From the Director’s Chair

April 1, 2016, Department, by Samantha Bartram

NRPA member agencies in urban environments face unique challenges. This column aims to get a better sense of how the dynamic park and recreation leaders in these areas are tackling today’s weightiest issues, from climate change to urban revitalization and funding. This month, we caught up with Herman D. Parker, park and recreation director for the city of San Diego; Keith A. Anderson, director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation; and Michael P. Kelly, general superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District to ask the following question: How do you address park deficiencies in your underserved neighborhoods and what strategies would you recommend other cities adopt? Below are their insights.

Herman D. Parker

It can be difficult for large, established urban centers to find suitable parkland and recreational opportunities given that their residential communities were constructed before current park acreage standards were in place. San Diego is no different. In our continuing effort to address park deficiencies in underserved neighborhoods, four strategies greatly assist us: (1) partnering with our local school districts to provide joint-use facilities on school property; (2) properly assessing every viable parcel of land in the community, regardless of size and shape, to be used as parkland; (3) identifying areas within open-space lands and regional parks that can be developed into neighborhood parks; and (4) using private land for public recreational purposes.

Since 1948, the city has enjoyed a long-standing, good working relationship with our school districts, which has benefited our underserved neighborhoods by providing additional park acreage. Currently, the department maintains approximately 90 joint-use facilities and plans to develop and maintain an additional 30 sites in the next 5-10 years as part of the Mayor’s Play All Day initiative. These facilities are used by the public, programmed as public parks and accommodate youth sports, special events and a variety of other recreational opportunities.

It is important to consider every viable parcel of land in an underserved community as potential parkland. In densely populated urban centers we must broaden our thinking and consider acquiring smaller parcels that can serve as pocket parks that are within a 10-minute walking distance. 

San Diego has more than 41,700 acres of parkland. Of this, 26,400 acres of open-space lands and regional parks have been created to support the natural environment and provide regional recreation. During the past eight years, the city looked at these large regional sites, evaluated their proximity and connectivity to underserved neighborhoods and began using portions of these sites as neighborhood parks.

Another possibility for park-deficient areas is to utilize privately owned land with a public recreational easement recorded on the land to allow public use of the space. San Diego partnered with the development community and state agencies to design, through community input, park amenities on privately owned land that will provide for public parks. 

Keith A. Anderson

The mission of the Washington, D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) is to enhance the quality of life and wellness for D.C. residents and visitors by providing equal access to affordable and quality recreational services by organizing programs, activities and events. 

DPR continues to improve access to outdoor recreational facilities such as multigenerational playgrounds, spray parks, dog parks, Wi-Fi in parks, etc. DPR also works with partner agencies to enhance infrastructure supporting bicycling — including placement of bike racks and bike share. 

Through Mayor Muriel Bowser’s health and wellness initiative, FitDC, the city has experienced increased support for walking at DPR parks and recreation centers. Also, in 2016, the mayor waived D.C. residents’ fees for DPR fitness centers. Currently we are installing outdoor fitness equipment at small parks and enhancing seven fitness centers.

DPR also partnered with a pop-up farmer’s market to increase access to healthier food. The agency increased availability of healthier food options at parks and recreation spaces, such as frozen yogurt at an outdoor pool site. DPR works with the community to establish community gardens across the city and engages in collaborative efforts to encourage recycling and composting.

Michael P. Kelly

As general superintendent and CEO, I have the awesome responsibility of ensuring every child, family and community has access to parks and quality recreational programming. By doing so, we work to ensure that no neighborhood goes “underserved.” These resources are vital to the overall health of all communities, without exception. 

The city of Chicago comprises 77 neighborhoods, each a distinct and essential thread in the fabric of our great city. As anyone who has toured Chicago can attest, no two communities are identical. It is important that we recognize those differences and customize our services to meet the recreational needs and interests of each community. To achieve this, we employ strategies that help our team understand the needs, interests and concerns of each area we serve. 

Most recently, we’ve implemented the “77 Neighborhoods” Task Force. Each week, our management team and I meet at a different park. We invite park supervisors and other team members to discuss facilities, programming, demographics, outreach, concerns and other issues that impact our individual parks. This helps those of us who don’t work directly in the park better understand what works and what does not. Also, by bringing the entire team to the table, we are able to create an individual vision for each park and implement a plan that also takes future developments and changes in the surrounding community into consideration. 

Our success is measured by the number of people who come to our parks. Our goal is to see every park brimming with children, families and seniors, and every program filled to capacity. In order for that to happen, we must take a thoughtful approach to the decisions and investments that we make in all communities.

Samantha Bartram, Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine