Can parks save Philadelphia?

By Kathryn Ott Lovell

Recently, Philadelphia Magazine’s ThinkFest asked me to consider, “Are Parks the Key to Philly’s Future?” I spoke of Rebuild, a new initiative that will shape Philly for generations by investing $500 million in the city’s neighborhoods to revitalize parks, recreation centers, playgrounds and libraries. Rebuild gives us a chance to use what we’ve already learned through Philadelphia’s work as the first city to embark on Reimagining the Civic Commons by expanding it across the entire city.

Reimagining the Civic Commons believes that when done right, investments in place can improve outcomes for communities. Rebuild holds the same belief, with two values that will guide investment. First and foremost, Rebuild will promote equity by investing in neighborhoods that are in greatest need. Rebuild will also encourage economic growth by investing in neighborhoods that are growing or otherwise transitioning, presenting an opportunity to drive additional investment and stabilize the community.

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Rebuild is a key initiative in Mayor Kenney’s first year in office and it has three goals: revitalize parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, and libraries; promote economic opportunity, especially for those who are underserved and under-employed; and empower and engage with communities in a meaningful way. Support for the initiative has been strong among citizens, elected officials and funders alike, indicating that in a time when we are divided as a city, state, and country, public spaces may be more important than ever.

Philadelphia has one of the highest influxes of millennials of any major city, but also one of the highest poverty rates. And even though our neighborhoods have become more racially integrated, our city is incredibly economically segregated. We’re not the only ones. According to Joe Cortright of City Observatory, since the 1970s, the percentage of American families living either in predominantly poor or predominantly affluent neighborhoods has doubled. Middle income neighborhoods are all but disappearing.

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Americans have become increasingly insular citizens. Instead of using parks, recreation centers and libraries, we join private gyms, have private pools, and order our books on Amazon, if not downloading the text straight to a tablet. In fact, since 1950 the population of the U.S. has roughly doubled, but today we have 800 times as many private pools as we did then. Today, fewer than 20 percent spend time with their neighbors, and a full third of people say they have no interactions with their neighbors at all, according to Cortright.

Since our first work on Reimagining the Civic Commons, and now with Rebuild, we have a better understanding of our need to come together — and to invest in what brings us together. It’s not Facebook where our feeds tell us only what we want to hear. It’s not TV or our iPads where we only watch what we want to see. It’s not our homes where we park our cars, close our doors and set our alarms. Instead, it’s our public spaces — parks, recreations centers, libraries — that draw us together as a people whose greatest commonality is our diversity.

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We need these places, now more than ever, where we are compelled to sit next to someone on a bench, and pet their dog, and make remarks about the weather. Where our kids will meet and play together, and where we will make connections that will ultimately build respect and empathy for our common man. I believe parks can do all of that — magically, quickly, and, all things considered, pretty inexpensively. And so, I changed my mind; parks aren’t only key to our future, they may just be the salvation of it.

Kathryn Ott Lovell is Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

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.