How Green Infrastructure in Parks Can Lead to Community Empowerment

By Rich Dolesh

Richard Dolesh is the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the National Recreation and Park Association, the national non-profit organization representing public parks and recreation in America. Rich worked 30 years in parks and natural resource management at the local and state level in Maryland prior to coming to NRPA where he has served as the Chief of Public Policy and Vice-President for Conservation.


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Green infrastructure stormwater management has been become a preferred alternative to traditional approaches to controlling stormwater in many urban communities. The many environmental and economic benefits such projects achieve are proving the value of green over gray.  Four exemplary communities in Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, and Pittsburgh are proving how green stormwater management in parks can go well beyond just the functional benefits of treating stormwater and into an entirely new realm of engaging and empowering underserved communities.

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is working collaboratively with the American Planning Association (APA) on an initiative called the Great Urban Parks Campaign to demonstrate how such social equity and community empowerment goals can be achieved.

NRPA, with support from the JPB Foundation, has funded four green infrastructure stormwater management demonstration projects in urban public parks to prove the many benefits of green infrastructure. These projects, led by non-profit organizations and designed and constructed in collaboration with public park and recreation agencies, show how green stormwater management in parks can engage the communities in which they are located to produce not just environmental and economic benefits, but also address social justice issues and provide significant opportunities for improving individual and community health.

Why choose urban parks for green stormwater management?  There are many good reasons and far-sighted urban planners and parks administrators are seeing the potential of parks for creating multiple benefits from GI stormwater management projects. Parks are centrally located, the land is already in permanently protected status, and if such projects are planned and constructed with foresight, GI stormwater management can have enormous benefits in engaging nearby communities, employing youth and young adults in installation and maintenance, and producing a true community asset that delivers many benefits including encouraging physical activity and healthy lifestyles to individuals and families surrounding the parks with these projects.

Communities Highly Engaged in Green Stormwater Management in Parks

Pittsburgh

“The community has been super jazzed about our project,” says Heather Sage, community projects manager, for the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy, one of the NRPA grantees.  “On a really, really cold day, we had 25 people come out for an onsite outdoor meeting with the design team,” says Sage, “and the bitter cold didn’t diminish their enthusiasm a bit.”  The onsite meeting was followed by a community meeting and presentation by the designers about the project at McKinley Park that was attended by 50 people.

“There is a lot of excitement and great support from the community.  They are so engaged!” says Sage.  She lists groups of willing contributors such as the Student Conservation Association, Urban Kind, a youth green corps, and Voices Against Violence, a group that is working with hundreds of young people from the McKinley Park area and other nearby communities. “We are trying to carve out elements of the project that are specifically directed towards local organizations,” Sage said.  “We are focused on workforce development and are reaching out to community-based organizations.”

Atlanta

In Atlanta, Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, another NRPA grantee, describes a six-month long visioning effort in which the community has acted as a steering committee. With the community, they did an on-the-ground mockup of what the park would look like and invited members of the community to add their ideas of what should go where.  Now that they have completed their visioning plan, they have a clear sense of what the community wants to see.  “This all started with the community,” says Halicki.  “They have been involved every step of the process.”

Halicki says that they originally had a large pond in the design plan, but got pushback from the community on what the maintenance needs would be.  “The vision we wound up with was substantially different than the vision we started with.  Our community-inspired vison came down on the side of rain gardens and wetlands, not a large pond.”

“The neighborhood we are working in for this green infrastructure project is near English Avenue, one of the poorest and highest crime areas in the city,” according to Halicki.  In previous successful GI parks projects, Park Pride has focused on hiring youth from the community to work on the projects.

“We have been successful in workforce development by hiring youth from the community,” Halicki says, and Park Pride is partnering with several community service organizations including the Greening Youth Foundation. They have several ideas going forward, according to Halicki, including one inspired by Tony Torrence of the Community Improvement Center to create a training center similar to Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center. They also working with Atlanta’s Community Improvement Foundation to explore the feasibility of utilizing the training center as a way for young adults to continue training and education in green infrastructure, leading to potential future employment.

Green Infrastructure in Parks Leverages Investments in Community Redevelopment

Baltimore

Laura Connelly, parks program manager for Parks and People, a Baltimore-based non-profit, describes the good relationship Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks has with the Johnston Square community. The relationship has been mutually beneficial in gaining funding to restore the dilapidated Ambrose Kennedy park, which the community felt could be an anchor to local community redevelopment.

Connelly says the community has been engaged since the outset, and because of their support, they have leveraged initial NRPA funding for the green infrastructure components to secure capital funding from Baltimore City to fund new bathrooms in the parks and for the repair and upgrade of a swimming pool in the park that was in disrepair and open for very limited hours in the summer.

Community-based organizations have thrown themselves into the park re-development. Rebuild Johnston Square, a local non-profit, realized that the park would need daily and weekly maintenance, which the city may not be able to provide. In support, the 6th Branch, a returning veterans organization, is planning to double the amount of their regularly scheduled clean-up days, and Rebuild Johnston Square is planning bi-weekly clean-up and planting days to foster stewardship and community involvement.

In this project, as with other projects, the NRPA grant has been a catalyst in leveraging additional funding and support for the park. In Baltimore, it has already led to significant improvements in the surrounding community. At Ambrose Kennedy park, a key feature of the green infrastructure improvements involves removing thousands of square feet of broken asphalt and restoring a natural landscape to hold runoff and infiltrate stormwater. Because of this project, the city’s Department of Housing has accelerated their plans by two years to demolish an adjacent row of abandoned row houses, thereby expanding the boundaries of the park and also enhancing nearby private property values throughout the community. The expanded park will improve green stormwater management capability and make an attractive urban gathering place, as well as improving the economic value of nearby housing.

Denver

In Denver, Loretta Pineda, executive director of Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK), says the community engagement has been critical to the success of their green infrastructure project. Throughout the six public meetings held for visioning, they fielded many questions and learned about hopes for the project outcomes from the community. They intend to encourage employment of youth from the community, although there is no specific requirement for the general contractor to do so.  ELK will work as recruiters and job shadows for youth hired from the community.

In the visioning statement developed with the community, they emphasized the health of the park and the health of the community. This led them to consider how they could incorporate access to and from the directly adjacent Denver Health Medical Center in Montbello. There is hope that with specially designed access from the Center to the park, people and patients from the medical center will come to visit the park on a daily basis.

Valuable Lessons Learned

The National Recreation and Park Association, working in concert with the JPB Foundation, is showing that each of these demonstration projects are serving as a catalyst for the power of green infrastructure in marginalized communities to demonstrate social justice benefits as well as environmental benefits.  So far, there have been valuable and highly applicable lessons learned from each of these projects.

Heather Sage of the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy says, “We have learned new lessons every day.  “It is a challenge to go as quickly as we are going on this project.  As a parks conservancy, we have not been a workforce development organization before this. We have found it is not as simple as saying ‘Yes, there is a job here for you’ to young people. To communicate the limitations and options is a challenge, and it is also a challenge for us to vision how this job might become a career path.” She says that they need to concentrate on the soft skills as well, and by working with a local community development corporation and Landforce, a non-profit that does environmental management work in the community, they hope to be able to bring job opportunities up to the next level. Two young adults who will be working on the park construction have completed the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program (NGCIP), a training program developed by the Water Environment Federation and other partners to certify workers entering the green infrastructure field on installation, management, and maintenance of GI facilities.

Both Park Pride and Parks for People learned insightful lessons through pushback from their local communities on project plans. In Atlanta, because the initial project design had not been thoroughly vetted with the community, plans for a large pond to be built in the park drew concerns from the community that the pond would attract trash and be a danger to youth. Park Pride responded to the community’s desires by redesigning the park without the pond in the plans.

In Baltimore, Connelly says they received pushback from their primary community partner when a “Coming Soon” sign was posted at the project site to inform the community of what was planned and underway. Non-profit partner, Rebuild Johnston Square, raised concerns over the sign saying it sounded like Parks for People was taking credit for the entire project. Rebuild Johnston Square called for more dialogue and even greater community participation, which Parks for People was glad to accommodate.  Parks for People realized that they may have inadvertently created an ‘us-against-them’ situation, and that to be completely successful in fulfilling their goals, the project must be seen by all partners as a continuing partnership even from the earliest design and construction phases.

Green infrastructure stormwater management in parks can offer tremendous benefits to urban communities. The best outcomes are those which engage local communities, empowering them to participate in the visioning and planning from the outset; to become involved in the installation and management; and have an ownership stake in the long term success of green infrastructure projects.  An added benefit accrues when community organizations contribute to the ongoing maintenance through contractual employment of youth, young adults and seniors.  If done right, green infrastructure stormwater management in parks truly does build community engagement and support.

 

For more information on the progress and stories from these green infrastructure projects, visit:  http://www.nrpa.org/our-work/partnerships/initiatives/greeninfrastructure/

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