It all starts with citizens

Ted Flickinger

Dr. John Rauch was concerned about Chicago’s death Conditions in the 1850s, so held a drive to from Lincoln Park Along the city’s lakefront. Shortly after moving to Pittsburgh, Beulah Kennard realized that the busy industrial city provided no Play activities for children, so with the help of The local civic club, she opened Pittsburgh’s First playground in the Forbes School Yard on July 6, 1896. During New York City’s fiscal Crisis in the 1970s, Central Park was rescued from severe landscape deterioration by a group of concerned citizens that formed the Central Park conservancy, dedicated to the Civic stewardship of the city’s flagship park. The group believed that every citizen must Become a steward of “his or her park.”

Stories like these illustrate the unwritten history of public parks And recreation in the United States; and their central characters Are citizens. Since the formation in 1634 Of Boston Common (America’s first Public park), ordinary citizens have shown extraordinary Foresight and determination to preserve open spaces and Project the land for all time.

Citizen involvement is no Less important today.

“Bottom-up planning ensures that the park that is developed really meets the needs of the neighborhood,” says Erma Tranter, executive director of Chicago’s 2,000-member Friends of the Parks, a citizen-based advocacy organization mobilized to protect, preserve, and improve the city’s parks.

“While it takes a little more time to get the community involved, the end result is always a better park. The community feels a part of it, has a stake in it, understands it, and that translates into commitment when the park is developed.”

According to Dr. Charles E. Hartsoe, executive director of the National Recreation Foundation, “The public park and recreation movement grew out of a citizen demand for a better quality of life in the communities in which they live. Strong citizen support is essential not only to maintaining a high quality park and recreation program, but in obtaining the public support to have that program flourish in the future.”

Ultimately, professionals in parks and recreation must combine efforts with citizens to truly make a difference.

“Many of the most effective professionals in this field have successfully incorporated citizens into the operation and advancement of their agencies,” says Beverly Brandes, immediate past chairperson of the National Recreation and Park Association’s Board of Trustees and program coordinator of the South Carolina Department of Education.

“We cannot fulfill the need for better programs, nor promote their value, without the combined efforts of citizens and professionals.”

So how do citizens get involved in their parks? There are many ways that professionals can encourage citizen involvement; and the rewards are endless — from cleaner, safer parks to successful referendum campaigns for the preservation of open space.

Policymaking Boards

The most common citizen role is the elected or appointed board member. These citizens commit to a term of service as policymakers and sounding boards for the public at-large regarding the public delivery of park and recreation services in a community. These board members give direction to long-range planning, establish policy, and serve as legislative advocates at the local, state, and federal levels.

Advisory Committees

More citizen involvement, through a 15-member citizen advisory committee, helped the Urbana (IL) Park District improve its image and credibility and pass unprecedented referendums for increased recreation taxes.

For more than 27 years, the Urbana Park District Citizen Advisory Committee (UPDAC) has been organized to promote citizen awareness and study citizen and district needs and concerns regarding parks and recreation. Robin Hall, executive director of the Urbana Park District, believes the key to UPDAC’s success is its view of the “big picture.”

“They are not advocates for the senior golf program or the youth sports program,” says Hall. “They understand they must balance the district’s operations in a fiscally responsible manner.

“For citizen advisory committees to be successful, there must be a commitment to their success by board and staff. They must be viewed as the valuable resource they really can be. After all, they do represent a park district’s reason for being.”

Adopt-a-Park Programs

Nestled in the Texas Panhandle, the city of Pampa’s 38 parks have been “adopted” by individuals, citizen groups, and companies. Reed Kirkpatrick, director of the Parks Department, developed the Adopt-a-Park program in 1988. Since then, the city’s parks have witnessed a 40 percent reduction in vandalism.

“Citizens are very supportive because getting them involved, they become our eyes and ears for our park system,” says Kirkpatrick.

The program’s crown jewel is a $40,000 Development project, which turned a vacant lot into Pampa’s showplace park in an economically depressed area of the city. The project, a successful public/private partnership, was funded entirely by the Cabot Corporation, a locally headquartered chemical manufacturer.


Whether citizens enlist for an Earth Day cleanup or form organized stewardship groups for a neighborhood park, volunteers are invaluable assets for parks and recreation. They provide labor and experience. In addition to saving money and time, through their firsthand involvement in the parks, volunteers become stakeholders in their communities. Volunteerism helps build a sense of community, breaks down barriers between people, and often raises the overall quality of life.

Friends of the Parks

In 1971, 32 prominent local businessmen combined their interests and resources to form the city of San Francisco s Friends of Recreation and Parks. They sought to stimulate broader interest in the programs and activities of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and to generate private financial support for the restoration and of the city’s 205 parks and play grounds, recreation centers, stadiums, golf courses, and day camps.

As a nonprofit organization, the Friends group receives donations for the department and motivates community groups, schools, and other park user groups to get more involved in their parks.

“If people don’t use the parks, they fall into disrepair because there’s no incentive to keep them up, and they become a haven for people who use the park for non-park activity,” says Mike Nicoson, project manager and outreach coordinator for Friends of Recreation and Parks.

The Friends group recently received a $1.6 million matching grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund to increase positive park usership in the west end of Golden Gate Park, an area that has become a haven for the homeless, cruisers, and drug users.

“The best way to take back those parks is to have strong programming and a strong presence there so people who shouldn’t be there won’t go there anymore,” says Nicoson.


People and corporations are generally more willing to contribute to a nonprofit organization rather than a governmental agency. That’s why foundations are strategic extensions of the public park and recreation agency. Foundations primarily serve as fund-raising arms for these agencies. Some foundations are called “Friends” groups and incorporate both fundraising and advocacy roles.

Launched in 1969, the California State Parks Foundation has grown to 17,000 members and has given more than $90 million in support of California’s collection of cultural, historic, and natural features in its 264 state parks.

“The foundation has traditionally been a fund-raising entity as most foundations are, but we’ve moved into advocacy,” says Susan Smartt, executive director for the past two years. Under Smartt’s leadership, membership has increased by 25 percent, and the foundation’s mission has broadened.

“We’re working on leading a coalition of park groups, both state and local, trying to revitalize the park movement in California… getting all our various support organizations to letter write and help us lobby to pass a $162 million bond measure so that the people of California can actually vote more money for parks and acquisitions as well as park improvements.”

Legislative Advocacy

Joseph Lee, the “Father of the Playground Movement,” provides a timeless example of the importance of citizen advocacy. During the late 1800s, Lee, a Harvard graduate and attorney, helped create the first “model” playground in a desolate Boston neighborhood Convinced that all children needed opportunities to play under leadership, he chief promoter of a bill in the Massachusetts state legislature requiring towns and cities with populations of more than 10,000 citizens to establish playgrounds. Passage of the bill resulted in favorable action in many of the state’s municipalities.

Lee subsequently became in the national recreation movement as chairman of the National Playground Association’s Committee on State Laws. He is known for posing the question: “What will be left one hundred years hence as the result of what we are doing now? Are we planting the kind of things that will go on forever… a permanent thing in the American community?”

For decades now, the strongest legislative force for parks and recreation in Illinois has been its corps of 2,100 locally elected citizens on the boards of park districts and forest preserves and recreation and natural resource agencies. These citizen volunteers work closely with legislators in their home districts and in Springfield.

For the corp’s statewide association, the Illinois Association of Park Districts (IAPD), citizen advocacy is directly tied to an passage record for “pro-park” bills: more than 90 percent of IAPD’s legislative platform passes each year, 78 bills in the last 15 years.


Simply said, you cannot pass a referendum without support from citizens. Of course, you need their votes, but you also need citizens as volunteers–youth groups, seniors, families, and individuals–to fold and stuff, post signs, go door-to-door, speak to other groups, and spread the word.

“Word of the mouth is still the best advertising,” says Brook McDonald of the Conservation Foundation, whose 1997 campaign, “Neighbors for Open Space,” won a $75 million referendum for the DuPage County (IL) Forest Preserve District.

The creation of the Lake County Forest Preserve District in Lake County, Illinois, is the result of a word-of-mouth campaign launched by a 33-year-old homemaker more than 40 years ago.

In 1957, 3-year-old Frank Untemeyer asked his mother the location of a wooded area to explore in his new neighborhood in Lake County. She dutifully searched and learned that her community had no forest preserves. So, the next day, Ethyl Untemeyer organized a Countywide referendum to form the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

She spoke to groups, sought help from Local leaders, and quickly learned about politics. By Election Day in the fall of 1958, a groundswell of public support had emerged. The referendum passed with an overwhelming 60 percent of votes.

Today, the award-winning Lake County Forest Preserve District encompasses more than 20,246 acres of woods and trails, golf courses, canoe launches, campgrounds, and fishing ponds, plus a nature center and a nationally accredited museum.


Citizens who believe in the parks and recreation cause can be very generous with their money and land. Financial contributions take many forms including living memorials, corporate giving, and fund-raising events such as golf outings and payroll deductions. In-kind donations range from land and equipment to professional services such as marketing, planning, referendum campaign management, and legal counsel.

It was a 135-acre donation in 1894 by Lydia Moss Bradley that started the Pleasure Driveway and Park District of Peoria, Illinois’ oldest existing park district system. More recently, the district received a $5 million donation from a local family, the Bielfeldt Foundation, to develop a wellness center.

“[The Bielfeldts] are living here, they want the quality of life to be as good as possible,” observes Bonnie Noble, executive director of the Peoria Park District.

“They’ve given land for a park, matching contributions to develop the park, trees to plant on Grand View Drive, and funding for the Rodin exhibit at Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences. Their generosity encourages others.”

The bottom-line value of citizen involvement is the public’s central role in the very existence of public parks and recreation. History proves we owe a debt to citizens. Enduring legacies such as Central Park in New York, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and Chicago’s Grant Park exist early citizens were mobilized their communities.

Willoughby Rodman, the “Mother of Angeles Playgrounds,” and Otto Mallery, the “Father of Recreation in Philadelphia,” are among the field’s pioneers from the early 1900s. While their names are perhaps now forgotten, their influence indeed lives on.

Mallery, an economist and active member of the Playground Association of America, was a great believer in the role of the citizen in the recreation movement. He once said, “The ultimate strength of the National Recreation Association lies m me devotion and civic spirit of thousands of laymen and women on boards, committees, and foundations who steadily hold the line and keep advancing it.”

Today, on the local and national levels, we must return to our roots, opening the doors and involving citizens as volunteers, benefactors, and advocates for parks and recreation. Citizens are clout. They are the ultimate creators and keepers of America’s public parks.

We have the opportunity to write the future of parks and recreation. With citizens as our central characters, we’ll create success stories.

Dr. Ted Flickinger is the executive director of the Illinois Association of Park Districts and president-elect of NRPA.


Butler, G.D. (1965). Pioneers In Public Recreation. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company.

Cramer, M. (1991). The Central Park Conservancy. Trends, 28 (2), 35-38.

Gerson, M.J. (1997). Do Do-gooders Do Much Good? U.S. News and World Report, 122(16), 27-37.

Hall, R.R. (1995). Citizens Advisory Committees: Do You Want Them (To Work)? Illinois Parks & Recreation Magazine, 26 (6), 25-26.

Hilliard, T.C. (1997). The California State Parks Foundation: Over 25 Years of Helping State Parks in California. Trends, 34(1), 3-5.

Sniderman, J. (1992). Chicago’s Historic Parks Chicago, IL: Chicago Park District. Surroz, S. (1997). History of the Lake County Forrest Preserves. Illionis Parks & Recreation, 28(5), 34-35.

Wheeler, M.V. (1994). The Grandest Views. Peoria, IL: Peoria Journal Star, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 1998 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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