by Charles Jordan

Director, Department of Parks and RecreationCity of Portland, Oregon

From Parks As Community Places: Austin, 1996, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference.

John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” A Chinese proverb reads, “The time to influence the life of a child is 100 years before it is born.” An African proverb reminds us, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”

These words have been my drummers for the last seven years. They are my anchor, they are my rudder; whenever I think I’m lost, whenever the externals overwhelm me, they serve as my compass, granting me refuge and providing me with inspiration.

The ’90s are times that demand two very important objectives. One is that all hands must be on deck. The second is that we must do business not as usual. And as we work with the people whom we are trying to engage in our efforts we would do well to remember that what they don’t understand they will not value. And what they will not value, they will not protect. And what they will not protect, they will lose. So what good is it for us to leave such a legacy, unless the people understand, value, and will protect it? It makes for an empty legacy.

How do we accomplish these objectives? I am not going to make that speech that requires that I tie it all together at the end like a fairy tale, because I may need to make some quantum leaps in what I have to tell you. What I can do is drop some morsels here and there that you may be able to chew on, as we all look for solutions in some of the most unusual places – and look at the issues that we face from different perspectives.

I have an extraordinary amount of respect for what you do, and I’m keenly aware that all situations are not the same. The politics in our various cities, the availability of resources, the leadership, the diversity, the needs and the desires of our people are different. So I’m in no position to give you the answers. I’m not an answer person; I’m not an expert. What I can do is share with you what I have seen and what I have heard as I have traveled around the country, talking with people, like us, and people not like us – including people who do not understand the importance of parks and recreation.

The title of this gathering could have easily been “Sustained Engagement.” I went through all of the case studies to try to pick out the common themes. The one theme that I settled on was engaging citizens in the planning, funding and development, and then sustaining that engagement upon completion of a project. How do we do it? After the honeymoon, what does it take to keep the marriage intact?

To citizens, their neighborhood is their city. Other neighborhoods are places they travel through to get to their jobs, the hospital, or to other places of interest. But people don’t usually see the relationships between these neighborhoods. They don’t see their cities as whole places. Similarly, to some bureaucrats city government is only their respective bureau or department. They don’t see the relationship between the various departments. The health and well-being of the other departments is something to talk about – not to do anything about.

As an example, in Portland, our schools are suffering, yet no one had developed a coordinated approach to deal with the problem. In Portland we live under a commissioner form of government. Five elected officials function both as legislators as well as administrators, for four-year terms. It’s a full-time job. The director reports directly to the elected officials. There is no Parks Board. After thinking about what could be done for schools, I did something that I didn’t know I had in me and which helped me step up another rung on the maturity ladder. I sent a letter to my boss just before he went into the budget session which said: “Charlie, when you were elected, you were not elected commissioner for Portland city government, you were elected commissioner for the city of Portland – and all the services that are provided in the city. You must have some control, or some influence, over all of those services. Given that our school system is hurting more than our parks, it wouldn’t bother me if you didn’t give me an additional dollar. But you’ve got to help the school system.”

The schools wanted to eliminate athletic programs. Two years ago they eliminated the junior varsity. This year they were going to eliminate the varsity. Don’t you know who’s going to have to accommodate those thousands of students? We are. And so I suggested funding the athletic program even though I had a number of funding packages for parks in the budget as well. I do not want to be a part of a system that has the number one park system in the country and the number ten educational system.

The connections, the connections – our citizens do not see these connections either. Somehow, through government and other entities, we have relegated everyone to a special-interest group, and the result is that everybody’s fighting for themselves, including single families. Families are just caring for themselves – they’re not caring about other people. These are difficult times in which we live. There’s a lot of mistrust and sometimes when we try to help to do things differently, we get the cold shoulder.

Why is this important to the subject of engagement, and sustained engagement? If you are going to the communities and trying to both engage and sustain that engagement and you don’t have a holistic picture of your cities and your neighborhoods, then you and those you’re hoping to engage are like ships that pass in the night. It should be our objective to enfranchise those who have been disenfranchised, and to help them to better understand. Because the cold hard fact is that parks are not on the top of their list. That’s important. We have got to leave our little box, where we only find things that are of value to us. We cannot try to convince others that they should assign value to what we do. It won’t make sense to them because we’re speaking a foreign language. This does not mean that we’re not true to the cause … it means that we’re not making a connection.

Let me be quite candid with you. You may think you have done it but what you have done is made contact. You have not made the connection, and therein lies the difference. When the development is over, the money runs out – that commitment from those citizens also runs out. You’ve got to make connections.

In particular, people of color – and I can speak for Charles Jordan, a person of color, and that’s all – are generally urban people. I know there are exceptions – there always are. But, based on a survey by the National Park Service, people of color generally do not frequent national parks or wilderness areas, unless they’re in close proximity to the those areas.

Now, if we wanted to ask a sociologist, psychiatrist or an anthropologist about this, I’m sure that they could give us volumes of reasons that none of us would probably understand. But if you asked me, a person with just good old common sense, I would tell you why. I like to see people around me who look like me. Let me tell you – for you who are not of color – it does something. When I don’t see people who look like me, I don’t think the environment is that friendly. I don’t think it’s that I’m overly sensitive to what I’m going through. But believe me, although you would never know it, that feeling is always inside of me. And that feeling causes stress.

So we tend to congregate in the urban areas where our people, or people like us, are … because we feel more secure. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s a fact. And you need to understand things like this before you go into an area and try to engage people. The reason is that there are things on their agenda that aren’t at first glance on your agenda.

One of the things we have to do is become watchmen of our communities. Back in the days of the prophet Isaiah, in the Old Testament, they had what they called watchmen. They were people who stood up on the high walls, and they watched around to see whether there was any impending danger. The watchmen were the ones that would interpret the weather, or any unusual occurrences. And so the people below – the Elamites, in this case, would cry out from time to time, “Watchmen, what of the night?” The night was their oppressor. That’s how they defined their position. And they were asking the watchmen to explain all this, “Why are we oppressed like this? Why can’t we invest in our own destiny? Why can’t we advance?”

From time to time, we, who are directors – we who are leaders of organizations – must walk upon that lofty wall, and we must look out over the environment and see what’s going on. External elements can have more influence on us than we can on them. If you don’t know what’s going on around you, you’ve got your heads in the sand. We have to spend quality time reading the newspaper, watching the news, talking to people to find out what’s going on. If we did, we would know that The National League of Cities’ opinion survey finds growing concerns over youth, crime and an uncertain future. For the next two years, those are the issues that cities are going to spend their time and their resources on. So when you’re talking to mayors, and trying to get them to set aside parkland, you need to know this. If you don’t, for me to say you are naive is too kind.

In the National League of Cities survey, the top issue was youth crime. This was followed by gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, school violence, and family stability. In addition to youth crime, quality education was also mentioned most frequently as important to address in the next two years. What does that tell us? There’s a message in that for us! It tells us where those people’s minds are; the building blocks that they’re using to make their decisions, whether they’re going to assign value to a movement. We have important roles in each one of those issues – youth crime, gangs, drugs, pregnancy, school violence, family stability – we play a role in all of those. We do it daily. But unless we’re able to make the connections, we’re wasting our time.

We must convince people that we are part of the solution, not a part of the problem. If you go into a community and they already have a full plate of issues, if you try to add another issue they won’t listen to you. You’ve got to go in, and start out talking about their issues!

Two weeks ago I was in Florida speaking to a group of mayors and elected officials. I didn’t talk parks and recreation initially – I talked about youth crime, and I talked about gangs. I talked about the things that were bothering them. But by the time I finished my talk, they understood that they didn’t stand a chance of solving those problems if they did not involve urban parks and recreation. They understood that in Portland, second only to the superintendent of schools, I have more kids under my control on a daily basis than anyone else. Between the hours of 3 and 6 pm, more youth crimes are committed, more teen pregnancies occur than any other time. That’s also the time when we’ve got a lot of them; that’s the time when we should have all of them someplace in our system. I told my Florida audience that you can’t talk about solutions unless you talk to us – urban parks and recreation. We have the kids that you call your future. We have the kids that you are most concerned about – the ones involved in the gangs, the youth crime, the teen pregnancy, the school violence.

So I spoke that language. And then I showed them how, through parks and recreation, we can bring young people in. I don’t want a starring role, I don’t need that. We are in a supporting role. Parks and recreation are not an end in themselves – they’re tools of our trade. When we bring young people in, we give them a high dosage of self-esteem, appreciation for education, social harmony, anger management, environmental education. And we do it in such a way that the kids don’t realize what we are doing. Parks and recreation becomes a little bit of sugar that helps the medicine go down. That’s why we are so successful. If they knew we were serving more than fun and games, they would not come.

We’ve got to be creative in how we tell our story and how we do our jobs. So we must, in all that we do, make sure that they understand what we are talking about. And we have got to make sure that other people understand the full value of what we do.

Are we important? Sure, we are. Americans are spending close to $300 billion a year in pursuit of leisure activities. Are we worth something? Don’t you think that makes a difference to the economy? We are important, but we never talk about us as being a part of the economic programs of our cities and our country. We never talk about that. You and I just talk about fun and games. We’ve got to talk economic development.

In the late ’60s I was involved in the Neighborhood Beautification program, and that was a part of the Model Cities program. It was a time when vacant lots were put into use if the owner of the lot was not using it. We created a lot of little pocket parks and little places. In the ’70s and the ’80s we decided little parks were too expensive to maintain. How things go around. Now we are back to the point where we’ve got to look at those little places. We’ve got to look at those strips. I was always humbled by my Eastern friends, when they fight so hard and so valiantly over just 200 square feet of property. I never could understand that, coming from out West where I saw acres and acres. But times have changed. Now out West a block – a 500-square-feet lot – makes a difference. We’ve got to value that – we’ve got to grab that block up. It doesn’t mean we have to own it – I would discourage that – but we’ve got to somehow get the neighborhoods involved, so we play a supporting role. They can own it, they can manage it – but we’ve got to grab those little pieces of land, and we’ve got to set them aside. Many of your comments here today are about Austin having too many hard edges. If we had more little pieces of land, with trees and flowers on them, then Austin could be softened up.

Out in Portland we’re losing so much of our valuable land. Acre by acre, year by year, we’re converting our treasured open spaces to urban and suburban uses. More people are coming – therefore, we need more houses. We’re in competition with the home builders, right? We want land, they want land. You know who will win out, unless we change the way we do business. They’re carving out our forests, our farms and our ranges. We’ve got to know this! We need to find out what the housing industry is doing, where they’re going. What are the population projections of our area? When those people come, where are they going to live? If there’s not enough existing housing, then people are going to build housing. And if they start building, they’re going to take up our land. Believe me, they do not like to set aside land for parks. Austin has a plan for parkland – but it’s one of the first. We don’t have parkland dedication in Portland. We’ve got to get in there, we’ve got to fight and we’ve got to scrap. And it’s a losing battle, because they will not invite you to the first setting of the table. They will draw the plans, they will map out the land they want – and, then they will say, “By the way, maybe we should call parks in” at the last sitting. And you know what happens at a feast. If you’re going for the last sitting, there’s only crumbs left. Somehow, we’ve got to know what they’re doing.

There’s also a need to revisit the selection of citizens to serve on the various park boards and advisory groups and commissions. We need a different breed today. We’ve got to have people who can see the whole picture, and understand what it takes to develop the whole city. But, more importantly, we’ve got to get them to understand the importance of open space … and we can do that. We can work together, we can do that – through this organization, through this program, through these sort of gatherings. You and I have got to stick together! We can do more by working together than we can apart. Collaboration! We’re sharing a vision. Already, by being here, we have a shared vision, we share our resources, and we’re sharing decision-making. Those are the three legs of real collaboration. If you don’t have those three, you don’t have real collaboration. We need to have real collaboration, you and I. We need to build a telephone tree after this conference and use it. Call me up and tell me, “Charles, this is what I’m up against – can you give me some help here?” That’s what we need to do. We’ve got to become a family! We can start a movement just with the group we have here. It’s all up to you and me.

Finally, we need to recognize the mood of our citizens – which is not very good now. They don’t know who to trust. So we’ve got to be straight. They hear from too many experts, every day – one day something will kill you, the next day it’s good for you. We don’t know who to believe anymore. And, you and I are up on the lofty walls – we have access to information citizens don’t have, but even we are confused. We don’t know who to trust, either. Think about it – who do you truly trust? Who do you think is looking out for you, outside of your own family? What politician do you really trust … what governmental official? Think about it … you really don’t trust many people. What about these people who depend on you and me to look out for their interests? They don’t know who to trust, so they need someone who is going to be candid … someone who’s going to be caring.

There’s a real leadership void out there and we can fill it. We can tell our story of parks and recreation and if we tell it right, I think we can move to the forefront. You and I will not solve all the problems that I talked about today. But what you and I can do is leave something behind, so that the next generation will have something on which to build. We thank the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund for this opportunity and we will do all that we can to ensure the success of this effort. Ours is a moral obligation to ensure that our legacy is no less than our inheritance.

Achieving Great Parks was last modified: March 7th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces
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