Best friends of the parks

An inside look at Philadelphia’s citywide network of advocates

In Philadelphia, caring for Norris Square Park was once a family affair. Every morning for decades, neighbor Raphael Feliciano walked the grounds, picking up garbage, pruning plants and helping keep the historic park clean and safe, even as the neighborhood struggled with drugs and violence.

Today Feliciano’s son, a Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department employee also named Raphael, has taken his father’s place as a loyal steward of Norris Square Park. But unlike his father, the younger Raphael has the support of a community group formed to care for the park — and a network of similar groups caring for parks across Philadelphia.

Parks and other public assets across the country depend on volunteers for help, but few have transformed those volunteers into long-term stewards like Philadelphia has. There, a citywide network of parks friends groups is making stewardship fun and engaging while cultivating, celebrating and supporting a diverse group of people to care for neighborhood parks — for now and for the long run.

Stewards usually live nearby and perform their stewardship work on their own time or in partnership with a friends group dedicated to taking care of a particular park or public place. They tend to care for public places for years and to build deep ties to the place and its people.

A key goal of Reimagining the Civic Commons is to foster committed and long-term stewards like the Felicianos across an entire system of civic assets. Fostering stewards in all neighborhoods and across all backgrounds helps counter the trends of social and economic fragmentation in cities, while building broad-based support for investment in civic assets.

“For every park in Philadelphia, there are people who care about it,” said Jennifer Mahar, senior director of civic initiatives for the Fairmount Park Conservancy, which has been instrumental in building the Parks Friends Network. “The second you start showing up and showing energy, they will emerge.”

Photo by Albert Yee and Fairmount Park Conservancy

A citywide network of stewards

Philadelphia’s parks stewardship program got its informal start in 1993, when investments were made to improve a senior center located in a park, but the park remained in poor condition. Neighbors founded a stewardship group because they recognized that the improvements to the building wouldn’t be as effective without also improving — and caring for — the park. In addition to supporting physical improvements to the park, they decided to teach people to care for it and to give them the resources to program and advocate for it.

The network was broadened and officially launched in 1998, capitalizing on a strong interest in park renovations in the mid-1990s. According to Mahar, the city started investing in improvements, particularly in parks that had fallen into disrepair or were known for high rates of crime. But city officials quickly realized that ongoing involvement and buy-in from neighbors would amplify the impact of the capital investments. The friends groups could keep an eye on the parks, help with upkeep and assist with programming, advocacy and raising funds for more projects.

Early on, word of mouth helped spread the stewardship movement. People in neighborhoods that didn’t have friends groups learned about success in other parts of the city and joined together to support their own park. Eventually the movement became a more formal system, led in partnership by the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Twenty-five years after the first groups formed, the Parks Friends Network now includes friends groups for more than 115 of the city’s approximately 150 neighborhood parks. The Network, with support from the city, provides staffing, guidance and funding for local parks, and neighbors provide the volunteer hours and on-the-ground organizing.

The impacts of these groups in local parks and surrounding neighborhoods are significant: more capital improvements, innovative programming, and a diverse mix of people joining as stewards throughout the city. The Parks Friends Network hosts citywide events, including a bi-annual LOVE Your Park Service Day to clean up and maintain parks citywide. In 2017, more than 2,000 people participated in the fall service day at 93 parks. Together, they made a remarkable impact on their local parks, composting nearly three tons of leaves and organic matter, collecting more than 1,000 bags of trash and planting 83 trees and 9,000 flower bulbs.

Photo by Albert Yee and Fairmount Park Conservancy
Photo by Albert Yee and Fairmount Park Conservancy

Transformation in Norris Square

At Norris Square Park, Presbyterian pastor Adan Mairena started a friends group with several friends and neighbors in 2016, including Raphael Feliciano. Since then, Mairena has hosted meetings, helped organize an event on LOVE Your Park Service Day, and participated in the Parks Friends Network’s annual fall dinner, where he networked with and learned from leaders of other friends groups.

“So far, what I’m really noticing is that the people who are involved and are doing this are really passionate,” Mairena said. “There’s joy in the work.”

Norris Square Park was one of Philadelphia’s original neighborhood parks. About six acres of land donated by Isaac Norris, a prominent 18th century Philadelphian who also served as mayor, the park anchors a community that struggled with violence and drugs in recent decades.

“In the ’80s, the park used to be really bad,” Mairena said. “There was open-air drug dealing, and it was really dangerous. Some referred to it as Needle Park. There were stories that you couldn’t walk across it without syringes going in your feet.”

Over the last 15 years, with the help of neighborhood stewards, the park has transformed. There’s a jungle gym now, and a nearby daycare takes its 300 or so kids on regular walks through the park. In the summer, there’s usually someone with a sound system playing music, and families and friends having picnics.

Now people in the local Puerto Rican community call it el Parque de las Ardillas — Park of the Squirrels. “The transformation has been very cool,” said Mairena. “You don’t have to worry about your kids anymore.”

At the fall LOVE Your Park Service Day, in addition to cleaning up the park, a DJ from the neighborhood played music, neighbors silk-screened t-shirts and there was a tree giveaway. Mairena collected contact information for people interested in participating in the friends group. He gathered 50 names, most of them from people who hadn’t yet been involved.

“All the stars are aligning,” Mairena said. “We’ve got a diverse group of people — young, old, artists, carpenters — lots of people, all together.”

Photo by Albert Yee and Fairmount Park Conservancy
Photo by Albert Yee and Fairmount Park Conservancy

Building the momentum

While the Parks Friends Network was well-established when Reimagining the Civic Commons launched in Philadelphia in 2015, the civic commons work has helped further evolve the stewardship model. Now Philadelphia leaders are working to connect the Parks Friends Network with Friends of the Free Library and Recreation Advisory Councils to move from stewardship of a specific park or site to stewardship of an entire neighborhood. This pivot, combined with the success of the Friends Network, helped earn the Fairmount Park Conservancy a $3.28 million grant from the Knight Foundation to develop a citywide civic engagement strategy to connect people to place and each other, inviting all Philadelphians to participate in shaping their neighborhoods.

And with the launch of Rebuild— a $500 million program to revitalize neighborhood parks, recreation centers, playgrounds, and libraries citywide — the city hopes to apply the lessons of stewardship modeled by the Parks Friends Network to civic assets all across the city.

Not only are the Parks Friends Network’s practices informing Rebuild, but they also helped to bring about the investment in the first place. By connecting diverse stewards, the network has created a strong citywide advocacy voice for parks and other neighborhood civic assets.

“The Parks Friends Network has provided a long-standing platform where neighbors and local decision-makers meet to create better parks and communities,” said Michael DiBerardinis, managing director for the City of Philadelphia. “Now we are exploring how the Parks Friends Network model can help to inform other citywide engagement efforts to help make Philadelphia local government the most civically engaged in the country.”

Photo by Albert Yee and Fairmount Park Conservancy
Photo by Albert Yee and Fairmount Park Conservancy

A stewardship how-to: Lessons for other cities

Philadelphia has shown that hyperlocal stewardship on a citywide scale is not only possible — it can also result in real change.

Mahar has been helping to run the Parks Friends Network for about 10 years, and she has some ideas for other cities that want to try out the model:

Make stewardship fun and engaging, not only by connecting stewards with resources and a larger network but by celebrating and recognizing them with citywide events, holiday parties and communications about their good work.

Represent the diversity of the city — Philadelphia’s network brings together people from all backgrounds, races, demographics and parts of the city.

Identify a stewardship coordinator for each friends group — someone people can call with questions and who acts as a liaison with city government.

Nostalgia is a powerful tool for engaging new stewards. Many neighbors cherish their childhood memories of time spent at parks and want to recreate those experiences for future generations.

Create opportunities for peer-to-peer networking, such as dinners, site visits and learning opportunities. This keeps stewards engaged and connects them with a consistent stream of new ideas.

Make funding available for friends groups to test ideas, allowing them to experiment with innovative and engaging types of programming.

Build authentic, two-way relationships with parks friends group members. Meet with them in their neighborhoods, listen to their ideas and change designs and plans based on what you hear.

If you’re working to build stewardship in your community, what lessons have you learned? What’s working, what’s not, and what would you like to share with others doing this work? Share your ideas, thoughts and questions in the comments.

In Philadelphia and interested in getting involved? Save the date for LOVE Your Park Week, May 12–20. The week kicks off with a citywide service day and continues with nearly 100 events in parks all across the city. Learn more at loveyourpark.org.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.