By Smallbones (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

September 11, 2017; Next City

This year, employing a combination of city bonding authority—backed by a city tax on soda beverages—and a record hundred-million-dollar grant from the William Penn Foundation, the City of Philadelphia launched a high-profile, mayor-backed, seven-year, $500 million initiative called “Rebuild.”

Rebuild’s purpose is to employ a public $500 million capital investment to “revitalize neighborhood parks, recreation centers, playgrounds, and libraries across the city.” All told, the project aims to upgrade more than half of the over 400 facilities citywide. In some ways, Philadelphia is playing catch-up. According to ParkScore, the city today spends $58.90 per resident on parks each year, only a little more than one fourth of the $232.59 that Minneapolis (which leads the rankings) spends.

Jen Kinney of NextCity notes that disparities exist in these public spaces. She writes that “public-private partnerships and private friends groups have made dazzling examples of Philadelphia’s Center City public spaces.” However, in outlying neighborhoods, voluntary associations known as advisory councils “raise funds for programming, and increasingly for basics like air conditioning and new floors.” While “wealthier neighborhoods can more easily raise money from residents,” and recreational centers “with politically savvy advisory councils might agitate effectively for renovations,” recreational centers in lower-income neighborhoods often go without.

The selection factors for choosing Rebuild sites include data on poverty, health, drug offense, and economic growth potential.

As the city prepares to announce the first round of Rebuild sites, Next City partnered with urban designer at Gehl to survey users at two recreational centers: one that has received considerable investment, and one that has not. “Both are located in Philadelphia neighborhoods were poverty is rising, and in which, like the city as a whole, residents are becoming more diverse and younger.”

Sturgis, a gentrified neighborhood perched on the edge of decline, has a center that was rebuilt in 2013 and “gleams like new.” Lawncrest, two miles way, “is sandwiched between the neglected urban expanse of North Philadelphia and the near-suburban neatness of the city’s far northeast.” It was built in the 1940s and hasn’t changed much since.

The goal of the survey was to understand how recreational centers were being used and explore how investment might help. They asked six questions: how often they visit, how they travel there, whom they come with, how long they stay, how safe they feel, and what would make them feel safer.

Kinney writes, “the data confirmed just how valuable these places are to the communities that surround them.”

  • Eighty percent of respondents at both centers reported viewing the parks as neighborhood gathering places.
  • Two-thirds of Sturgis and three-quarters of Lawncrest respondents visit weekly.
  • Sixty-two percent of respondents at both centers reported learning about neighborhood opportunities there.
  • Forty-six percent of Lawncrest respondents reported feeling “very” or “somewhat” safe from crime, compared to 76 percent for Sturgis.
  • Three-quarters of Sturgis respondents reported feeling a positive connection to the center, compared to half of those from Lawncrest.
  • Black males between 7 and 30 years old are the primary users at both centers.
  • Teenagers are a “sticking point” at both centers.

Respondents between the ages of 15 and 19 were less likely to feel safe and feel a positive connection to the centers; in fact, others cited this population as contributing to their own feelings of lack of safety. Sturgis cut programming for people over 16 in response to gun violence. Kinney writes, “The very users most likely to be identified as part of the safety problem don’t feel all that safe themselves.”

Nevertheless, Kate DeSantis, a designer and strategist at Gehl, said, “Compared to other sites that have been surveyed, Sturgis and Lawncrest both reinforce social networks in a positive way.” However, maintenance affects how people feel about civic spaces. A 2017 Center for Active Design study found that, “The poorer the conditions of a shared public space in general, the more neutral or negative the sense of civic trust.”

Apparently, the Kenney administration understands that engagement in the process early on and participation in decision making is a critical in addressing these challenges. But, as Kinney notes, “exactly how to engage those new supporters, particularly teens, remains an open question.” In Sturgis, youth who wanted the basketball courts updated walked away from the process after feeling their needs were not heard.

A big challenge is that the advisory councils do not reflect the diversifying population. They are overwhelmingly older and whiter. For example, “since 2000, Lawncrest’s white population has declined by 20 percent, and its population of color increased by 133 percent.”

Echoing many nonprofit board leaders (see the latest BoardSource board diversity report), Lawncrest advisory council president Claudia Quinton said she understands that the council doesn’t represent the population it serves, and thinks “it would be great” to have more diversity on the board, but doesn’t seem to feel she has a role to play in making that happen. As Kinney notes, “It’s not that Lawncrest lacks for committed, caring young people, or neighbors of color.”

In fact, volunteer residents have run the centers since the Department of Parks and Recreation was founded in 1950. The department funds facilities, staff, and some programming, but volunteers supplement their efforts, donating their time “to coach sports,” “teach dance,” and “organize etiquette classes.” They do the hard relational work. This supports tailored programming, but it also leaves room for lack of accountability challenges, like abuse of funds and the center in South Philadelphia that intentionally fully booked the gym to keep youth of color out of the indoor basketball courts.

George Matysik, executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Parks Alliance, is working to build and organize advisory councils to support Rebuild efforts. He said the problem isn’t dedicated neighbors, but neighbors that don’t know how to get involved in decision making. In neighborhoods without advisory councils, he goes door to door, canvassing residents for their input. He said he focuses on what the community needs in general, and then looks at how the recreational center can provide it. “For us, that gets back to thinking of these as community centers, not athletic facilities.”—Cyndi Suarez