COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Innovations in Parks and Open-Space Stewardship

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Albert Park and Pickleweed Park

San Rafael, California

by Jane Hart

From Innovations in Parks and Open Space Stewardship: Case Studies and Examples in Urban Park and Open Space Management. Reprinted with permission from the Trust for Public Land.

Motivated residents working with city staff are spearheading park renovations in San Rafael. In the case of Albert Park, city staff have helped to organize different volunteer committees from the community around distinct park areas. These committees each plan, raise funds for, and maintain a distinct piece of the new park. In both Albert Park and Pickleweed Park, phasing the renovation projects has allowed the community to focus volunteer and fundraising efforts on a part of the park that is a priority need, finishing a smaller piece sooner than a full renovation would allow.


San Rafael is Marin County's largest municipality and county seat, with a population of about 53,200. The city serves as the financial, service, cultural, and economic hub of the county. Like many other cities, San Rafael has faced a revenue crunch caused by diminishing federal and state funding sources and fluctuating revenues from sales tax proceeds.

The city has a recreation director who handles both the recreation program and park development. The Public Works Department, which is responsible for park maintenance, has had to freeze positions for more than five years. The city has no capital budget for the provision of new parks and has deeded over a large section of its hillside open spaces to the Marin County Open Space District, which manages them as part of the countywide open-space program.

The city recreation program is 85 percent self-supporting, a high percentage compared to other recreation departments in the state. The department raises $2.5 million of its $3 million annual budget. A large portion of that revenue, $1.7 million, comes from a city-run child-care program that operates ten child-care centers around the city and employs sixty people. The other $800,000 is generated from rental facilities and fees for tennis, swimming, and recreational programs.

Despite tight budget constraints within the city government, the Recreation Department has made impressive progress in park planning and park renovation. In the past ten years, the city has renovated nine of its twenty parks, largely through city partnerships with its public-minded residents. People are the critical resource making parks happen in San Rafael.

Case: Albert Park

Three years ago Albert Park was underused and increasingly becoming a hangout for itinerants. Located downtown next to the San Rafael Recreation Center, the 11.5-acre park includes an athletic field and tennis courts. In 1984, the Albert Park ball field was renovated by the community. In 1992, residents offered to help the city revitalize the west side of the park. The goals were to increase activity, to create a safer setting for neighborhood use, to better integrate the park with the adjacent community center, and to enhance the existing assets in the park, including a creek area.

A group of residents formed the Albert Park Renovation Committee, which worked with city staff to identify park users and desired park amenities. The park components that were settled on in public meetings included bocce ball courts, a tot lot, a playground, volleyball, basketball, picnic areas, and a formal Italian garden. The city authorized a revision of the master plan for the park, and Project for Public Spaces was hired to work with residents on park layout and design.

A Committee Approach

To build community involvement and to implement the plan, committees were formed around distinct planning areas within the new park, such as the bocce courts, playgrounds, and garden. A porch committee is working to create an open porch that will better connect the Community Center with the park. A local club called Gruppo Lonatese, after San Rafael's sister city in Italy, is raising funds to build a formal Italian garden at the back of the community center, which will include a bronze crest from their sister city, Lonate Pozzolo.

In essence, different user or interest groups in the community adopt and maintain specific pieces of the park. Each group, in partnership with the city, is planning, fundraising, and seeking donations in labor and materials from within the community. The committees are each proceeding on their own time schedule, shepherded and helped by the city's Recreation Department.


Albert Park's unusual newcomer is the game of bocce, known to some as Italian lawn bowling. Albert Park lies on the edge of the Little Italy area of San Rafael, where many people from the sister city of Lonate Pozzolo settled when they first came to California.

One resident's idea for bocce courts spread to a network of friends and resulted in a series of meetings, fundraising, and finally the formation of an all-volunteer nonprofit called the Marin Bocce Federation. Within two years, the group has transformed an unused piece of park into six world-class outdoor bocce courts surrounded by a brick patio. The group procured $50,000 of seed money from the city, and the rest of the $500,000 needed to complete the project has come from donations of money, materials and labor. A "Buy a Brick" campaign was conducted for the patio construction. Many local residents, business leaders, and local clubs and organizations played a role in the success of this project.

The new courts attract about six hundred players each week. In the Bay Area at large, the pastime of bocce is also on the rise. There are an estimated twenty thousand players and several established leagues in the region. Bocce is a family-oriented activity, one which many people can enjoy regardless of age, gender, or physical condition.

The court facility is being managed and maintained by the federation.

Case: Pickleweed Park

Pickleweed Park is in the Canal District, the most densely developed and ethnically diverse area of San Rafael. An estimated ten thousand residents, many of them new immigrants, live mostly in large apartment buildings and condominiums in this area, which has a higher percentage of children than the city as a whole.

The city had planned since 1988 to upgrade the park, but the project got a jump start from unexpected seed money that came from the sanitation district's purchase of a sewer easement through the park. The sum of $136,000 provided a sizable start for building a new two-acre playground within the seventeen-acre Pickleweed Park.

An important aspect of the Pickleweed Park project is that it gave the community a chance to work together on something positive. Previously, there had been divisiveness in the community between homeowners along the canal and apartment dwellers. The area had been a target of Immigration and Naturalization Service raids, which created conflicts between groups on opposing sides of the illegal immigration issue.

One-fourth of this capital project was funded by the Marin Community Foundation in the form of a community development challenge grant, to foster a community building experience for residents in the area. Under the 3:1 matching grant arrangement, the community was challenged to raise three dollars for every one spent under the grant.

The renovation process involved polling residents on their ideas for the park, conducting a meeting hosted by the city and Canal Community Alliance at which eighty residents discussed their ideas and concerns, and forming a core park planning committee of twelve residents, later called the Friends of Pickleweed Park. The playground project culminated with two construction days, planned to allow all parts of the community to work together to install equipment for the two play areas.

As is typical of San Rafael park projects, almost a third of the cost of this project was covered through donated materials and labor. The project was driven by a volunteer effort. In San Rafael, park projects are often undertaken in phases, allowing the community to focus volunteer and fundraising efforts on a tangible piece that is a priority need, finishing a smaller part sooner than a full park renovation would allow.


San Rafael Recreation Department, 415-485-3340

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