PHILADELPHIA—During a break in the official proceedings, park system directors, environmentalists and urban park advocates followed a tour guide down Benjamin Franklin Parkway, past the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art and onto the city’s picturesque Boathouse Row, where gingerbread clubhouses anchor one of the nation’s most vibrant rowing communities.
With the non-profit City Parks Alliance focusing on equity and climate resilience at its biennial Greater & Greener conference, hosted this year by Philadelphia, the walk through Fairmount Park, the largest urban park in America, was illustrative: the Parkway, modeled after the Champs Elysees in Paris, is undergoing a redesign to make it more inclusive as an recreation area, while Boathouse Row, less than a year ago, was underwater as Hurricane Ida flooded the city’s parks and highways and brought the Schuylkill River to levels not seen since 1869.
Two top officials dispatched by the Biden administration to serve as Greater & Greener keynote speakers, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, described the need for greater urban park equity in the broader context of climate change and its constellation of threats to cities and their park systems: more intense hurricanes with their flooding and high winds, increased precipitation, sea level rise, heats waves and, in some parts of the countries, surging wildfires.
Both Landrieu and Haaland touted the administration’s America the Beautiful initiative, a plan to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030 through public-private partnerships. Haaland noted that the plan represented the first ever national conservation goal. Landrieu, now President Biden’s senior advisor for infrastructure coordination, touted a $1 billion competition to spur conservation partnerships involving governments at all levels, nonprofits and the private sector. “Parks are the most democratic things that exist in the United States of America,” he said.
Landrieu, who was in New Orleans for both Hurricanes Katrina and Ida, said he learned a lot about rebuilding communities as a result and wanted the conference attendees to understand the role of infrastructure in the climate crisis. “Our parks are actually part of that critical infrastructure that is going to allow us to receive what’s coming in and what’s going out,” he said. “The parks in New Orleans are now being used as retention ponds because of this big idea that we had that you really can’t beat Mother Nature. Water is going to have her way with you.”
For this, he said, we have the Dutch to thank. “That’s the great idea that the Dutch taught us,” he said. “Let’s learn to live with it rather than trying to live against it. And if we do that, it will create a different way of designing things, because design of parks, design of streets, design of neighborhoods, actually reflect how people interact with each other. You see, the design is the thing. If it is designed inappropriately, it is going to produce an inappropriate outcome.”
In assembling a bipartisan coalition in support of his $1.2 trillion infrastructure legislation to build the roads and bridges, Landrieu said, the president also wanted to “make sure that every kid in America has access to high speed internet.”
Internet access was crucial during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Landrieu said, adding: “Knowledge is the great equalizer in America and the president and vice president want to level the playing field and make sure that everybody has access to it, not just in urban areas, but in rural areas too.”
However, Landrieu said he wants all kids to have more than just knowledge and thinks that it is crucial for children to have public space and public parks, because he grew up spending every day in New Orleans’ two parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of landscape architecture in America. One of those, City Park, is 50 percent larger than Central Park in New York, which Olmsted also designed.
Earlier this year, the Yale School of Environment announced that it had formed a partnership with the Central Park Conservancy and the Natural Areas Conservancy to manage and mitigate the impacts of climate change on parks. The partnership plans on creating the Central Park Climate Lab to share best practice with park systems nationally. Fifty-five percent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and there are over a million acres of urban parkland in the U.S. vulnerable to climate change.
While the relationship of parks and climate change is crucial, Landrieu said the parks must be managed to ensure equity:
“How do we live together and work together?” he asked. “Is everybody invited to the park? Are the parks in every neighborhood, so that every kid can have an equal opportunity? When the park is constructed, does everybody have an opportunity to be safe and fair and learn the things they need to learn? Is there enough of it for everybody? Does it feed and integrate the rest of their public living space so that the city actually starts to breathe?”
Interior Secretary Haaland began her remarks by introducing herself as a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, the daughter of veterans and “a proud single mom to a queer child.”
As the first Indigineous American to serve as a cabinet secretary, Haaland reflected on her experiences in nature as a child and said everyone in America has something to contribute to conservation.
“Ranchers and farmers have a strong conservation effect,” she said. “Indigenous people have millennia of traditional knowledge to contribute, people who enjoy city parks can add to the effort. Everyone can be part of it. Local governments can and should leverage their skills and expertise to meet the moment. And Interior is here to help.”
Haaland said she experienced living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay for rent and groceries, for much of her adult life. “I know just how impactful city resources can be for families like mine, families with limited resources, who want to make sure their children grow up in healthy communities,” said Haaland.
Haaland said Philadelphia was a “fitting” host city for Greater & Greener because it is home to the nation’s first urban national wildlife refuge, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tiniccum, a 1,000-acre amalgam of habitats—tidal marsh, open waters, mudflats and woodlands—that are home to bald eagles and great blue herons, all a stone’s throw from Philadelphia International Airport.
Haaland said she recently met with a group of kids in San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, who were learning about wildlife and ecosystems. She said they were able to feel the dirt in their hands, smell the desert plants and watch the water soak into the earth.
“As they grow up and live their lives, they’ll remember that experience and it will help them to always care about that place,” said Haaland. “Those kids will be more likely to be responsible stewards of the land because they have the opportunity to experience it firsthand.”
Lena Chan, a biodiversity expert with the National Parks Board of Singapore, spoke at Greater & Greener before Landrieu and Haaland, describing the success she has had creating diverse ecosystems in Singapore. Biodiversity, she said, is both essential and possible for all cities.
Chan said that to many people biodiversity in cities is an oxymoron. But because a majority of the world’s population is now residing in cities, she said, the pressure of reducing climate change and increasing biodiversity now rests on cities.
Singapore thrives on coastal and terrestrial ecosystems, Chan said. The tiny, wealthy island nation of 5.7 million people in Southeast Asia created ecosystems where educational activities bring foot traffic to parks and nature areas. Chan noted that Singapore has also reintroduced freshwater swamps and said that these and other urban parks play an important role in climate adaptation.
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One important way to strengthen park activity is through pedestrian connections, with bigger sidewalks that include these diverse plants and trees, Chan said. Singapore has even created an ecological corridor for park-goers that crosses an eight-lane highway.
“One hundred percent of the population should be 10 minutes from a nature park,” said Chan. “These projects rely on digitalization technology and community stewardship. We all must embark on this change. To succeed we must be committed, passionate and apply technology.”
Kathryn Ott Lovell, Philadelphia’s commissioner of arts and recreation, said she felt a mandate to consider all new park development and improvement projects through the lens of equity, especially when residents of the city are experiencing a 25 percent poverty rate in many neighborhoods, a gun violence epidemic, the opioid crisis and homelessness.
Not far from Boathouse Row, on the park tour during the conference, park officials and advocates visited West Fairmount Park, where the city, through its own local infrastructure program, had replaced a “disc golf course” where millenials like to play frisbee with several youth football fields. The Parks and Recreation Department built the fields, she said, because a group of seven different football teams in that community hadn’t had a place to play for years.
“I have a special place in my heart for our youth football teams in Philadelphia, because they are historic, and I would say 90 percent Black run, and serve Black children,” said Lovell. “It’s not that we’re completely pushing this existing use out, but we have to be welcoming to new uses, and especially new uses that represent a community that lives here.”
She said that equitable field space for young people in the city is an issue that has been ignored for over 30 years now.
By contrast, Thoai Nguyen, CEO of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC) in Philadelphia, described equity-related tensions at a city park in a neighborhood populated with new refugees and immigrants.
“My family immigrated there to Philadelphia when I was 10 years old,” he said. “The park was already disinvested in. For as long as I can remember, it was a terribly crappy park, but the story that was told by the white community and white working class community, living to the east of it, was that the Asian refugees have ruined the park.”
The tensions there stemmed from the fact that the refugee and immigrant communities that grew up around the park began to use it in their own way,” Nguyen said. For example, food vendors surrounded the park, and volleyball nets were installed next to basketball courts because there is a common Southeast Asian sport called Sepak that is played with a volleyball net.
“When we were tasked with trying to revitalize, rebuild and reconstruct this park, what we realized was that in order to continually be the park that serves everyone, it has to maintain those things that have popped up organically,” said Nguyen.
In terms of park equity, Nguyen said the most important thing he can do is make sure everyone’s voice is heard and every culture surrounding the park is represented. He said he has organized 15 focus groups in about a dozen languages and taken surveys from over 1,000 households in the surrounding communities.
Sue Mobley addressed park equity and accessibility from an even more fraught perspective created by the presence of Confederate monuments in many parks. Mobley, director of research at the Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, said the removal of certain statues deemed racist or commemorating the Confederacy causes tension when some monument supporters voice their opposition to proposed removal. But there’s no question, she said, that removal would have a large impact on park equity for African Americans.
For parks administrators, she said, “it can be hard to hear other voices” when those opposed to monument removal “are so determined that they’re going to be heard.”
But the time has come to take a stand for equity, she said. “Those constituencies have had the shaping of our public life, our public spaces of our cities, our laws, our country for 250 years, and it’s time for them to stop talking so we can hear some other voices,” Mobley said.
Over the past couple years, the Monument Lab has renamed 37 parks, places and streets that were formally named for Confederates. In Mobley’s role as director of research, she has co-directed a national monument audit. Her team looked at about 50,000 national monuments, and approximately 88 percent of them were of white men, and 33 percent of them dealt with war.
To Mobley, park equity means everyone should feel welcome in public spaces. But monuments that reflect violence and do not reflect all members of the community, she said, do not make everyone feel welcome.
In 2017, when he was mayor of New Orleans, Landrieu gave a speech heralded by national commentators explaining why he had decided to remove four monuments in to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, including statues in City Park of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard.
Ending his remarks at Greater & Greener, Landrieu recalled the moment. Not too long before his speech five years ago, the noted jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis “told me one day, ‘If you’re such a good mayor and you’re preparing for the 300th anniversary and you want to unveil this new New Orleans, the way it should have been had you gotten it right the first time, these monuments can’t stand, take ‘em down.’… And he was right.”
And so, Landrieu said, “as you think about the design of parks, as you think about the function of parks, remember, if you design something poorly, the outcome will be poor. And if you design something well, the outcome could be glorious.”