THE DEBATE over keeping the Fairmount Park system intact versus merging parks with the Recreation Department was often bitter and contentious.
Those wanting to keep the outmoded structure of governance - a park commission that was disconnected and accountable to no one but its members - argued that if the city took over, it would start selling off parkland to the highest bidder. Those pushing for change - and that included this page - argued that decades of neglect and funding shortfalls were directly tied to lack of leadership, and that parks were suffering as a result.
When this page investigated the parks in a 2003 series, we found that one of the largest urban park systems in the country had become a dumping ground for old appliances and a graveyard for cars, and that public space was unkempt and sometimes unsafe.
We take some credit for the change that finally came about, seven years later, with an integrated parks and rec department. An announcement today will illustrate that this change has gone well beyond simple governance, and is a hopeful lesson for the future.
Mayor Nutter will announce a Green2015 plan for adding 500 acres to the park system. These 500 acres will be made up primarily of lots of unused or vacant land scattered around the city. Existing resources, like rec centers that can be upgraded or schoolyards that can be greened, also will be added to the mix.
This park expansion could accomplish a number of things: strategically sited, they will contribute to the mayor's Greenworks goal of having a park be within a walking distance of every resident. It will also help integrate the city's approach to its inventory of vacant land; historically lots have been subject to a patchwork of jurisdictions, regulations and planning efforts that even programs like the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative have failed to make sense of. The Green2015 clarifies many of the arguments for this coordination, mainly by recognizing that the city's unused land is an opportunity, not a problem called "blight."
Naturally, how we pay to manage more parkland is a big question. Current park management, led by Michael DiBerardinis, wants the city to work with nonprofits, foundations and developers to help take responsibility. We're glad to see the parks have taken their rightful place as a driver of conversations about the city's potential and growth. Would that have happened under the old structure? Not a chance.