For Philadelphia and Baltimore, Parks Are Central to Livability

Schuylkill River Dog Park /

“Many people think parks are easy, but parks are one of the hardest things for governments to do because of the physical and human aspects,” explained Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, while introducing a panel of experts at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Baltimore. The complex undertaking of how to best to create and maintain parks — for both governments and non-profits — is a thread that connected all speakers.

Mark A. Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and former president of ASLA, gave an overview of the amazing progress made in Philadelphia’s expansive park system over the past few years. Some 80 percent of the city’s residents are already meeting Mayor Michael Nutter’s “goal of everyone being within a ten-minute walk away from a park.” Examples of recently built green spaces and amenities that help the parks department to reach all city residents include Paine’s Park, a skate park and public space; the Schuylkill River Dog Park; and the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk.

As part of Philadelphia’s innovative, 25-year Green City Clean Waters plan, the parks department has also “made strategic investments to stabilize, improve, and green existing recreation centers and playgrounds.” It also is implementing green infrastructure for innovative stormwater management in existing neighborhood parks and bringing “high-quality amenities” like trail systems to communities.

Baltimore residents Stephanie Murdock and Jennifer Robinson described how non-profits — not the city government — are leading a resurgence in Baltimore’s parks, helping to make the city more livable. Murdock, the president of Skatepark of Baltimore, talked about her non-profit’s ten-year journey to build a public, concrete, destination skatepark in Baltimore. The first phase – a 5,000 square-feet concrete bowl — was completed last May in Roosevelt Park, a late-nineteenth century park in the Hampden neighborhood.

Skatepark of Baltimore / Explore Baltimore County

“For a young person in Baltimore to have a place where they can be free, that’s huge,” said Murdock. She told the audience the skatepark will soon add more “shade, seating, walkways, and restrooms” so that all members of the community can enjoy the space.

Robinson, the director of Friends of Patterson Park, another park in southeast Baltimore, said her non-profit’s efforts showed her that “parks become very personal for the people who use them.” Her non-profit is transforming the once-neglected Patterson Park, an Olmsted-designed space, into the city’s “best backyard.”

Patterson Park / Patterson Park

The group’s involvement began with the renovation of the park’s historic pagoda, which had fallen into disrepair. Today, the group ensures the park remains “a green space for all sorts of users” through community events and programs. The group is now “looking at a formal conservancy model that will elevate the friends’ role in management of the park.”