Green Giants: Mayors Who Make Parks a Priority

October 1, 2012, Feature, by Danielle Taylor, Elizabeth Beard, Phil Hayward

Parks in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, and Seattle have friends in high places.In Philadelphia, all public spaces link in a strategy to make the City of Brotherly Love the greenest in America. In Oklahoma City, a blockbuster open-space program moves ahead steadily in these economically distressed times. And in Seattle, near-universal enthusiasm for parks and green space results in major revenue levies. All three cities have a key common denominator: Mayors who understand, appreciate, and support the role of parks and recreation in building better communities.

This special section introduces mayors Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, Mick Cornett in Oklahoma City, and Michael McGinn in Seattle. In interviews with the editors of Parks & Recreation, the mayors discuss their backgrounds and how their experiences shaped their support and evolved their visions for parks and recreation. And for every supportive mayor, there’s always a solid parks director to execute the visions.

This feature is the third in an annual series featuring mayors of large U.S. cities who go above and beyond in their support of parks and recreation. Past mayors included: Annise Parker (Houston), Dwight Jones (Richmond), Sylvester “Sly” James (Kansas City), Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles), Richard Daley (Chicago), and Cory Booker (Newark). 

Hometown Homage
Oklahoma City’s native son transforms the urban landscape.
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett developed his appreciation for the city’s parks and recreation amenities the old-fashioned way—by growing up competing on the ballfields, playing on the playgrounds, and relaxing under the trees offered by his neighborhood parks.
As a child, “I probably spent more time in our city parks than just about anyone in Oklahoma City,” Cornett says. “There was a city park just three blocks from my house, and I played there all the time. We had the best playground in my part of the city, and when you’re 7, 8, 9 years old, your part of the city is not very big. But I could ride my bike there,” he reflects, which opened up all sorts of opportunities and adventures for the young boy.

Fast forward a few decades, and his esteem for parks remains, but now manifests itself in a much more influential form. As mayor of Oklahoma City since 2004, Cornett has not only made the city’s parks and recreation services a priority on his own political agenda, he has also convinced the city’s residents of their critical importance as well. In 2009, Oklahoma City voters approved a $777 million city beautification referendum that centers on the installation of a new 70-acre downtown park. The MAPS-3 initiative, third in a series of Metropolitan Area Projects, will also include new and improved hiking and biking trails, senior aquatics and wellness centers, a modern streetcar system, and a new convention center, among other amenities, all of which are targeted to improve the quality of life for Oklahoma City residents.

City parks also played a major role in another of the mayor’s original initiatives. In 2007, Cornett launched his “This City is Going on a Diet” campaign, which put city residents up to the collective challenge of losing one million pounds. The program’s website prominently features local parks and often lists local fitness opportunities offered at the different locations. By January 2012, more than 47,000 participating citizens broke the one-million-pound mark and have continued to maintain the trend of healthy lifestyles.

The success of programs like MAPS-3 and This City is Going on a Diet can’t be attributed solely to the mayor’s efforts, however. His close working relationship with Wendel Whisenhunt, Oklahoma City’s director of parks and recreation, ensures the continued prominence of park benefits in the public eye. Whisenhunt has also come up with a number of innovative ideas for parks and recreation, all of which have paid off handsomely, says Cornett.

“Every time Wendel has led us down a road, he’s been right every time,” Cornett notes. “And we don’t necessarily make it easy on him—we go through ups and downs and economic cycles like everybody else—But Wendel does a lot with what he has to work with, and of course what we offer today is amongst the best of American cities.”

In turn, Whisenhunt highlights the role Cornett has played in both the continued public support of parks and recreation and the ever-improving well-being of the city as a whole.

“[Cornett] has been a real proponent of all quality-of-life issues,” says Whisenhunt, “and in a city organization, a lot of those quality-of-life issues are addressed by the parks and rec department. He’s been a real advocate for proper funding in our budgets so that we have the funds to off er the programs and the operations that are necessary to be successful.”

Drawing on his extensive background in media, advertising, and marketing, Cornett has tirelessly promoted his city in his eight years as mayor, and with good reason: During the recession, Oklahoma City has sustained one of strongest economies and among the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. Even more impressive, Cornett has been able to implement more than a billion dollars in local infrastructure projects without once raising taxes in his eight-year term as mayor, thanks to expiring taxes and continued support from local voters.

Only a few short decades ago, Cornett remembers when young people left Oklahoma City in droves, looking for greener pastures. Today, largely because of the increased presence of public, quality-of-life amenities like parks and recreation, locals are staying, and young people are moving in from out of state. Furthermore, area residents who don’t live within the city limits have also become actively engaged in the well-being of Oklahoma City and have been willing to invest in its continued progress.

“One reason we’ve succeeded,” says Cornett, “is that we’ve convinced the suburbanite that the vitality of the core is directly related to the quality of life in the suburbs. For that reason, they’ve been willing to tax themselves for amenities downtown.”

With a greener landscape, a thriving economy, a more healthy and active constituency, and promises of exciting things to come, Oklahoma City is clearly doing very well under the supervision of Mayor Cornett. “I think our entire generation is proud of all of the improvements we’ve made, all of the parks that we’ve built, all of the green spaces we have created and are creating,” says Cornett. “Our people believe in investing in infrastructure and investing in their city, and at this point the city has developed somewhat of a track record of being able to deliver.”

Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation
Population: 591,967
Resources: 154 parks, 25 recreation centers, two senior centers, one performing arts recreation center, two community gymnasiums, two botanical gardens, two nature parks, eight golf courses, three lake recreation areas, nine park ponds, two tennis centers, 74 tennis courts, two dog parks, one performing arts facility, three skateparks, one ice skating rink, 182 ball fields, 87 basketball hoops, 75 miles of trails and greenways, 25 miles of in-park walking paths, three disc golf courses, one indoor and four outdoor pools, 17 spraygrounds, one municipal fish hatchery.
Budget: FY 2013 $30.3 million
Staff: 172 full-time

Sixteen years ago, when Wendel Whisenhunt took the reins of Oklahoma City’s parks and recreation department, exciting changes were in the works. In the 21 years prior, no bond initiatives had been passed to improve the city’s parks system, but one finally came through in 1995. Since then, two more capital improvement bond packages for parks have been approved, and the parks department has used this public trust to provide a number of new and improved services and amenities. For example, more than 100 new playgrounds have been built in Oklahoma City since 1995.

“I think our greatest strengths are surrounded by the confidence the public seems to have in city government here,” Whisenhunt says. “We feel supported by the citizens of Oklahoma City. We’re determined to satisfy the citizens with the work the bond issues are doing for them in their parks, and hope that we can do so so they’ll continue to feel encouraged about approving additional bond issues in the future.”

Whisenhunt also looks to the role parks play in attracting tourism to Oklahoma City, and he’s extremely excited about the promises of the upcoming downtown park. “When this park is finished,” he says, “it’s going to say to a large extent that Oklahoma City has really arrived.” 

Interview by Danielle Taylor, Associate Editor, Parks & Recreation.

Green Works in Philadelphia
City strives to be nation's greenest by 2015.
“Imagine a child going to a school with a greened schoolyard. Teachers using outdoor classrooms to educate students about the environment so that they are prepared to care for it in the future. Students playing on grass and green play spaces and not on blacktop,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter says. “Then after school, those same students walking to an adjacent greened recreation center, for after-school programming, along a tree-lined street.”

Mayor Nutter’s vision for a greener Philadelphia links those idyllic green schoolyards and tree-lined streets to a very practical stormwater management system for the nation’s fifth largest city. And these are just two of the many interlinked strategies in place that will he says will make Philadelphia the nation’s greenest city by 2015. How to reach that ambitious goal is neatly spelled out in the five-year “Greenworks Philadelphia” plan, which Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources Michael DiBerardinis calls “one of the best policy documents I have seen in my career.”

Released in 2009, just a year after Mayor Nutter took office, the Greenworks Philadelphia plan includes 15 measurable targets to be reached by 2015. The five major goal areas include energy consumption (both by the city government and by residents and businesses), environmental protection (reducing air pollution and solid waste), equity (such as more green space and improved access to parks and healthy food), economic progress (improved transportation options and encouraging green industries), and engagement (such as tree planting and community partnerships).

“We’re well on our way to achieving many of the Greenworks goals,” Nutter says. “Working with our partners both inside and outside of the administration, we have reduced our municipal energy use by 5 percent, more than tripled our curbside residential recycling rates, added more than 200 acres of new parks and open space, and completed 428 miles of bike lanes. Halfway through our implementation timeline, we’ve completed or started work on about 89 percent of the Greenworks initiatives.”

Greenworks targets are now interwoven throughout city planning, such as the city’s latest overall five-year plan and its new zoning code, which Nutter says will help ensure that sustainability will continue to be a part of Philadelphia’s future even after the 2015 Greenworks timeline. And a major component of his drive to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the nation is parks and recreation.

“My administration is structured that way to promote efficiencies and connections across city departments,” Nutter says. “Parks and recreation facilities play a major role in helping Philadelphia be a city where people want to live, learn, work, and play. I think the competitive, attractive, livable cities of the future are those that care about their natural resources and provide children and families with opportunities to be safe, active, and engaged.”

The city’s renowned park system is very familiar to Michael Nutter, who is a Philadelphia native.

“I grew up at 55th & Larchwood in West Philadelphia. What is now Malcolm X Park was only a few blocks away, and I used to go there all the time. I also played football on Belmont Plateau in West Fairmount Park when I was older,” Nutter recalls. “The park system was, and still is, an incredible resource for young people in our city–having a green space to run around and be active, get some fresh air, and just hang out is vital for the health and well-being of all our city’s residents, but especially our children.”

Educated at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Nutter has been committed to public service since his youth in West Philadelphia. He served almost 15 years on the Philadelphia City Council, earning the reputation of a reformer, before his election as mayor of Philadelphia in 2008. He is still a fan and regular user of the city’s parks.

“My favorite park is Fairmount Park, the largest municipal park system in the nation. It consists of 63 parks and covers 9,200 acres,” Nutter says. “Not only does it provide a lush, green oasis in the middle of a thoroughly modern city, it also houses some of our city’s greatest treasures…Fairmount Park is the lifeline of our city and one of the features that makes Philadelphia a great place to live and work.”

Stormwater management is one example of how open space plays a role in achieving many interlinked goals. In April 2012, the city signed the Green City, Clean Waters Partnership Agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This innovative federal-municipal partnership between EPA and Philadelphia’s Water Department creates green stormwater infrastructure to reduce the runoff that causes overflows of the city’s aging combined sewer system.

Some of the earliest beneficiaries of this $2 billion multi-decade investment will be Philadelphia school children. Another partnership, the Green2015 partnership between the Department of Parks and Recreation, Water Department, the School District, and the Trust for Public Land, will green schoolyards, nearby recreation centers, and the streets between the two, creating “green linkages.” Up to 10 schoolyards and recreation centers will be “greened,” allowing the city to make headway on its goal to have 500 acres of additional greened acres to reduce stormwater runoff by 2015.

“We have seen tremendous gains to date, and I think you keep the momentum by offering incentives, providing resources and training, and fostering new partnerships to make smart investments in our future…all of which we are doing in Philadelphia,” Nutter says.

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation
Population: 1,526,006
Resources: 150 parks, 10,600 acres, 164 recreation centers and playgrounds, 70 swimming pools, 206 historic structures Budget: FY 2013 $57,799,313 (includes grant revenue)
Staff: 609 full-time

With 13 percent (10,600 acres) of Philadelphia’s landmass under his jurisdiction, Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources Michael DiBerardinis plays a crucial role in the greening of the city. But DiBerardinis and his staff of 600 can’t do it alone—community engagement gives his department much-needed input and volunteer help.

“I think our size and the deep level of public engagement and involvement are unique aspects to our system in Philadelphia,” DiBerardinis says. “Our parks and recreation centers are woven into the fabric of each and every neighborhood…So even though we are one of the largest urban parks and recreation systems in the world, on a neighborhood- by-neighborhood basis we feel very small because we are so connected to individuals and communities.”

One initiative generating community excitement is TreePhilly, the city’s firstever free yard tree giveaway, funded by Wells Fargo Bank and supported by the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Tree- Philly will provide 4,000 free yard trees in 2012 to Philadelphia property owners.

“There has been such excitement around TreePhilly that we think we can use such a model to engage more communities while planting thousands of new trees all across Philadelphia,” DiBerardinis says. “When government acts decisively and with vision, it presents new possibilities.”

That vision is what DiBerardinis sees in Mayor Nutter.

“I have worked in the public sector for my entire career and the key to getting work done in the public sector is having a concise vision and the leadership to advance that vision,” DiBerardinis says. “Here in Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter provides both the vision and the leadership. Such a vision…empowers and encourages the Department of Parks and Recreation to think in new ways and advance big ideas.”  

Interview by Elizabeth Beard, Managing Editor, Parks & Recreation.

A Holistic View

Parks help drive Michael McGinn's urban vision.
Perhaps it’s the unique geo-political sociological-economic soup that makes this city of 621,000 so progressive. From smart growth to the arts, Seattle has always been comfortable in being out there ahead of much of the country. So, it was with some surprise that Seattleites got an even more progressive mayor when Michael McGinn took office in 2009. They should not have been surprised, considering his deep and abiding roots in community improvement.

Growing up on Long Island in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s, McGinn got early exposure to municipal life. His mother was a school teacher and his father worked for the local school district as director of facilities and afterhours programming. “My dad told me a story that really stuck with me—one day he had some parents come in and say ‘You have programs for all sorts of different groups, but you don’t have anything for developmentally disabled kids,’” McGinn says. “He said, ‘You’re absolutely right, and we need to change that.’

“So he started the Wednesday Social Club, with music, arts and crafts and activities,” McGinn continues. “We had a mix of different kids with various levels of disability—some had jobs, some had to be home and cared for by their parents, but there was something at Wednesday Social Club for everyone. All six of the McGinn kids volunteered there every week. I don’t even recall being asked—it was just expected. It was a big part of the way we were brought up.”

The experience had a life-long impact on McGinn, who saw in his father’s commitment to universal access to public facilities a vision for government. “That’s government’s job—making sure we meet everyone’s needs.”

Continuing through college, McGinn volunteered with Boys and Girls Clubs and spent summers working at their camps. While it helped develop his philosophy of community engagement, it was his experiences after graduation that solidified a vision for putting it to work.
As an aide in the Washington, D.C., office of Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver, McGinn felt the pull of the Pacific Northwest. At the University of Washington’s law school, McGinn served as president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and a volunteer with the Sierra Club.

“Historically, the Sierra Club’s mission had been focused on issues like water and air quality and preserving wild places,” McGinn says. “When I began working with them, we were beginning to make the transition to thinking about the environment more holistically. It’s not enough to draw a line around wild places, when those places are going to be just as affected by climate change as the places we live in.

“That was a crucial moment in the evolution of my thinking about these issues,” he continues. “I began to see how inter-related all our choices are, and how—if we want to protect wild places—we need to make changes here at home. I also began to think much more about how all the choices that our elected leaders make about our built environment influence people’s daily lives and the planet…Everything is connected.”

Parks included.

One of his more noted accomplishments occurred as chairman of the successful 2008 Seattle Parks and Green Spaces Levy. Funds from the eight-year $198.2 million levy are being directed to the creation of more than 30 new parks in Seattle neighborhoods and for the preservation of wooded green spaces.

“Parks are a crucial part of the mix of uses that create great urban places,” McGinn says. “In a great urban place, you have the walkability and access to transit that helps to reduce our reliance on single-occupancy vehicles. You have stores, restaurants and businesses nearby. You have vibrant, busy streets full of people and activity. And you have parks and open spaces for people to gather, or to simply be quiet and enjoy our city’s incredible natural beauty. You have to have all the elements in place to create great spaces, and parks are essential to that. That’s what makes our city so special and attractive to people, our vibrant and beautiful urban spaces.”

What more would McGinn like to see in his parks department?

“We need to be expanding our partnerships with nonprofits and the private sector,” he says. “There is so much we can do in parks to support youth, to support families, to build a better city. Sports and recreation programming like my dad worked on can be transformative in a kid’s life. And families who are struggling and need help but don’t know how to get it—they come to our parks every day, because they’re a free resource that’s available to everyone.” 

Seattle Parks and Recreation
Population: 620,778
Resources: 416 parks, 26 community centers, 10 swimming pools, 3,000 acres developed park land/3,500 natural area
Budget: $135 million
Employees: 1,200
Notable: Currently implementing a $146 million Parks and Green Spaces Levy

Christopher Williams, acting director of Seattle Parks and Recreation, considers himself a product of the agency he oversees. He played Little League baseball on city athletic fields, attended programs at community centers targeted at youth at risk, and he played high school sports in its parks. And he feels fortunate to have grown up personally and professionally with a progressive park and recreation system. Over his 18-year career, he’s figured out why his city does so well with parks and recreation.

“We’re willing to take risks and try new approaches to programs and services—if they don’t work, then we either tweak or discard the approach altogether,” Williams says. “Another contributing factor is that Seattle Parks has been in a very fortunate position over the past 10 years because voters have passed three property tax levies to fund everything from new community centers to environmental education programs. While most of this influx of funding was used to support capital projects, Seattle Parks did receive nearly $8 million from one of those levies (2000) to fund operations and maintenance.

“This period of funded innovation resulted in new and enhanced programs for teens and seniors and environmental education," he continues," and we also expanded programs that led to the protection and replacement of the forested areas in our parks.”

Coping with the ever-changing financial landscape within the city has been the greatest challenge Williams has faced since 2008. It’s hard on employees and park users. And this makes Williams all the more proud of Seattle’s park and recreation employees.

“They show up every day with their game faces on, ready to serve the community despite budget challenges and setbacks we have faced,” he says. “They are without peer in their dedication and commitment.”

There’s always more to be done and areas that can be improved on.

“The very things I’d like to change about the system are the very same things that make the system unique, well loved, and appreciated by the community,” Williams says. “For example, I wish our public engagement processes could all run smoothly, yet it is this same citizen energy and interest that resulted in 350,000 volunteer hours last year.”

Interview by Phil Hayward, Editor, Parks & Recreation.