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Farewell to the Institute for Urban Parks

By Charlie McCabe

Most of the 2023 Partnerships Lab cohort and most of the institute staff, June 2023


In the summer of 2019, I left full-time employment, which at the time was my job as Director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land (TPL). I was ready to strike out on my own and see if I could succeed as individual consultant for parks, public spaces, and placemaking. While I continued to help out with a few TPL projects here and there, I started looking for new projects that I could tackle on my own.


One of the first contracts I got turned out to the best—for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I got to work consistently for the past four years with a small but mighty group tackling some pretty challenging projects. That group is the Institute for Urban Parks at the Central Park Conservancy, and today, June 30th, is our last day.


Maura Lout has been the Executive Director of the Institute and was one of the first people to talk with me about opportunities. I had previously helped out with a few of their urban parks roundtables in great park cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Austin while working at TPL, and they were always a lot of fun. Given some changes in staff, Maura was looking for a consultant to assist with their efforts around a newly established program, the National Partnerships Lab, working with parks organizations on specific challenges for a 10-month stint. I was only too happy to sign up and help with projects in San Diego, Detroit, and Portland, Oregon.


Through an application process, the Institute chose a cohort of parks organizations to work with for 10 months each. In addition to providing some shared training and skills workshops, we focused on a key issue that each organization had proposed to tackle. The challenges ranged from strategic planning to board repositioning and community engagement processes. We shared best practices on measuring park usage, operations and maintenance management, volunteer engagement, and staff surveying and collaboration.


I helped with research, benchmarking, facilitating virtual sessions, and site visits with our cohort partners. We were just getting to our site visits in March 2020 when the pandemic curtailed our travel for some time. We pivoted to an all-virtual format and managed to develop initial sets of recommendations for our first round of partners by the end of 2020. The Institute chose a second cohort of partners for 2021 with a virtual orientation and lots of virtual sessions. We returned to site visits in late fall of 2021. We took a similar approach in 2022 with seven partners, three in NYC and four in other cities.


This week we wrap up the final round of Partnerships Lab engagements on a shortened schedule for 2023: again, three in NYC, and four in other cities. We've helped with strategy, community engagement, staff surveys, best practices, connecting organizations to fundraising strategies and other great organizations and in general, trying to help address the key question that each organization proposed tackling in their application. For most, we got them closer to their goal: helping them see the opportunities, the potential, and helping uncover what they already knew about themselves. Parks aren't static, and neither are the people and organizations that support them, and some great changes have taken place. I'm proud of my small role in the bigger context of the Institute.


More importantly, I've been lucky to work with a talented team of Institute staff and other consultants. I'd like to thank Maura, Chris, Grey, Kathryn, Michael, Steven, Molly, John, Sarah, and a very special thanks to Sophie, who's made the accelerated schedule with our final cohort from February to June happen without a hitch. This combination of people brought out our individual strengths and compensated for any weaknesses while allowing us to push our partners and ourselves forward.


At this point in my career, I realize that some of the best moments are over in a (seeming) instant. My work with the Institute in the Partnerships Lab has been one of those "golden moments." The staff of the Institute are splitting up; a few have found new roles at Central Park Conservancy, others are moving on to new adventures. I wish them all well and hope that another organization can take on a similar role in the future for public/nonprofit park partnerships. In the meantime, I'll try to help out as many parks organizations as I can through my solo consultant practice.


I'm grateful for the opportunities that the Institute has given me. Thank you to the staff and the current and former Partnerships Lab cohort members. Hopefully, our paths will cross again one day soon.


© Copyright 2023, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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