic homes in our parks by private citizens, the Resident Curator program.  If publicly owned buildings can be turned over to the citizens for conservation and development, surely the public land in the rest of that park, or in any park, can benefits from a multi-pronged citizens’ program.

In the picture above is a 6-acre park that the county acquired for several million dollars.  It is surrounded by densely populated neighborhoods, a few blocks from high-rise apartments, an area where an inviting outdoor recreation, respite and gathering spot is needed. 

If not for the small “Park Rules” sign you might think it was a just piece of land waiting to be developed.  At its master planning meeting held years ago, several spoke to offer their help: someone who managed her family’s small foundation wanted to donate; others wanted to come together to run a community garden for school children.  Invite them back, and others, to bring this park to life.