Vibrant cities count on vibrant parks to enhance the fabric of their quality of life.
But in a time of tight budgets, how can communities tap more resources to improve public parks in the region?
Sacramento is among cities exploring new models for sharing city park management. This shift should be seen as not just a temporary backstop for tough times, but a new way of governing our vital urban places.
Here are just a few examples of public-spirited stewardship:
Due to budget cuts, by summer 2011 the city had only six of 12 pools open. By 2012, the city expected to close all pools. A one-time campaign spearheaded by Save Mart, in which the grocer pledged to match up to $500,000 in donations, kept six pools open.
But the paradigm shift was a new long-term partnership with the YMCA at the Southside Park pool. The pool was open more days of the week and for a longer season than any pool in the city for less cost. Fees from swim lessons and some community fundraising covered the majority of costs. The city paid for pool chemicals and water, plus $30,000 in operational costs.
For this summer, that partnership has been expanded to have the YMCA also operate Tahoe and Glenn Hall pools.
In 2011, the city announced that it was zeroing out funding for its 17 community centers. Modeled on a 1979 agreement between the city and the Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association to operate the Sierra 2 Center, nonprofits took on operations at six centers.
Cecily Hastings, co-founder of Friends of East Sacramento that agreed to run the Clunie Community Center in McKinley Park, says she had watched the parks decline over the previous five years but didn't notice right away because the slide was slow.
The wake-up call came in 2011: "The closure of the historic community center (our neighborhood's only one) and a third-world level rose garden that once had been a lovely landmark were different."
The Friends signed a five-year lease to run the community center, raising $100,000 to renovate the 1930s building and $40,000 for first-year operations. The group hired a full-time manager and three part-time staffers. It is open seven days a week. Now the center is funded primarily by rental income and expects to break even in the second year.
The group also runs the historic 1,200-bush rose garden, with fees for weddings and other events paying for maintenance costs. A Park Volunteer Corps and the S.T.E.P. vocational program for adults with developmental disabilities handle deadheading, pruning and other garden maintenance.
City Council member Steve Cohn notes that the partnership is working well but cautions that a model that relies on generating revenue may not be viable in more economically challenged communities, where the need is for free public space. However, Cohn believes such partnerships can free up resources for other city parks.
Various Little League, soccer leagues and others get reduced fees and priority scheduling if they maintain and improve ball fields. This allows the city to focus its limited maintenance resources elsewhere, a win/win for everybody.
Through the city's Adopt-A-Park program, volunteers handle weeding, pruning, planting, brush-clearing, mulch-spreading, picking up litter, improving playgrounds and fields. City staffers provide training, tools and other equipment. A new Parks Leadership Academy for Youth (PLAY) also enlists middle and high school students to learn and teach park maintenance techniques to other volunteers in their parks.
Then there are major volunteer projects, like rebuilding the McKinley Park playground, which burned down last summer. A six-day build takes place June 4-9 100 volunteers per shift in three shifts with individuals and businesses helping with design, raising money and making in-kind donations of services, equipment, construction materials, security lighting and cameras and food. The city is contributing cash in addition to the insurance payment. City staff members will provide structure and project expertise.
These partnerships enhance civic glue in our region bringing neighbors together and providing hands-on learning that can be applied to any number of civic needs over a lifetime. They are worth pursuing, and not just in economic hard times.