Parks & Rec getting down to land disposition work

As we leave the summer behind, the new Parks & Recreation Commission is ready to get down to work, with its first meeting since the official merger scheduled for Sept. 22. PlanPhilly caught up with Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis to see how things will move forward.

 Can you give us a look-ahead at the September meeting?

DiBerardinis: The big deal is that we’re moving forward on the land disposition ordinance. The legislation that created the new commission calls on us to create guidelines for the use and disposition of parks and recreation land, and a big fear of a lot of people who either opposed or had concerns about the merger is that it might cede control away from the commission. So when the mayor appointed the new commissioners, he asked for us to think of enforceable guidelines. We’ve been working on that draft legislation and that’ll be a big part of the September meeting.

What are the specific issues that you’re wrestling with?
DiBerardinis: We’re trying to get to a clear and smart process that essentially creates a reasonable but thoughtful bar for the taking of parks and rec land, and using it for something else. People worry that we’ll have another Fox Chase type situation or a School of the Future, even though that was more of a gray area. So we need to clearly set forth: what are the standards, what is the public process?

Some are afraid of too much councilmanic control. . . .
DiBerardinis: Well, now we’ll have something, an open and clear process. This is modeled after other cities, we did some significant research to learn about how places like Seattle and St. Louis handle their disposition.

What are some differences between this commission and the last?
DiBerardinis: The last one was a governing body with, I believe, a very vague mission. My interest is to have this commission be part of the work of the new department, to help think about programs and to come up with ideas for revenue generation in a meaningful way. I can’t remember that the commission ever did this kind of work when I served on it in the past. This is significant kind of work and I think the mayor was smart to expand the commission’s role. On the other hand, yes, this commission may not be as formally authoritative as the previous one.

Has there been much progress on getting everything under one roof operationally?
DiBerardinis: Once we settle down after this summer, we will move all the shops, warehouses, and vehicles, and we’ll have new districts with a single district manager to whom all park and rec maintenance people will report to. This will be a single agency. And we have both the flow chart and the operational structures in place now to support that. If a citizen has a complaint about a tree, a park, or a rec center, you go to that district manager and he or she reports up into a system that has a single structure, not two structures.

And the advantages of that are?
DiBerardinis: It’s the combination of the assets together into a single agency. Take Cobbs Creek, for example. We can see this big swath of watershed land in a trail, plus three recreational facilities that were formally separated:, the rec center, the skate house, and the environmental center. So the question becomes: how can we manage all of them as a single asset for the greater good of the community. Well, for one, that trail is way underutilized, but the rec center has some really good programs. How do we build connections to that trail with our youth development goals? When one strong asset lifts the other one up, the access and use of all of the resources will go up.

Any ideas?
DiBerardinis: Sure, how about we take the kids in the after school program down to the trail? Or, let’s get a bicycle club that meets at the rec center and then uses the trail. Or, let’s meet at the rec center and have evening family walks. Everybody wins, there’s better stewardship of resources, better utilization of resources, and higher quality programs that serve a more diverse population.

Mike DiBerardinis and Drew Becher

In general, which are stronger — the parks or the rec centers?
DiBerardinis: I’d say it’s uneven. The park’s strength is in taking care of the land, and the rec centers excel as programmers, although the rec centers are charged with some land stewardships and the parks do a lot of programming. One of the tricks is going to be how to make those strengths work in our favor. How do we align those skills and assets in the joined department to elevate everything?

And how to market them better?
DiBerardinis: I think that’s certainly a big part — to figure out how to better interpret and market these assets, that’s ongoing work. We have really been working at introducing kids to the river, opening up our activities there. This year, we had more kids involved in rowing camps than ever before. There’s lot of ideas and lots to do. We’re doing orchards and urban gardening with kids throughout the system. There’s immense possibilities where the two departments can blend their resources and their skills.
The trick is in effectively responding to the opportunities, strategically and consistently advancing the work around the possibilities. It’s easier said than done. We’re the Johnny Come Latelys in this case.

PlanPhilly: What have you learned from the cities that have been doing this for awhile?

DiBerardinis: New York has really high quality operational standards around safety and cleanliness and eliminating graffiti, emptying trash cans, that sort of things. And they have the people to do the checking — that’s the other half of the equation. They have between 1,800 and 3,600 welfare-to-work people at any given time.

In Seattle, they have a really great trail system and we can learn from them in terms of connectivity, maintenance, programming. Chicago’s big lesson is they have a dedicated funding source, they have taxing and bonding authority.That’s kind of wild. I’m not saying we could get that — but is there an opportunity for those kinds of things?

It’s not about copying these cities, but taking bits and pieces and adapting them to our own particular situations. For example, we like how Houston goes out and talks to the citizens, and we want to do something like that, too. There, it’s about “learn about this, learn about that,” whereas we want to learn from the citizens, to get their input on strategic objectives.

I would imagine that citizens are most concerned about the smaller neighborhood parks. What can you tell them about these assets?
DiBerardinis: They’re very important to us, and things are a lot better than in the ’90s when i was running the Recreation Department. At that time, half of the parks were in the rec system, and in such bad shape that I tried to give them away. If you went to Malcolm X Park or Jefferson Square or Gorgas Park, you would have seen neglected and underused facillties. Now today, they’re all good, if not consistently wonderful. They’re radically transformed.

I’m not saying there aren’t a few problem parks or that existing ones  don’t need more work, but there is a relative perspective that has to be paid attention. This summer, there’s been literally hundreds and hundreds of evening programs at these parks and others throughout the system.


PlanPhilly:  What do we owe that progress to?
DiBerardinis: They’re better taken care of thanks to some creative work by a dedicated staff and programs like using seasonal maintenance attendants. But it’s also due to an amazing partnership with the Horticultural Society and the Friends groups. It’s taken all three parties, any two alone couldn’t have done it. I think it’s one of the great success stories. . . .

It is, but it can still seem as if the city doesn’t hold up its end.

DiBerardinis: Well, when you get your budget cut time and time again, it’s hard. We’ve lost something like 20-25% in the last two years. So there are areas of service that take a hit. Yeah it’s a struggle, so sometimes the trash doesn’t get picked up as frequently as we want, or yeah, when the grass isn’t growing because there hasn’t been rain, we can try to save a little money.

How do you plan to reconcile this loss of money with meeting Greenworks goals?
DiBerardinis: Just think about the 12,000 acres we have already — all we want is 500 more. I don’t mean to poo poo it, but that’s a small number! We just took the Roxborough Reservoir, it was going to be put up for auction, we instituted a transfer instead and now we’re going to interpret it, and it will become part of a trail that connects to Schuylkill River trail. We’re bringing land into the system all of the time. There’s Hawthorne Park at 12th and Catharine streets, breaking ground in the Fall. It’s incredible, an acre and half, one of the city’s few new parks in several years. It’s coming from city money, state money, and foundation money.

But, remember we’re not just looking at city projects and publicly-managed land, others piece will be done at the private level. There’s a new public park at Penn coming online. There are other folks who will participate either by design or by chance because of their own missions.

I believe money and resources follow value in the public sector. If we can do this smartly and add value to our system, the resources will respond. If we wait around for money, is anything going to go forward, is any urban farm ever going to get off the ground, is any tree going to be planted?

We can’t wait till we have all the money before we think about a green infrastructure in this city. It’s the other way around, in fact: it’s what brings the money back.

It’s sort of what comes first, the chicken or the egg? If you don’t create value, you won’t generate the resources. When you only have a little money, you need to be strategic about what you spend, that’s all.  

Contact JoAnn Greco at
Check out her new online magazine, TheCityTraveler at

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