Parks and Recreation: Agents for Climate Resilience

10/29/2020 12 p.m. EDT
Session Type:  Education Session (1 hour)

Park and recreation professionals and the spaces they manage are helping communities become climate-ready. Parks provide green spaces that can help reduce air pollution and protect communities from extreme weather, while recreation centers offer safe spaces to gather or to distribute resources during emergency response. Work being done to create climate-ready cities and communities around the country through parks and recreation provides the pinnacle example of upstream thinking, planning and action.

During this panel, moderator Kristin Baja, programs director for the Climate Resilience at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, will identify and give an overview of resilience hubs in communities and discuss how parks and recreation can be critical to creating strong and resilient communities in the face of climate change. Our panel of seasoned experts — Alyssa Cobb Konon, Norma E. Garcia, Kelli Ondracek and Guillermo (Gil) Penalosa — will discuss the roles parks and recreation plays in helping communities become climate-ready.

Before this panel begins, be sure to listen to the general session presentation by Dan Heath, author of Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, as he discusses taking steps to solve problems before they begin.


Learning Outcomes:

Explore the ways that park and recreation professionals and spaces are helping communities become climate-ready.

Find out how climate-ready park planning exemplifies upstream thinking by preemptively responding to problems that can come from climate change.

Receive an overview of resilience hubs in communities and the role parks and recreation plays in creating strong and resilient communities in the face of climate change.


Kristin Baja

Programs Director, Climate Resilience, Urban Sustainability Directors Network



Alyssa Cobb Konon

Deputy Commissioner for the Planning and Development Division, NYC (New York) Parks

Alyssa Cobb Konon is the deputy commissioner for the Planning and Development Division at NYC Parks. She oversees the planning, parklands, revenue, marinas, operations and management planning, and audit units. Her division helps guide the development of the city’s parks to meet the recreational, social and environmental needs of New York City. In this role, she has spearheaded the creation and implementation of major initiatives, including the Community Parks Initiative, a $318 million framework for investing in under-resourced small parks; Parks Without Borders, a program that opens the boundaries of parks to be inclusive of all New Yorkers; Anchor Parks, a $150 million program for investing in large parks; and Walk to a Park, making progress to get 85 percent of New Yorkers within a walk to a park.

Cobb Konon is responsible for NYC Parks’ real estate portfolio, represents the agency in complex development projects and land-use transactions, and directs approximately 400 park concessions. She manages the audit and park inspection functions for NYC Parks, helping to inform agency best practices and service delivery. She has expanded NYC Parks’ engagement on waterfront, marinas and coastal projects, including developing its first systematic waterfront inspection and planning program, securing funding for aging waterfront parks infrastructure, and guiding its role in climate change.  

Prior to working at NYC Parks, Cobb Konon was an executive vice president at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), where she directed the Planning, Development and Transportation Divisions.

During her tenure at NYCEDC, she successfully led a diverse set of waterfront, neighborhood development, transportation, open space and real estate projects. Her work includes the creation of the South Bronx Greenway and West Harlem Piers, unlocking the redevelopment of the Seward Park lots on the Lower East Side, facilitation of Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus expansion, sustaining and growing the East River Ferry service, initiating the city’s first wetland mitigation bank, and advancing strategies that promote economic development.

Cobb Konon received an undergraduate degree in human biology from Stanford University and a graduate degree in urban planning from Columbia University.

Kelli Ondracek

Natural Resources Manager, Houston (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department

Kelli Ondracek has more than 15 years of experience in habitat restoration, wildlife research and habitat management. She is responsible for assessing, restoring and managing natural resources within the city of Houston’s parks, including more than 16,000 acres of natural areas. Her work experience includes private environmental consulting, federal government and environmental nonprofits. Ondracek holds a Bachelor of Science in business administration from Nicholls State University and both a Master of Science in environmental science and a Master of Science in environmental management from the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

Kristin Baja

Program Director, Climate Resilience, Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN)

Kristin Baja is USDN’s program director for climate resilience and is responsible for helping local governments identify strategic ways to advance equity-centered climate-resilience planning and implementation and building their capacity to take proactive action. Baja focuses her time on supporting members and partners in working at the nexus of racial equity, resilience and mitigation, while helping to facilitate deeper relationships between local governments and stakeholders. She designs and supports projects that shift focus to more collaborative and transformational action.

Prior to USDN, Baja served as the climate and resilience planner with the city of Baltimore’s (Maryland) Office of Sustainability, where she led the city’s climate and equity work. She holds a Master of Urban Planning and a Master of Science from the University of Michigan. In 2016, she was recognized by the Obama administration as a Champion of Change for her work on climate and equity.

Guillermo (Gil) Penalosa, MBA, Ph.Dhc, CSP

Founder and Chair, 8 80 Cities

Guillermo Penalosa is passionate about creating vibrant and healthy cities for all people. Because of his unique blend of experience, pragmatism and passion, cities and organizations worldwide have invited him to work in more than 350 different cities in all continents.

Penalosa is the founder and chair of the internationally recognized Canadian nonprofit organization 8 80 Cities. He is also first ambassador of World Urban Parks.

Before immigrating to Canada, Penalosa was commissioner in Bogotá, Colombia, where he led the construction of more than 200 parks and development of new Ciclovia, which has turned into the world’s largest temporary park and where each Sunday, 1 of 4 citizens walk, run, bike and enjoy each other’s company. He holds an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he recently was selected as one of the “100 Most Inspirational Alumni” in the school’s history. Penalosa received a Doctorate Honoris Causa from the Faculty of Urban Planning at the prominent University in Sweden, SLU. Last year, he was listed in Planetizen’s Top 100 Most Influential Urbanists and recently received in Australia the World Urban Parks Annual Distinguished Individual Award.

Norma E. Garcia

Director of the Department Parks and Recreation, LA County Parks and Los Angeles County Regional Parks and Open Space District, California

Norma Garcia is the first woman and first person of color to serve in this capacity since the founding of the Department in 1944.

In her role as director, Garcia is responsible for the department’s operations that include a $232 million budget, more than 2,458 employees, and asset management of 183 parks, 70,079 acres of parkland, more than 210 miles of trails with staging areas, 5 equestrians centers, 14 lakes – 3 of which are boating and swimming lakes, 475 sports amenities such as futsal, basketball, tennis, lawn bowling and multipurpose fields, 42 swimming pools, 15 wildlife sanctuaries, and 10 nature centers that serve as a refuge for more than 200 animals (such as hawks, bison, alpacas, snakes, owls, tortoise, ravens and raccoons). Garcia also directs the largest municipal golf system in the nation, consisting of 20 golf courses, in addition to the world-class Arboreta and Botanic Gardens – Descanso Gardens, Los Angeles County Arboretum, Virginia Robinson Gardens and South Coast Botanical Gardens, the Hollywood Bowl and Ford Theaters. She also will lead the department during emergencies and natural disasters, where gyms, local parks, and regional facilities become shelters for residents and livestock, providing a safety-net for communities throughout Los Angeles County.

Garcia also will serve as the director of the Los Angeles County Regional Parks and Open Space District (RPOSD) administering Measure A (Safe, Clean Neighborhood Parks and Beaches Protection Measure) dedicating $90 million annually, in perpetuity, in grant programs for Los Angeles County’s local parks, beaches and open space areas.
Garcia is passionate about building thriving communities throughout the county and works tirelessly to achieve this through her active participation in many civic and professional organizations. She serves on the Board of the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials (NACPRO), Baldwin Hills Conservancy, Baldwin Hills Regional Conservation Authority (BHRCA) and the El Monte Promise Foundation. She served as a member of the Rio Hondo College Board of Trustees, the chair of El Monte City Planning Commission and as a member on the Board of the Watershed Conservation Authority (WCA), the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles River and Mountains Conservancy (RMC), the California Community Foundation’s Community Building Initiative, and on the Board of New Economics for Women.

Garcia grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, where she visited Whittier Narrows Regional Park often and grew to love and appreciate the value of parks in her life and community. She is a daughter of immigrants and the first in her family to attend college. she graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in urban planning. She and her adventurous family and husky enjoy everything about parks, bike riding, camping and tending to their vegetable garden, chickens and beehive.