Joseph Kaltenberg, a public official from Milwaukee, had been to Philadelphia years ago, but didn’t get to see much of the city, he said as he readied to step onto a Segway Saturday afternoon at bustling LOVE Park, where a bride and groom were taking pictures just feet away.

“I’m just really excited to learn more about Philadelphia and some of the things they are doing in Parks and Rec,” Kaltenberg said. “And I specifically want to get a look at urban pocket parks.”

Kaltenberg was one of 900 parks officials, landscape architects, nonprofit representatives, and others from 200 cities who arrived in Philadelphia this weekend for the Greater & Greener conference, which bills itself as “the leading international conference for urban park leaders” to explore issues surrounding public spaces.

A group of about 15 conference goers rode the Segways on a tour led by Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell through a string of city landmarks including Logan Circle, Sister Cities Park, Eakins Oval, the Art Museum steps, Fairmount Water Works, and Boathouse Row. Ott Lovell said it was a chance to showcase the city.

“All of these are public space leaders,” Ott Lovell said. “I’ve been on this conference when it was in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Denver,” she said. “But every city is different, and I think it’s impressive what we’ve done when it comes to public space.”

Ott Lovell noted major improvements to public spaces over the last decade, including the opening of the Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, renovation of Sister Cities Park, the fountains and skating rink at Dilworth Park on the west side of City Hall, and the current effort underway to reimagine the Parkway.

» READ MORE: Urban forest or urban boulevard? Philadelphia tries to reimagine the Parkway

What is the conference about?

Catherine Nagel, executive director of the Washington-based City Parks Alliance, which is hosting the event, said she believes conference attendees will be “blown away” by Philadelphia.

The four-day, biennial event that started Saturday includes speakers or attendees from London, Canada, Mexico, and Singapore, as well as a raft of U.S. cities.

Climate change, decreased funding for park systems, invasive species, workforce development, diversity and inclusion, and other issues are on the conference’s agenda. But much of the action is taking place outdoors, Nagel said, and showcasing Philadelphia, which was selected for the conference through a national competition.

She said cities are chosen that can demonstrate innovation, have a sizable park structure, and be able to host so many people. Those features played a role in Philly’s selection Thursday as a cohost city for the 2026 FIFA men’s soccer World Cup and, said Nagel, helped it land the Greater & Greener conference.

Nagel knows the city well: She grew up in Bucks County, attended the University of Pennsylvania for landscape architecture, and previously worked as executive director of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, where she started the Cherry Blossom Festival held in Fairmount Park.

“We’re going to really try to help people understand the legacy of Philadelphia as a city with strong cultural roots,” Nagel said.

Tours of Philly

Attendees have plenty of options to see the city. Other scheduled tours include a look at the city’s green stormwater infrastructure, which is part of the Philadelphia Water Department’s 25-year plan to reduce the volume of runoff that enters the city’s old combined sewer system during a heavy rain. The system serves 60% of the city and overflows during storms, resulting in untreated, diluted sewage that flows into local waterways.

Conference goers can also visit the Flower Show at FDR Park, the Navy Yard, Bartram’s Garden, a Black-owned rowing company, Fairmount Park, a Schuylkill restoration project, and the Delaware River waterfront. Tours are also planned for Independence Hall, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, and Wissahickon Valley Park.

They’ll also get a view of projects under Parks and Rec’s Rebuild program, aimed at investing in many of the 400 neighborhood parks, recreation centers, and libraries scattered throughout the city. Parks slated for improvement under the program are in neighborhoods faced with high poverty, crime, drugs, and health risks.

On Monday, in honor of Juneteenth, conference volunteers will plant trees, rake leaves, and perform other work on the Norris Square Park playground in Kensington. Mayor Jim Kenney is set to speak Tuesday at a forum with Leirion Gaylor Baird, mayor of Lincoln, Neb.; Miguel Treviño, mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico; and Daniella Levine Cava, mayor of Miami-Dade County, Fla.

‘New ideas and inspiration’

“I think there are so many extraordinary stories of how the public sector, community groups, nonprofits, and institutional partners are all working together to make the city come alive through its parks and greening efforts to solve some really, really challenging issues Philadelphia and many cities face,” Nagel said. “So I hope people walk away with all kinds of new ideas and inspiration they can adapt.”

Overall, however, one of the most pressing issues facing park systems around the world is money.

“Our members tell us that the biggest challenge right now is funding,” Nagel said. “Since the pandemic, park use has increased significantly, like 50% in some places and doubled in others ... but the budgets have not kept pace. And because of the change in work habits, we’re not seeing as much tax revenue from downtowns. Public budgets have taken a hit. So, the big issue is how do we find the resources to maintain our parks and make them relevant to all communities?”

Maura McCarthy, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, said in a statement that not only will the conference showcase Philly, it will also let the city’s parks community learn “from the country’s best thought leaders about how we can increase accessibility and equity for all Philadelphians in our public land.”