Funding Common Ground: Parks, programming and unfulfilled potential

Philadelphia has amazing park and recreation resources, yet the city consistently under-commits funds to maintain and plan for improving these assets. As part of our Agenda 2015 op-ed series Lauren Bornfriend, Executive Director of Philadelphia Parks Alliance, argues that the lack of strategic planning for parks also has a hidden cost: Our parks and recreation centers lack dependable programming options that would give children safe, structured environments for learning and active lifestyles outside of school. 

Philadelphia is blessed with extraordinary parks and recreation facilities and an innovative and high performing new Department of Parks and Recreation (PPR). A citywide corps of passionate volunteers and advocates, nonprofit, public, foundation, academic, and corporate sector partners is making notable contributions to the quality and number of parks and recreation amenities downtown and in neighborhoods across our city.

Many of Philadelphia’s parks are looking better than they have in years and exciting new parks, recreation facilities, and open spaces have been created. PPR is in the process of pioneering new programming, designed to provide more and better opportunities for youth and families by building connections among recreation centers, playgrounds, and parks that are in close proximity.

Why then is there also an enormous backlog of capital projects, widespread deferred maintenance, and a lack of staff to maintain recreation centers, playgrounds, and parks?  

Decades of chronic municipal underfunding and the resultant need to patch and make do, as opposed to proactive and strategic investment, has in the long run cost our city and its citizens tens of millions of dollars.  

In the short term, we have our share of broken benches, damaged play equipment, inadequate lighting, unpleasant bathrooms, invasive species, deteriorated historical assets, and short dumping.

The lack of smart, deliberate investment in our parks and recreation resources comes at a high price: higher maintenance costs and no basic system-wide programming families can count on. Too many children and youth do not have the opportunity to exercise, play, learn and express themselves in a safe, clean, well managed, adequately equipped environment; to feel pride of place and the inspiration to thrive. Too many recreation centers and parks in Philadelphia have no programming and no hope of programming at the current level of funding.

The Department of Parks and Recreation manages 10,000 plus acres, more than 12 % of Philadelphia’s land area, yet year after year, less than 2% of the municipal operating budget is directed to parks and recreation. We live in a city where the poverty rate for children under the age of 18 is 37%. Many families cannot afford to join a gym, take a family vacation, or enroll their children in summer camp and out of school time activities. They count on the City of Philadelphia to adequately fund public parks and recreation programs, but the city is failing to meet their needs.

Robust programming infuses recreation centers and parks with positive activity and crowds out negative, unsafe behaviors. Well maintained, well programmed parks and recreation amenities activate our communities and our city, attracting positive behavior, investment in neighborhood revitalization and healthy, happy and engaged children and adults. This is also about fairness – families in every neighborhood deserve quality, safe places for play.

In 2008, the Philadelphia Parks Alliance commissioned the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence to study the economic value of Philly’s parks. The resulting report, How Much Value Does the City of Philadelphia Receive from its Park and Recreation System, showed that although Philadelphia’s parks were not created as a mechanism for economic development, they nonetheless provide the city and its citizens with hundreds of millions of dollars of value.  The report found that even in their current state, each year our parks generate at least $7 million worth of storm water and air pollution control, bring in $40 million in tourist revenue, generate $18 million in added property taxes, $37 million in increased equity for homeowners near parks, and save citizens $70 million in medical expenses. One can only imagine how these numbers will grow when elected officials decide it’s no longer acceptable to overlook this powerful tool of economic and community development.

The good news is that Philadelphians once again have a chance to reshape this story. We go to the voting booth on May 19th and again on November 3rd, with the chance to elect a Mayor and City Council who understand the role of well programmed, well maintained, well-funded parks and recreation in a thriving 21st century city.  More importantly we’ll have the opportunity to vote for candidates who have pledged to invest in the promise and potential of these extraordinary assets, and once incoming elected officials take office, it will be our job to hold them to their commitments.

Philadelphia can no longer afford to ignore the unfulfilled potential of its parks and recreation, nor that of its citizens. The Parks Alliance and thousands of our constituents across the city, call on elected officials and those running for office to ensure that every child and every family in Philadelphia has access to beautiful, safe, clean well programmed parks and recreation, no matter what neighborhood they live in.  To do less is unacceptable.

Want to weigh in? Join the Philadelphia Parks Alliance on Twitter for an  #ArtsParksChat on April 15 from 1-2pm. During the chat, we’ll ask you what we need from the City and the next Mayor to ensure that Philadelphia continues to become a better place to live, work and play. The chat will begin with discussion questions from @GroundSwell_PA at 1pm, with the Parks Alliance (@PHParksAlliance) and Generocity (@Generocity) co-facilitating.

Voters can learn about the Mayoral candidates’ platforms on parks and recreation by celebrating Earth Day at a mayoral forum being held on April 22 by the Philadelphia Parks Alliance in partnership with GroundSwell. In addition, in late April, the Parks Alliance will post City Council candidates’ responses (or lack thereof) to key questions about park funding, programming, and protection at 

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