by M. Christine DeVita,

President, Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund

Some people say parks are as important to the identity of cities as are museums, libraries, and other valued cultural resources. Others say that without urban parks we would find ourselves drowning in a “sea of unrelieved asphalt.” If so, why doesn’t every city enjoy thriving parks? Or put another way, why do some cities have parks that are dead, underutilized spaces, in terrible need of repair and bereft of healthy community activity?

Conventional wisdom would lead most to conclude the answer is money. Money is surely important – but it is not the essential ingredient that separates the success stories from the failures. Equally important are vision and a commitment to involving park users in the creation and maintenance of their park spaces.

Take, for instance, Prospect Park. On a spring, summer, or fall weekend in this 525-acre oasis of green in the heart of Brooklyn, New York, one can observe joggers pass strollers on the park’s many paths. Meanwhile, in an adjacent field the sounds of ethnic music fill the air as local residents celebrate their cultures. Elsewhere, volunteers lay logs to stem erosion along a sloping hill where schoolchildren come to identify plants and insects in a section of the park’s newly restored forest – a treasure that will be theirs someday to maintain.

There’s no secret why this park enjoys such a high level of support and healthy use. Its leaders reached out to the community and invited organizations from surrounding neighborhoods to be a part of the park. Local residents helped design the programs and activities that now take place there. The result has been a dramatic increase in the number and kinds of people who actively care for the park’s resources. In the past three years alone, volunteers who help plant trees, greet visitors, and serve Prosect Park in other important ways have nearly doubled from 2,500 to 4,000. That experience lends credence to the argument that people are more likely to care for something they’ve helped plan and create. Prospect Park is not an anomaly. It is but one example of many places – from Austin, Texas, to Baltimore, Maryland – that are reinventing their parks.

So how are these cities doing it? How are they able to create parks that really satisfy people and connect them to one another? While no single model exists, two common principles seem to guide the creation of healthy urban green spaces that support multiple uses, stimulate financial investments, and beckon everyone.

The first principle is that parks must always be connected to their communities. That connection begins by putting the park user first. To do this, park planners have to be willing to really listen to park users, to ask what they need instead of making decisions for them. Charles Jordan, director of Parks and Recreation in Portland, Oregon, says his city uses a “benefit-based” approach to plan programs and facilities. “We don’t go into any neighborhood to develop a park facility until we ve met with the residents. We tell them how many dollars we have for the project and let them tell us what they want for their children and their parks. Once there’s a clear vision and plan, we say ‘Okay, we’ll provide the funds and the technical assistance. But you’ve got to be out there to play a role.'”

When the park user is engaged in such planning, the programs and activities that can be created are limited only by the imagination. For example, in East Boston, where 33,000 people live in the shadow of Logan Airport, residents volunteered to help the Boston Natural Areas Fund and the Trust for Public Land create a greenway for jogging, hiking, and bicycling. Less traditional activities are exemplified by parks in San Francisco, where youth internships and training opportunities in horticulture are offered, and Chicago, which has turned its parks into places where young children are welcomed after school with safe, constructive activities while their parents are at work.

Strong partnership between the public and private sector is the second common principle among cities where parks are flourishing. It is important for park officials and supporters to cast their nets widely as they solicit new partners. In successful parks, these frequently include not only corporate and foundation partners but also civic associations, churches, block groups, sporting clubs, and cultural organizations.

As part of an initiative to improve urban parks, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund has seen its own investments enhanced through the strong work of public-private partnerships in eleven cities. These partnerships have successfully engineered some $30 million in new public and private investments to help underwrite a range of improvement projects. Notable successes include Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Alliance, which leveraged about $4 million in public funds to raise another $5 million in private contributions for improvements and a maintenance endowment. In Providence, Rhode Island, a $3 million city bond is being matched by another $3 million from other public and private sources. In Boston, strong community interest in the East Boston Greenway coupled with the support of Mayor Thomas Menino led Conrail to donate a 1.5-mile strip of land, valued at $600,000, that will form the spine of the new linear park.

As the Fund works with cities across the country, we are encouraged by the vitality and vision that are unleashed in those places where partnerships between the public and private sectors create and maintain parks that place park users at the center. The investments in those cities today will return strong urban parks that can serve as beacons of community activity and pride for many generations to come.

Reprinted with permission of the Trust for Public Land, from Land and People (Fall 1997).