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The Art of Collaboration in Parks in St. Louis

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

By Charlie McCabe

Gateway Arch Park, early morning.

Two weeks ago, I joined a number of parks colleagues for a two-day urban park roundtable. Organized by the Institute for Urban Parks at the Central Park Conservancy, it brings together public and nonprofit parks professionals from around the country to brainstorm and share solutions for specific challenges. The last few years have been primarily virtual gatherings, though we did have a small in-person roundtable in Chicago last November and a virtual one earlier this year. [Note: I serve as a consultant to the Institute, assisting with their National Partnerships Lab program, as well as the roundtables.]

Tour of the Nature playground in Forest Park.

So it was great to join 25 people for some in-depth discussions on equity in parks and public spaces, while also getting a glimpse of some of the remarkable parks in St. Louis, knowing the collaboration it takes (and has taken over several decades) to both maintain and improve them. The result of this public/nonprofit collaboration is that St. Louis consistently ranks in the top 20 of ParkScore cities annually, ranking 19th this year, just ahead of Henderson, NV, and behind Denver. [Learn more about the ParkScore methodology here.]

St. Louis's combination of public and private funding (with private coming from park nonprofits) doubles what one could normally expect in a city of this size. St. Louis spends $128 per resident, which is well above the ParkScore average of $98. The breakdown of that $128 is approximately $26 from the City (via the Parks & Recreation department budget); $42 from other public agencies, which include both the National Park Service (Gateway Arch Park) and the regional Great Rivers Greenway agency; and $60 from several nonprofit parks organizations.

Further, there are numerous, multi-faceted examples of collaboration between the public and the nonprofit organizations taking place. Forest Park Forever is the nonprofit working with the City to implement capital improvement plans and enhanced O&M in the 1,300-acre Forest Park, the 1904 World's Fair site, which is also home to several museums and the Zoo. In Tower Grove Park, the nonprofit Tower Grove Park Commission programs, operates, and maintains the 289-acre park on its own, with a combination of both private and public funds. Gateway Arch Park Foundation, a partner with the National Park Service, raised both public and private funds for a major expansion of the visitors center at Gateway Arch National Park as well as a land bridge connecting downtown parks to the famed Arch grounds. Great Rivers Greenway is a parks and greenways organization that serves three counties, having built 130 miles of hike and bike trails. The trails connect several of the parks mentioned above, and the organization helps with construction, operations, and maintenance of others, including portions of city and national parks.

The impressively managed forested areas of Forest Park.

These organizations work together on a variety of projects, share knowledge and capabilities, and are working to address not only park needs and gaps but also inequities. Despite the fact that 97 percent of St. Louis residents live within a 10-minute walk to a park, St. Louis, like many U.S. cities, saw declines beginning in the late 1960s stemming from industrial closings, increased suburbanization in surrounding communities, and abandoned buildings and vacant land that these organizations and the City continue to address. Indeed, park access is uneven across St. Louis, as it is in many other U.S. cities. Residents in low-income neighborhoods have 15 percent less access to parks compared to the city median.

As several of our hosts noted, St. Louis is still seeing an overall (slight) decline in population despite the efforts of these organizations as well as the redevelopment of many buildings into housing on the northern edge of downtown St. Louis. Still, the collaboration is impressive and serves as a very important model for other cities.

City Museum, in a reworked former factory, downtown St. Louis.

© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC.

The complete series on public parks is here.

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