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  • Writer's picturechasmccabe

Parks are Shared Space

By Charlie McCabe

Stoneview Nature Center, Los Angeles

I love my job. For many years, I worked for nonprofit parks organizations in different cities and later for a national land trust that focused on urban parks. Now I am consulting with various city park systems that work with a wide array of nonprofits that raise funds for programming, improvements, and operations/maintenance of public parks and spaces. I'm in my fourth year of consulting (solo) and have been able to work on projects large and small and learn a lot. I continue to be amazed at the dedication of staff, funders, and board members at these organizations. That energy and enthusiasm I first saw when I joined a small city-wide parks nonprofit back in June of 2005 is very much present in the summer of 2023.

Old Bakery Park, Austin

In writing about parks over the past year in this space, I've tried to share some of what I've learned, especially about how public agencies and nonprofit organizations work together to bolster the usual lack of funding in public park agencies. Like it or not, most city park systems struggle to get to 1% of a city's annual budget. The majority of the population doesn't know about that reality. Most parks nonprofits are lucky to raise over $500,000 a year, boosting spending in a given park or park system by just one or two percentage points. You can read more about the challenges in my first set of posts here.

Rittenhouse Square Park, Philadelphia

As we emerge from the pandemic that has shaped public interaction over the past few years, I'm struck by public input that has grown coarse and in all honesty, ignorant. Bad behavior by a relative few has always been expected at public meetings, where the same handful of people tend to show up to shout down speakers. But now via Zoom, with far more people participating in the process, I have been surprised to see how easily and willfully groups are spreading disinformation about proposed park plans and how caustic their voices can be when public input is requested. Behaving like an adult and being respectful of other opinions shouldn't be something that we've all forgotten.

About a decade ago, just before I moved from Austin to Boston, a parks and recreation director mentioned to me, after a rather bracing set of disingenuous public comments, that some people simply haven't learned to share. Scratch the surface of local advocates not wanting a playscape improved, trees planted, sidewalks rebuilt, or pools revamped, and you'll find a clique that considers the local park to be their park. They don't want "outsiders" coming to their park.

Wissahickon Park, Philadelphia

Do these advocates have some legitimate concerns? Sure. There are parks that are located in environmentally sensitive areas. I share in the general desire to not add more parking to park land, already a scarce commodity. Cutting down trees is always a decision that requires careful consideration: Is the tree unsafe or unhealthy, or is it just in the way of an additional park improvement? Are the proposed new sidewalks fully accessible? Are the plantings helping restore some of the native flora and helping regenerate local diversity? There's always a lot of questions to ask and thoughtfully respond to. But just because you care deeply about a park, or have lived nearby for years, doesn't entitle you to discriminate about who can use that park. Even if you've given copious volunteer hours to help maintain a park (which few of the "advocates" have), you are not entitled to discriminate. Compromise is always part of the public process for parks.

Thankfully, we are seeing the move back to a combination of in-person and hybrid meetings that encourage one-on-one interactions regarding park plans and programming. Further, in-person meetings provide the ability to look at plans and talk to park staff and consultants in-depth. This approach starts with a brief introduction to all attendees on the process, followed by the invitation to visit a half dozen or more tables with information on a specific aspect of the plan. Topics at information tables often include landscape, natural areas restoration, playgrounds, sport courts, playing fields, transportation options, and even restrooms. This allows individuals to ask questions, give comments, and vote for priorities without the challenge of having to speak in front of others or be shouted at or confronted for their views.

Tree planting dedication, Charlesgate Park, Boston

Public parks are for everyone. We've had plenty of history of how people have been excluded from public spaces because of their gender, race, age, or beliefs. We need to be mindful of what we say and how it can interpreted by a family that may not live nearby but wants to visit a playground with a splash pad in a leafy park.

As you head out into parks and public spaces and onto trails, pause and look for at the many kinds of activity taking place. Parks have both local and visiting constituencies, active and passive uses, old and young, loud and quiet—and sharing isn't a problem in most cases. But just as important, notice who might not be there and notice who (or how many people) are helping care for the park or trail. There usually aren't enough staff to help, so share by giving back and volunteering. You'll be glad you did.

© Copyright 2023, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC. Links to all posts in this series.

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