The more things change…
We had reason to hope that, after years of neglect, the city's parks had turned a significant corner in 2008 when the city (and its voters) saw the wisdom in combining the city's parks and recreation departments. This fixed an illogical division between passive parkland, overseen by a commission unattached to city government, and recreational facilities, managed by a city department. The merger dissolved the Fairmount Park's ruling board and created a new commission made up of people who actually had expertise or a stake in the parks. But more to the point, it came with a renewed sense of the importance of our parks and the role that they play in making the city great.
And, surely, the planets were further aligned with the election of Mayor Nutter, who promised to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the country.
Indeed, in 2008, Nutter promised to give more money to the parks through a hike in the parking taxes — a 40 percent increase over four years.
Then the economy tanked, and that money was diverted to the general fund. Once again, parks and recreation went hungry. In fact, over the past four fiscal years, the lack of new funding, and additional cuts to the budget for the new department, have effectively slashed our financial commitment to the parks by 30 percent. Staffing levels also are down.
That makes quite a paler shade of green. The fact is, every city has been hit with the economic tsunami that hit Philadelphia. But most of those cities still manage to put our park spending to shame. Consider: Philadelphia spends $99 million a year, or $8,900 an acre, while Chicago spends $400 million, or $31,000 an acre. Park-spending leader San Francisco spends more than $228 million a year on parks, or about $42,000 an acre. San Francisco also has some of the highest real-estate values in the nation. We don't think that's a coincidence.
We're fortunate that the cuts have not hobbled the parks — yet. That's thanks mostly to strong leadership, both from Parks & Rec Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis and those reporting to him. In fact, this year alone, four new parks have been added or rehabbed, including an impressive redo of the Sister Cities Park, at 18th Street and Logan Square. And there are ambitious plans to add 500 acres of open green space for those city residents who don't have a park within a half-mile walk.
But we need the same leadership from Council and the mayor to fulfill the promises made to the parks — and to the people of this city. Recently, the Parks Alliance began making noise about this funding disparity, and got the attention of Council members. One of them, Councilman Mark Squilla, wants to add a $2 surcharge to parking tickets, which could bring in $2 million a year for the parks.
And, while that's better than nothing, it's not good enough, even if such a plan passed legal muster. Besides, the city's track record of disregard gives us no confidence that this money would be earmarked for the parks in the long term.
The hard and complicated work of fixing the park's management structure has been done. The park's financial woes don't just sell this effort short. This particular failure of our city's leaders maintains a legacy of "can't-do," a history of settling for second-best, and an inability to demand greatness. It's time to turn thattide. n