By Matthew Perks

What do Philadelphians really want from their parks and recreation facilities? While new play equipment, benches, and ball fields are usually on the wish list at public hearings and budget negotiations, Philadelphians first and foremost want parks and recreation facilities that are "safe for me and my family."

Every day, thousands of people enjoy our city's parks and facilities without incident, from Rittenhouse Square to the hidden paths of Pennypack Park. They form an integral part of the fabric that does so much to enrich the quality of urban life. Yet there have been a few highly publicized incidents in the recent past that garnered widespread attention and called into question whether our parks and recreation facilities are as safe as they can be.

As a result, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Parks and Recreation Commission have directed significant resources to careful research and community engagement activities designed to improve public safety and quality of life within the entire system.

The commission, led by chairman Nancy Goldenberg, held public meetings during the past year at different recreation facilities throughout the city so residents could voice their concerns and offer suggestions. Deputy Mayor Mike DiBerardinis surveyed department staff and conducted extensive solution-oriented workshops. Park administrators from several major cities were consulted about their best practices, and public safety was the subject of a two-day conference last fall that brought together senior public safety managers from New York and Los Angeles to meet with commission members, department staff, volunteers, and city officials. The goal: figure out ways to significantly improve and maintain public safety and put those ideas into practice as soon as possible.

Today, the commission's public safety committee is releasing the results of this comprehensive inquiry in a new report, "Safety in Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Centers." Its findings and recommendations are now in the hands of the Nutter administration and City Council members.

The report identifies several common themes on what can and should be done, from increasing structured programs at recreation centers and within parks, to advancing communications between police and department staff, improving lighting, installing more security cameras, and even pruning trees and shrubs to improve visibility.

It's important to note, however, that the department and commission did not wait to produce a report before taking action. Last year, significant improvements have been completed or progressed, including staff training, a comprehensive plan to bring more lighting and security cameras to parks and recreation facilities, the institution of a preventive maintenance management schedule, and extensive engagement with advisory councils and friends groups.

Council and the administration also collaborated on a crackdown on the illegal use of ATVs that tear up city parks with lawless abandon. And City Council responded with significant additional financial support - dedicating funds for improving ongoing repair and physical needs when it became clear that a general lack of maintenance leads to destructive and disruptive antisocial behavior.

Time and again, Philadelphia's parks and recreation facilities are likened to a precious and rare resource that is worthy of protection and continuous investment. Yet, at other times, our parks and recreation centers seem to be viewed as commodities, taken for granted and treated like any other service in need of funding. The fact is, a city with a demonstrable commitment to its parks and recreation facilities is a city that recognizes the benefits a vibrant parks and recreation system can provide to the local economy and the quality of life of all who live and work there.

The commission's report signifies a renewed understanding of this fundamental purpose. It will take time, financial resources, and an ongoing commitment from public- and private-sector leaders to make all of our parks and recreation facilities as safe as can be. The commission is encouraged that there is an alignment on a plan to move forward so that everyone has access to clean, safe places to connect with nature, their community, and their own personal aspirations.