In the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, streets all over the country filled with people of all ages, races, and creeds calling to defund the police. But the call to defund police does not mean defunding safety. Instead, it should mean rethinking who is in charge of helping Philadelphians feel safe. With proper funding, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation could contribute one piece of that puzzle by reinvigorating the Fairmount Park Guards program.
In 1868, Philadelphia formed the Fairmount Park Guards to maintain security on park grounds. The guards were unarmed and worked decentralized, out of small guardhouses throughout the park. During their peak they were the third-largest police force in Pennsylvania, just behind the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Police Departments.
In a 2014 article on the preservationist website Hidden City, Philadelphia author and certified tour guide Harry Kyriakodis described the guards like this: “[They] patrolled the park by foot, horseback, and even bicycle to provide information and security to Fairmount Park visitors. They also kept watch over the park’s greenery and its collection of mansions, statues and fountains, all while routinely returning lost children to parents. Furthermore, the guards patrolled the Schuylkill River to prevent accidental drownings and to provide assistance whenever someone fell through the ice when the river froze.”
Many Philadelphians have fond memories of seeing the guards ride through the parks on horseback, maintaining order and cleanliness in the park. However, in 1972, Mayor Frank Rizzo absorbed the guards into the Philadelphia Police Department, further increasing the PPD’s budget.
The time is now to undo Rizzo’s work. Philadelphia Parks and Recreation has one of the oldest and largest park systems in the country, yet today, the city’s budget shows there are fewer than 30 guards for more than 10,000 acres of parkland. And in spite of the country’s recent civil uprising and ongoing issues around climate change, Mayor Jim Kenney chose to reduce their budget by 20%.
The mayor and City Council should reinvest in the city’s parks, including the reestablishment of the Fairmount Park Guards.
The guards, who are unarmed, would be ideal candidates for a safety force to help protect the public health and safety of our city, which includes keeping people safe as well as maintaining our green spaces and watersheds.
Guards would be a welcome addition to the parks for many reasons.
First: Most issues that arise are pretty minor, such as littering, destruction of property, dumping, children injured while playing, and dogs off leashes. They do not require armed police to intervene. But with few alternatives, people often do call 911 to deal with these types of issues. In my experience, cops often do not even bother to come out when these calls come in. When they do, it often escalates the issue. If the guards were already patrolling the park, they could use green-space-friendly vehicles such as electric vehicles, bicycles, on foot or horses to quickly come to the scene of any issues and resolve them without force.
Second: Some of the city’s most beloved annual events happen in parks where admission is free — such as races and regattas. Yet these events come at a hefty price for the city budget, largely due to the cost of police overtime. The guards, however, could already be assigned to these duties, as part of their normal work shifts. This would free up resources on the police force as well as provide experienced safety officers at crowded events.
Third: The city needs to focus on job creation in Philadelphia, as we face recession-level unemployment following the coronavirus-related economic downturn. The Fairmount guards have already been a proven way to get people into jobs. In the 1990s, during a brief revival of the guards, they established a workforce development program with Temple University. For many Philadelphians, the guards provided a stepping-stone into a life of public service. This could happen in 2020, and could even include working with local public high schools or Community College of Philadelphia to develop a new workforce development program to teach public safety techniques like deescalation and first aid alongside park-specific training on wildlife and nature conservancy.
2020 could be a pivotal moment for a true revival of the Fairmount guards as citizens seek out new ways to bring safety to public spaces. But like most city services, without funding, this type of expansion isn’t possible.
Dena Ferrara Driscoll is a mother of two who lives in South Philadelphia and works in nonprofit communications and development. @bikemamadelphia