Who’s accountable for enhancing our city parks?

Portland Maine parks

That Portland is a spectacular place we can all easily enjoy is more a fluke of fire and ice and historic leadership than the result of any recent governance.  Glaciers shaped the peninsula, the islands and Back Cove, the Bay and the coastline. Fire prompted Lincoln Park, the Deering family granted us the Oaks, and James Phinney Baxter fought for the involvement of the Olmsteds to knit the Promenades together and for the development of what we now call Baxter Boulevard.

These historic parks and recent trails grant access to natural beauty for all of us, making the city so attractive and livable. For these extraordinary urban green places to have a bright future will require a broad vision, persistent attention, and dynamic leadership.  These days their future appears clouded because those ingredients seem to be in short supply.

Nature will be providing its own worries, as well.  Our changing climate has already hinted at the special vulnerability of our parks, cemeteries, and trails. The Patriot’s Day storm in 2007 undermined the Eastern Prom Trail enough to force its closure for repairs. Recent summer droughts have caused decades-old trees on Mackworth Island and elsewhere to perish.  Microbursts have ripped across the islands, downing and shattering hundreds of trees. Signs of things to come, signs of special city assets at risk.

For those who still doubt the special vulnerability of parks, the single storm Hurricane Sandy in New York City alone flooded 5700 acres of parkland and damaged more than 400 different parks.

Meanwhile, here in Portland, polls repeatedly show residents’ attachment to our leafy parks and waterside trails as places to walk, run and relax, show visitors and socialize. Yet, we often overlook that parks support our diversified population of young and old, our latest immigrants and our longtime residents, especially those who don’t have access to private yards and distant vacations.

And the larger role of these green places for improving air quality and tempering climate and for powering the engine of economic development—for stimulating tourism, attracting new residents and businesses—goes largely unheralded. Leadership and advocacy is needed to broaden this understanding.

An active citizen oversight board that carries some weight is needed to focus attention on parks and to help coordinate park policy efforts with the City Council. Unfortunately, recent Councils have lacked strong ties to parks or their own Parks Commission. One councilor appointed to the Parks Commission opposed its mission and refused to call meetings; a more recent appointee fails to attend the meetings that are held.

Meanwhile, outside City Hall, there is broad, effective, and ongoing citizen advocacy for parks, from the stunning work of Portland Trails to the Friends of Deering Oaks and active friends’ groups that have coalesced around other city parks and cemeteries.

Adrian Benepé, former New York City Parks Commissioner, speaking in Portland said partnerships between these sorts of citizen groups and the city, “with set-out roles and responsibilities, are essential” for sustaining and bettering parks. Unfortunately, the City of Portland has thusfar refused to complete any agreement with any of the park groups. One drafted for the Friends of Deering Oaks languishes unsigned.

Still, steady long-term leadership is only one starting point for the needed persistent stewardship of the parks. Funding—assured and transparent—is another necessity. City funding now achieves neither of those goals. That’s because, in 2008 the City Council eliminated the Parks Department, cut the parks budget by 25% and buried parks’ funding in parts of several budget lines.

Therefore, since 2008, it has not been possible for anyone inside or outside City Hall to say how much is being spent on parks.

To improve our parks, we would also need to know where we are now. That would start by knowing the location of all city-owned parks and parcels—everything from vacant and tax-title lands to parking lots and playgrounds—and their distribution; then, knowing their use and condition.  The city hasn’t compiled those inventories yet.

With no distinct, professional leadership, no longterm plan, no assured or accountable funding, no advocate on the City Council, and the growing threats from a disrupted climate, black clouds certainly are hovering over the future of Portland’s parks.

Two potential rays of sunshine are

  1. the citizens’ effort called Protect Portland Parks—because it has prompted significant, if sometimes misshapen attention on the city’s parks even within City Hall—and
  2. a contract in the making between the city and the Trust for Public Lands.

The contract would achieve a number of goals critical to truly enhancing our park system. It would:

  • carry out the baseline inventory of all city-owned parcels,
  • involve the public in assessing the future of each of them,
  • estimate the material and manpower costs of stewarding those places, and
  • examine funding options used elsewhere to achieve that stewarding and that would create opportunities for possible land acquisitions.

What cities have invested in parks has realized paybacks in real dollars of increased land values and business attracted estimated at 7 to 10 dollars for each dollar invested.

Overall, we in Portland have much to do to assure for our children the access to the spectacular places that we have inherited, but we have every reason to make those efforts and those investments for they will assuredly reward each of us—and our children—handsomely every day.

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