Parks & Rec integration is a priority

March 18, 2010

By JoAnn Greco
For PlanPhilly

How auspicious can you get — a jovial semi-holiday, a gentle hint of Spring in the air, and a still-shining sun thanks to pushed-up Daylight Savings Time? For the new Commission on Parks & Recreation, which assembled for the second time last night, things were looking good.

And for the most part they stayed that way in a short, rather obligatory-feeling meeting. As a friendly crowd of park activists and friends, and a dozen other Commissioners listened, Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis began with updates on how P&R fared in the Mayor’s recently announced budget proposal, and on the status of the merger of the two departments.

Stating he was “very happy” with the $2.5 million increase in general fund allocations, $5 million in additional capital expenses, and $2.5 million more devoted to the maintenance and planting of trees, DiBerardinis also reported that the merger was on target for later this summer. An organizational flow chart has been completed and management districts have been set, he elaborated. Populating the flow chart and deciding who goes where is next.

He then introduced two new members of his staff, Joan Blaustein, who will tackle the City’s Green Works initiatives that come under the auspices of P&R, and Jean Hunt, who will head P&R’s Youth Development Initiative. Blaustein outlined the four components her office will help coordinate: ensuring that there is a park or recreational facility within 10 minutes of at least 75 percent of the populace; ensuring the same for locally-sourced food; planting 300,000 new trees by 2015 (that endeavor kicks off on April 24, she announced) and creating 500 acres of new parkland.

Regarding that last effort, she said that Penn Praxis has been engaged to help identify abandoned property and vacant lots. Commissioner Sarah Clark Stuart inquired about a commitment to the creation of trails in this effort, and was reassured by DiBerardinis, who noted that he had become a “convert” on their importance.

After Hunt’s more vague presentation — she did single out middle- and high- schoolers as particular age groups that are “harder to engage” in taking advantage of city parks — Commissioner Jeff Hackett asked if the Initiative had a way to make sure that at-risk and special-needs kids were included in the programs. Hunt’s reply that the programs would be for  “all of its [Philadelphia’s] young people” seemed to satisfy Hackett, though he later remarked to PlanPhilly: “That was a bit of a tap dance, but that’s okay. We’ll see what happens. I just don’t think communities can always be treated in a cookie-cutter way.”

The Commission’s three sub-committees next issued reports. Deborah Wolf Goldstein of Land Use mentioned that she hoped the next Commission meeting — scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 19, also at the Central Branch of the Free Library — would be devoted to taking public comments on this subject.

Citing an op-ed by Commission Chair Nancy Goldenberg that appeared in yesterday’s Daily News, Carol Rice of Communications said her Committee was “hoping to have something in the newspapers at least once a month,” which seemed ambitious indeed. She also announced a new public email address — parksandreccommission@phila.gov — as well as the establishment of a logo/branding identity and, of course, a blog. Chairperson Goldenberg added that Communications would also be responsible for creating a forum series that would feature topics of interest to the P&R community.

Commissioner Alexander “Pete” Hoskins spoke briefly about his Committee, Revenue Enhancement, stating that “all of this good work will need to be paid for.” After thanking the as-yet-to-appear Mayor for his budgetary support, Hoskins went on to talk about his dedication to unlocking new revenue streams for the system. “I’m pretty confident that there are several millions to be had,” he said. And, then… Mayor Nutter walked in.

“I do care very, very passionately about the parks and recreation system,” Nutter said, before going on to acknowledge the work of Councilman Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown  in making sure the merger happened, and to praise the Commission members and various Friends and Advisory groups. “We will be the finest parks and recreation system in the country,” he promised. He concluded with a report on other “happy” things — 69 of 72 public pools to open this summer, all branch libraries to remain open — and concluded by saying that he’d take the “Philadelphia voice” that can be “a little too loud, a little too expressive” over an apathetic public any day.

Nutter didn’t say it, but he might have added: all politics, especially in Philadelphia, is local. The public comments that followed ranged from one man’s complaint about being shut out of a park group that had started holding “secret” meetings to another woman seeking help on disentrenching an inactive Friend’s group.

Elizabeth Grimaldi, executive director of the Village of Arts and Humanities, shared the good news that the city would soon be tearing down 11 abandoned buildings and that the long-standing community art project was looking forward to creating some new gardens on the lots. She is, however, concerned that oil tanks, asbestos and other hazardous materials be properly accounted for or remediated. (Call Fran Burns at L&I, suggested Goldenberg.)

Freyda Black, a recent transplant from rural upstate New York, honed in on the several references made to urban agriculture. A farmer for 30 years, she wanted to know if any large-scale projects were planned and how people with expertise such as her herself could help. DiBerardinis spoke of “trying to align” various city agencies — L&I, Water, Streets— and said that by May a new web site would be produced to help interested parties “navigate this world.”

At the end of the meeting, Black — who was actually born in Brooklyn — told PlanPhilly that she was excited by the idea. “There are so many elements that can be explored in urban agriculture,” she said. “Growing fruits and vegetables is just the start. There’s tending small animals, composting, using manure, tilling the land. I’d love to be a resource.”

Contact JoAnn Greco, ASJA, SATW, at  www.joanngreco.com

Check out her new online magazine, TheCityTraveler at www.thecitytraveler.com

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