A centennial celebration – conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of National Recreation and Park Association

It had been more than 20 years since a national conference on parks held in Boston or the New England area; the National Recreation and Park Association, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the Boston Parks and Recreation Department took this as a challenge, an opportunity for celebration, reflection, and growth. The three organizations, with the assistance and guidance of myriad others, came together to offer America’s Parks: A Centennial Celebration, a four-day conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of the institutional roots of NRPA, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ state park system, and the New England Park Association.

In April 1898, at the request of George Amos Parker, superintendent of Keney Park in Hartford, Connecticut, 26 “park men,” leaders of parks in New England cities, gathered at the Brunswick Hotel in Boston to discuss common issues, share perspectives, bolster a sense of camaraderie, and visit the parks of Boston and Cambridge. At the close of this seminal event, Charles Keith, superintendent of parks in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut, was inspired to these words: “I went to Boston an entire stranger to all, and return feeling that I have gained twenty-five friends.”

It was this sense of pride — along with an appreciation of the movement’s history and the promise of an encouraging future — that NRPA hoped to replicate at its four-day event, held March 5-8 at the Boston Marriott Copley Place in downtown Boston. More than 350 delegates — park and recreation professionals and citizen advocates — enjoyed on-site institutes at Boston Common and Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.’s Emerald Necklace, a reception and celebration banquet, more than 20 plenary and concurrent sessions, and a national town meeting that addressed the future of parks and recreation in our country. Kathy J. Spangler, CLP, director of NRPA’s Northeast Service Center and chief organizer of the four-day Boston extravaganza, pronounced the event a success, saying, “As the NRPA logistical coordinator for the event, it has been heartening to learn of the impact the conference had on the New England region. The positive impact of exposing citizen advocates to our heritage, vision, and professional goals has resulted in the formation of new and empowered efforts. Our professional and citizen advocates are forging new strategies through a benefits-based approach that the conference fostered.”

Thursday, March 5

Thursday’s On-site Institutes gave delegates a hands-on opportunity to enjoy the beauty and historical perspective of the parks of Boston and its surrounding areas. Long considered one of Olmsted’s finest works, Boston’s Emerald Necklace consists of a string of nine continuous parks. Olmsted designed the park system in the 19th century, providing Bostonians with a haven of relief from the common discomforts of urban living. The tour presented visitors with historical interpretation, design ideology, and current preservation efforts.

A walking tour of Boston’s historic parks — Boston Common, the Public Garden, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and Copley Square Park — introduced delegates to the open-space core of the city’s downtown. Boston Common’s 350 years of history make it America’s oldest park, and its past unfolds like the pages of a textbook. From a utilitarian common ground for activities like grazing, militia formations, and public hangings, the Common evolved. Its peaks were leveled, cows were banned, and trees, fountains, and statuary were added, as the Common became the park-like greenspace we know today. The Public Garden was created in 1837, some 200 years after the inception of the Common. The city’s first public botanical garden, the Public Garden features more than 80 species of plants grown in the Boston Parks and Recreation Department’s greenhouses. Visitors are invited to meander the Garden’s wistful paths, and enjoy the intricate floral patterns of color and exotic imported trees. Commonwealth Avenue Mall serves as the crucial green link between the Public Garden and Olmsted’s park system. Its 32 acres were designed in the French boulevard style by Arthur Gilman in 1856. This downtown tour described to participants the management of contemporary needs and activities, and explained the capital improvements undertaken in recent years.

The final tour included a visit to Walden Pond State Reservation and Minute Man National Historic Park in Concord, Massachusetts, offering conference delegates an opportunity to learn about two of the nation’s most interesting historical sites. At Walden Pond, participants “met” Henry David Thoreau in his Walden cabin and heard his perspectives on Walden Pond and society. A Thoreau scholar described the natural history of the pond and reservation, and visitors learned how Massachusetts State Parks manages more than 600,000 visitors each year to this park. Minute Man National Historic Park preserves the scene of the battle between Colonial militiamen and British troops on April 19, 1775. Park staff provided visitors with an overview of the park and plans for implementation of a new Battle Road Trail.

The Honorable Thomas M. Menino, mayor of the city of Boston, kicked off the festivities on Thursday evening, sharing his thoughts on the importance of public parks and open spaces with a crowd of 150 delegates prior to the Reception and Celebration Banquet. Menino praised the work that park and recreation professionals are doing to create more open space and parklands, and acknowledged the challenges that they face in maintaining them. “As mayor of the city, I continue to fight for open space because I think it’s a quality-of-life issue. That’s so important. That space in our cities is so precious and so valuable; we must maintain it,” he said. Issuing a charge to the audience, the mayor closed his remarks by saying, “Continue your mission, because there are folks out there who are looking to you for your leadership. The parks and recreation spaces in our towns are the best places in our towns. It’s you folks out there who make it happen. I thank all of you for making it a better place for all people to live.”

The dinner, presided over by Eric W. O’Brien, chairman of NRPA’s Board of Trustees, featured inspirational words by the Honorable Trudy Coxe, Secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Christopher K. Jarvi, president of NRPA; and Brian R. Elliott, past president of the New England Park Association. Coxe, who served in the administration of President George Bush as the director of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, cited the urgency of preserving our open spaces, challenging individuals to adopt a concept of “more protection, less process.” “We are at a major crossroads today,” said Coxe. “The demand for parks is increasing. No matter what else we do, we need to continue to aggressively purchase and protect open space. We will determine what land remains open for our children and our grandchildren to enjoy. NRPA has been a great leader in that fight.”

The culmination of the evening was the debut of “America’s Parks: Expressions of Value,” a 17-minute video, written and produced by NRPKs director of Public Policy, Barry S. Tindall, which delves into the essence of the recreation experience, tying recreation and stewardship of the nation’s natural and cultural resources to the diversity of the American people.

Friday, March 6

David Welch, chief executive of the Royal Parks Agency, which manages the Royal Parks of London, led Friday’s first plenary session, titled “The Right to Roam: A World View on the Evolution of Policy, Practice and Management of Public Parks.” Welch was an undeniable crowd favorite, using ribald humor and British commentary to awaken the early-morning crowd, connecting the parallels of park and recreation’s past to its present. He stressed the importance of customer service, a “willingness to please,” to ensure a bright future for parks and recreation. “Parks should pamper and flatter their visitors to bring them back,” said Welch. Responsible for some of the most famous open spaces in the world — including Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Regents Park, and St. James Park — Welch raised three points in addressing the question of the right to roam directly, saying the right “should apply to towns, not just countrysides;” is “worthless and academic unless it’s safe and attractive, and pleasant to exercise in;” and “that the park service uniquely allows the right to roam, and always has, as one of its great underlying assumptions and precepts.”

The first presentation of the morning’s second plenary session featured Keith N. Morgan, Ph.D., professor and chair of the College of Arts And Science at Boston University. Morgan’s session titled “Looking Backwards to Understand the Future: Centennial Lessons,” recalled the challenges faced by the American park and recreation movement in the final decade of the 19th century, and compared the relationship to the social, cultural, and economic climate of the 1990s.

Justine Lift, commissioner of Boston’s Department of Parks and Recreation and conference host, set the tone for Morgan’s presentation when she said, “Building parks and cutting ribbons is sometimes a lot more exciting than actually maintaining them, but the work is just as important and, we think, just as meaningful.” Morgan centered on why Boston, at the end of the 19th century, was the logical place for landscape environment and why the city was the hotbed for “liberal and progressive thinking about park making and its role in improving society.

“That point, in the late 1890s did, indeed, represent a moment in New England culture and the national consciousness that was highly disruptive, and is a time in which parks were being created at a rapid pace and being called upon to solve a whole series of societal ills,” said Morgan.

Presenters Fred I. Kent III, president, and Kathleen Madden, vice-president and director, of the Project for Public Spaces, Inc., and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Urban Parks Institute, respectively, rounded out the second plenary session with their presentation, “Defining Community Place: Rethinking the Roles of Public Parks.” Kent and Madden focused on the perception of parks as “community places,” exploring new concepts and the relevance of public parks in the future. The parks that are receiving design awards, said Kent, are not being used by individuals — they are cold and offer nothing. “We need a redefinition of the way we work,” he challenged. “We must listen to the needs of the communinity.” The team stressed the importance of community organizing and community input, stating that the transition we are facing is from “a discipline-based to a place-based approach to building community places.” Park and recreation professionals, designers, and citizen advocates must seek out and “create those great places that support positive human activity.” Using urban parks across the country as points of reference, Kent said, “We believe that great parks and great cities go together, and you can’t have one without the other. We have a mission as a group of people interested and involved in parks to take this way beyond just the park itself and into the community. That is the amazing challenge that we have as we move into the next millenium.”

A total of eight concurrent sessions filled the remainder of the afternoon, with topics ranging from public/private involvement to riverfront development to resource management. “Riverfront Recapture: A Community Commitment to Waterfront Improvement and Recreation Access” was one of the early afternoon’s most interesting and popular sessions. Riverfront Recapture, a private nonprofit organization, has raised more than $39 million for the design and construction of public parks and recreation facilities along the banks of the Connecticut River in Hartford and East Hartford, Connecticut. The project hopes to improve the quality of life for people who live and work in greater Hartford, generate economic activity by making the area a destination, and leverage the funds invested in project improvements to attract private investment on land adjacent to the parks. Programs like community rowing, fishing clinics and tournaments, festivals, and concerts are already attracting people of all ages and backgrounds to the riverfront, said Joseph Marfuggi, project president, and Richard Porth, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments in Hartford. “For anybody who’s getting involved in a major, ambitious effort, I think Riverfront Recapture’s experience can give you some wonderful advice: always be flexible, and always be willing to change your mission statement,” said Marfuggi.

“Public/Private Initiatives to Enhance Park and Recreation Development and Revitalization,” which used two case studies based on recent planning processes to reveal the results of effective public involvement, outreach to special interest groups, and finance, attracted a standing-room-only audience. A master plan for historic Patterson Park in Baltimore emphasized work with community and historic preservation groups, and plans for two district parks for the James City County Parks System in Williamsburg, Virginia, emphasized public fundraising. Presenters were Faye B. Harwell and Elliot Rhodeside, principal directors of Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc., of Alexandria, Virginia.

Peter Hummel, principal of Bruce Dees and Associates in Tacoma, Washington, and Kenneth R. Bounds, superintendent of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, presided over “Golden Gardens Park: A Case Study of Environmental Stewardship and Community Enhancement.” This session documented how a heavily used Seattle park was given new life through an intensive redevelopment effort that focused on fostering environmental stewardship through continuous community involvement. The renovation of the park featured an extensive use of recycled materials, new shoreline access, and enhancement of Puget Sound beaches and wetlands.

“Yonkers City Pier and Riverfront Park” focused on the 1996 restoration of the Yonkers, New York City Pier, a turn-of-the-century Victorian recreation pier, as the centerpiece of the city’s waterfront redevelopment effort. Jim Surdoval, executive director of the Office of Waterfront Development, and Ed Weinstein, partner of the Hastings Design Group, discussed the position of the pier as a key feature of a new quarter-mile-long riverfront park that will run alongside the city’s 16-acre development site. The diverse park will add value to adjoining mixed-use development including residential, office, restaurant, and retail spaces.

The first of the four late-afternoon concurrent sessions was “Standards of Excellence: Understanding the Elements and Techniques of Exemplary Park Systems,” which explored the philosophies, goals, and management strategies of two exemplary public park agencies — the Ohio Division of Parks, 1997 NRPA National Gold Medal Award winner in the state park category, and the Fairmount Park Commission in Philadelphia. Presenters were Dan West, chief of the Division of Parks and Recreation, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and James Donaghy, director of Operations and Land Management for the Fairmount Park Commission. Donaghy related the story of how volunteers and unionized staff worked side-by-side and how a $25 million foundation grant was applied to the system.

“The Human Ecosystem: Applications for 21st Century Resource Management” took a look at the problems that the natural resources profession faces in dealing with an Earth inhabited by six to eight billion people. Presenter Gary E. Machlis, Ph.D., visiting chief social scientist with the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., maintained that resource professionals must intensify the search for management models that deal with human wants, needs, and environmental realities.

Using the Boston Metropolitan Park System, Charles River Basin as a central park, presenters Julia Broderick O’Brien, director of planning for the Boston Metropolitan District Commission, and Elizabeth Vizza, associate with the Halvorson Company, addressed issues of contemporary significance to historic park systems in “The History and Contemporary Significance of Community, Urban, and Regional Parks.” O’Brien and Vizza addressed the question, How have public needs and park design changed over time, and how are park stewards responding to those changes? They discussed planning, design, and management strategies that will ensure the health and welfare of a park system in our changing times.

“Regaining Community: An Imperative for Recreation, Education, Housing, and Police” showcased the Unity Through Community program, a succesful New Bedford, Massachusetts, neighborhood policing coalition that represents a unique relationship between the New Bedford Police Department, city government, schools, human service providers, the housing authority, courts, consumers, and other neighborhood and city institutions. Boston police commissioner Paul Evans and Captain Lewis Silvia of the New Bedford Police Department stressed the importance of collaboration, partnership, communication, ownership, accountability, and “the whole idea of a proactive police department as opposed to a reactive police department” as ways of doing business. “What we tried to do was re-establish a sense of ownership and accountability in the organization,” said Evans. This was accomplished by putting the captains back in authority, so there was one person in charge, and by establishing crime-analysis meetings. “Crime is a social issue,” said Evans, “and we’re really not going to have a big impact on crime as a police department. So what we started to do was to say to the captains, `We’re holding you accountable,’ and we brought them in and showed them their district up on a map, and we showed them what their crime picture was in that neighborhood for the past three months, and said, `What are you doing about crime?'” Over time, said Evans, the “captain and his community people were taking ownership, they were establishing their own goals and objectives, and they had a vested interest in making sure that they met their goals and objectives.” Through collaboration and accountability, the New Bedford coalition was able to ultimately provide a safe environment, connectedness, and wellness for the city’s inhabitants.

Saturday, March 7

Citizen and professional advocacy took center stage on Saturday, as the National Town Meeting on Public Parks and the following concurrent sessions addressed the roles of both citizens and professionals in restoring communities, conserving and expanding public park resources, and enhancing recreation opportunities for all people. The question in the air was, What funding measures in the 21st century will preserve our parks?

A few words regarding Boston’s five-year open-space plan and the legacy left by Olmsted and Joseph Lee were given by Andrea D’Amato, chief of environmental services for the city of Boston. “Our work today is to ensure that future generations will benefit from the parks and recreation legacy that we leave them,” D’Amato said. “We’re here today to share our ideas about the future of park funding,” she concluded, preparing the audience. D’Amato then turned the microphone over to Mayor Menino, who spoke briefly on partnerships beneficial to parks that have developed over the past few years and the need to “come together and create a lobbying group” to secure more money for our parks. “The parks are so important,” said Menino. “Wouldn’t you rather have more money to acquire some of that open space that’s out there? Let’s bring this one step further,” he said, rallying the crowd of 250 park and recreation professionals, citizen advocates, and grassroots organizers.

The morning’s keynote speaker, Alexander Garvin, a member of the New York City Planning Commission and adjunct professor of urban planning and management at Yale University, relied upon engaging, thought-provoking commentary and a visual presentation to address the subject of parks as strategic investments. “Most people think of parks as an idyllic counterpoint to congestion or as a place to relieve the tension of urban living,” said Garvin. “One thing I think we need to pay more attention to is parks as a strategic investment, as a way of initiating urbanization at specific locations, as a way of altering surrounding land-use patterns, as a way of shaping the very character of city life.” Garvin sited the six ingredients of success for linking parks to their surroundings, from his book, The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t. market, location, design, finance, entrepreneurship, and time. Garvin asked the question, How do parks shape the city that we’re in? “Today, we’re looking for different forms of recreation,” he said, referencing Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers, which offers, among other recreational pursuits, a boxing rink, driving range, climbing wall, skate rentals, restaurants, a television filming studio, and a gymnastics center. “We need to think about that change that has been happening in who uses our parks.” At the conclusion of Garvin’s presentation, Claudia Polley Love, president of the National Association for African American Heritage Preservation and moderator of the morning’s events, invited those panelists who would participate in the Town Hall Meeting to take the stage for a brief round of discussion. They were: Eric W. O’Brien; Alexander Garvin; Christopher K. Jarvi; Peter Webber, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management; and Justine Lift.

O’Brien, representing the citizen viewpoint, discussed future funding for our park systems and the enhancement of recreation programs. He cited the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, stating, “Citizens have always been at the forefront of advocating support and expressing the values of parks and recreation. We must continue to be outspoken. The legacy of parks and recreation is, in fact, a legacy of citizen support and action.” O’Brien referred to the land that we’ve already lost and are on the verge of losing “in the name of `development.’ …. Parks are constantly under pressure by those who wish to take and develop park land. I assure you that [NRPA] will continue its efforts in support of national funding, and we will urge our state affiliates, through the local citizen groups, to be aggressive advocates for public parks, including adequate funding.”

Jarvi referenced the challenges faced by this group over the last decade in terms of trying to manage and promote our resources. “In general, we have been challenged like we’ve never been challenged before as professionals. At the same time, we’ve realized the connection between the citizen and the professional is absolutely essential if you’re going to survive in this environment.” Continued partnerships and collaborations with other departments and organizations within our cities — citizen-based organizations, churches, clubs — are imperative, said Jarvi, to combat the blow of severe reductions in budgets and recreation programs. “We realize that trying to get the job done in our parks and communities requires capitalizing on those resources to the extent that we can in our communities.” He stressed the importance of park and recreation professionals exploring venues other than the LWCF in seeking increased funding for programs.

Webber and Liff brought the discussion back to a local level, addressing a number of issues that directly affect the citizens of Boston and Massachusetts. Webber voiced the concerns and opportunities of a statewide approach to parks funding for the 21st century. He presented Massachusetts’ perspective on the (LWCF), and stressed the necessity of citizen activism and “grassroots involvement at the community level to creatively continue to add to the legacy of our state, local, and national parks and to be good stewards of them for generations to come.”

Liff concentrated on the city of Boston’s open-space plan, stressing the importance of viewing the entire open-space system as one space belonging to the people. “The big picture of parks and open spaces is useless unless people are in them actively pursuing a variety of different kinds of activities. And it’s only that activity, that good use, that is going to preserve them,” she said.

At the conclusion of the brief discussion, Love turned the floor over to the audience, inviting individuals to address the participating leaders with statements, questions, and points for discussion. The local Boston contingent, which constituted a fair share of those in attendance, bounced questions, concerns, and calls for action off the panel, referencing location-specific parks and open spaces such as Jamaica Plain, Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace Parks, and the Boston Harbor Open Space System. Individuals were assured of the fact that local and state officials were aware of and acting upon these areas in question, and further plans for action and observation were initiated. The positive attitude seemed to permeate the room, and soon delegates were lining up behind the microphones 10 deep to present their individual thoughts and challenges. Taxation to create park funding, land acquisition and maintenance, LWCF, the need for additional legislation to protect our open spaces, the preservation of our historical parks and sites, stewardship for young children, cooperation and partnerships, and providing adequate staffing for our parks were all issues and concerns that were raised and addressed throughout the course of the morning’s Town Meeting. Delegates also championed causes such as the need to rally citizens and professionals together and to create access to and safety in our parks. At the conclusion of the question-and-answer component of the meeting, members of the panel of leaders were encouraged to offer final impressions.

Four concurrent sessions were offered upon completion of the National Town Meeting. “Enhanced Recreation Through Public and Private Partnerships” addressed the critical nature of public-private partnerships as they apply to the American recreation experience and to the conservation of land and water. Presenters James Ronstadt, director of the Tucson Department of Parks and Recreation; Leo Levi, chair of the “Newton Pride” Committee; and Paul McCaffrey, manager of the Office of Public-Private Partners for the Boston Department of Parks and Recreation, discussed the diversity of contemporary partnerships in parks and recreation, and their objectives, philosophies, management strategies, and results.

Presenters Steve Blackmer of the Appalachian Mountain Club and Northern Forest Alliance; Mary Ellen Welch, community activist with the East Boston Greenway Alliance; and Rodney Bender, an activist with the Neponset Greenway Coordinating Council, argued persuasively that citizen action has been the basis for enlightened public interest, progressive policy and management, and enhanced recreation opportunity since the mid-19th century. In “Making Places the Best They Can Be: The Dynamics and Potential of Citizen Action for Recreation, Conservation, and Sustaining Community,” delegates discovered the motivations, objectives, techniques, and rewards of individuals and groups determined to sustain a community, city, or region by conserving, creating, or recovering public assets.

Michael Creasey, deputy director of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission, and Peter Webber told the story of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, a partnership park that encompasses 24 communities, and stretches from the headwaters of the Blackstone River in Worcester, Massachusetts, to the Narrangansett Bay in Providence, Rhode Island, creating a park where people live, work, and play. This network of partnerships among state and federal governments, local jurisdictions, historical societies, environmental organizations, businesses, sports groups, and private landowners, said Creasey and Webber, exemplifies park-planning approaches.

“The Boston Olmsted Experience,” featuring presenter Francis G. Beatty, senior landscape architect with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department’s Historic Parks Division, reviewed the historical importance of the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and its significance to the quality of life of an American city and region.

The third plenary session featured presenter Geoffrey Godbey, Ph.D., professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of six books and more than 100 articles on the subjects of leisure, work, time use, and tourism. The hour-long session, titled “Responding to Change: An Imperative for the 21st Century,” was well-attended, and was moderated by Fran P. Mainella, CLP, CAE, director of the state of Florida’s Division of Recreation and Parks and past president of NRPA. Godbey and participants explored the future policy and management implications of society’s use of time, health maintenance, emerging technology, and a host of other issues.

Sunday, March 8

Barry S. Tindall, director of NRPA’s Public Policy Division, served as moderator and discussant for the conference’s final session, Sunday morning’s “Advocacy for Public Recreation and Parks: A Strategy Session,” a follow-up exchange of views to the previous day’s National Town Meeting for citizens, professionals, and advocacy groups. Individuals were encouraged to share perspectives, create networking opportunities, and develop plans of action to support local, state, and national initiatives for parks and recreation. Utilizing a group-discussion format, specific ideas and responses to the question, Will there be funding? were emphasized. The review served as an appropriate ending to four days of deliberation, examination, and analysis regarding both the history and future of the parks and recreation movement.

As delegates made their way to Boston’s Logan Airport on Sunday afternoon, the toll that the four days of on-site institutes, celebration, education sessions, and public discourse had taken on them was apparent. So, too, were the fresh ideas, networking opportunities, and historical perspective they had gained from the experience. They were exhausted, but fulfilled. A renewed spirit of appreciation and enthusiasm, a sense of purpose, had been instilled in them. Turning back the clock 100 years, those 26 original “park men” who gathered in Boston in 1898 may not have known at the time that their efforts would create such lasting benefits a century later. But they certainly have.

COPYRIGHT 1998 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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