The Park Business
Redefining the public park
April 11, 1991
Cities change, times change, people's need for park space changes, and so have parks. Not enough, in the case of a great many Illinois cities. Surveys suggest that the people believe their town doesn't have enough park space, but surveys also make clear that most existing park space is empty most of the time.
Springfield's park system in particular has been a patronage fief for decades, with the result that everyone who presumed to plan and manage the parks seemed to be just a little behind in their reading. Thus this helpful primer.
It didn't surprise me that voters rejected [ex-Springfield fire chief] Pat Ward as the new president of the Springfield Park District board. By barring a fireman with a hands-on management style, they insured that the wiener roast fires will burn bright at Springfield picnic pavilions for years to come. I confess to being uneasy about the pledge of the new president—Leslie Sgro, a mortgage banker—to run the park district like a business, but the worst that can happen is that she'll foreclose on the Henson Robinson Zoo and throw a lot of penguins onto the street.
I would be happy enough if Sgro started running the SPD like a park system. Springfield (especially its east side) has been under-parked for decades, and like most small city systems there hasn't been enough spent on maintenance (including forestry). A sizable new park is needed on the city's metastasizing west side, and ways must be found to augment the district's revenues.
The first order of business, however, is to rethink what parks are for. The term "park" now encompasses play spaces, athletic fields (including swimming pools), pastoral retreats, nature preserves, city plazas, "animal parks" (otherwise known as zoos), even golf courses. Nonetheless, parks planners nationwide have come to realize that even their promiscuous definition of "developed open space" doesn't provide for the complex landscape needs of metropolitan populations.
Park development in the U.S. is too complicated a topic to summarize here, but if I had to write a headline for such a history it might read, "Pasture to playground to problem." Passive recreation in the form of a nature experience was the rationale for the first generation of urban parks. Later reformers promoted parks as a boon to public health, as parks were redesigned as venues for wholesome games meant to counter the corrupting influence of the streets. (That tradition is the ultimate source of Sgro's campaign pledge to create new youth programs.)
Lately, the middle class (who can enjoy both nature and corruption in their own backyards) have come to see parks (literally) in scenic terms as urban "open space." Study after study confirms that most people "use" parks simply by looking at them. (One of the reasons even popular parks like Washington suffers a reputation as dangerous is that there are usually very few people in them most of the time.) These traditions have become jumbled, so that one finds the different kinds of park spaces not only within single jurisdictions but sometimes within individual parks.
New trustee Jack Pfeiffer said after the election that there wasn't a kook in this year's group of candidates. (To some recent park boards, a "kook" was anyone who doesn't play golf.) Everyone running had useful ideas, but Pat Ward's suggestion that the SPD coordinate its long-range planning with the regional planning commission may have been the most radical. Radical in Springfield terms anyway. Parks planners in places like California, Minnesota, and the Sun Belt have for years been integrating open space preservation, environmental protection, recreation, and growth management into their acquisition and development plans. In Springfield, such an integrated approach might have prompted the SPD to acquire stream bottoms on the west side in advance of development through fee simple purchase, donated easements, land trades, or takings; the land could be used as greenways that would simultaneously provide flood and erosion control, scenic amenity, and space for biking and jogging trails.
Greenways suggest another step toward a redefinition of the public park. Conventional park plans determine the size and location of new parks as if they were stores and shopping centers. But it also makes sense to think of parks—as candidate Bill Crook did when he suggested that abandoned rail corridors be added to the system—as streets. It also makes sense to think of streets as parks. The SPD was established in 1900 to provide not only parks but "pleasure driveways"; if our streets looked less ugly, parks wouldn't be so important as places to escape to.
Well-placed "park" spaces already exist in and around Springfield by the hundreds. A city's real playgrounds for example are its schoolyards, its alleys, its yards, its vacant lots. (And its historic sites; the Lincoln home area would be a wonderful park if the National Park Service would allow it.) I always liked Nanchen Scully's idea of closing off a block of Clay near the Springfield Clinic, if only because it would have meant taking a little land in that neighborhood back from the cars.
Such oddball parks can be expensive to maintain, of course,which is why other cities enter into maintenance agreements with garden clubs or adjacent property owners. Conversely, an SPD that can't afford to buy land for parks might be able to afford to maintain parks on land owned by other government and non-profit agencies, even private landowners.
Perhaps the most vexing problem facing the SPD is how to pay for new park space on the burgeoning west side. My view is that it shouldn't. More alert municipalities realize that parks adds to the profitability of private land developments.(Washington Park, remember, was developed as part of a real estate promotion.) Park systems in booming cities thus recapture some of this profit for public use by demanding from developers increasingly substantial exactions in the form of cash and/or land in new neighborhoods.
None of this is new in principle to the SPD. The agency in the past has accepted land donations and worked out joint operating agreements with other local governments. Such unconventional approaches are not enshrined as policy, however, but are seen as mere stopgaps, experiments, compromises. The park board in the old days built things; in the future it will also have to learn how to arrange things. It hasn't done badly in recent years, by government standards. But more efficient management may not pay off as handsomely in the future as more intelligent management. ●