It's parks AND recreation, not just recreation
The National Park Service lets down DC residents in many ways when it comes to managing the many neighborhood parks in DC. However, unfortunately DC's Department of Parks and Recreation hasn't yet shown it can do a lot better when it comes to maintaining parks.
In some ways, they certainly do better. DC-run parks are often far better designed for the needs of residents, and have recreational facilities while federally-controlled parks in neighborhoods disappoint on that score . However, actual park maintenance falls short at DPR.
According to Autumn Saxton-Ross of Green Spaces for DC, the $35 million Deanwood Recreation Center, which opened in June 2010, has already lost most of its shrubs and trees. Saxton-Ross says none of the employees at Deanwood are responsible for watering the growing things, and so nobody did.
Mike DeBonis recently highlighted an even bigger failure: Upshur Park, where the grass actually caught on fire. DPR opened the park to great fanfare earlier this year, but then again didn't water the new trees and grass.
DPR followed up with DeBonis to tout Walter Pierce Park, which looks green and verdant. However, DeBonis noted, that might be because it isn't open yet.
DPR is also putting in irrigation at several of its playing fields. But this highlights what many parks advocates say is the issue: a focus on the recreational facilities, like pools, indoor rec centers, and athletic fields, over parks. Ironically, says a former DC government employee, under Mayor Williams the department was renamed to put parks first. Apparently the semantic change didn't translate to policy.
There's been a lot of upheaval at DPR in recent years. Mayor Fenty had 4 separate directors for the agency, one of whom Council refused to confirm amid controversies over contracts that were allegedly improperly routed through DPR. The Williams administration saw similar turnover rates in the job.
Perhaps the biggest cause of problems is funding. Over the last 5 budget cycles, DPR's budget was cut by 47%. It's hard to keep up maintenance of a growing set of parks and rec centers in that climate.
Now, park maintenance is slated to transfer to the new Department of General Services, which could mean it'll get the attention it needs, or it could mean it slips through the cracks entirely.
Perhaps parks slip through the cracks so much because DC has so little actual parkland that's not run by the National Park Service. Maria Barry, the volunteer president of Friends of 16th Street Heights Parks (including Upshur Park, the one that caught on fire), says that many calls to 911 about crime in the park end up routed to the Park Police, even though Upshur and nearby Hamilton Park are not federal and MPD has jurisdiction. Since almost all parkland is federal, dispatchers sometimes erroneously assume that all parkland is.
Tommy Wells now has oversight over DPR on the Council. Will he be able to make any changes? He could fight for more budget, though everyone else has pressing budgetary needs as well. Should he push for any structural reform? Some have suggested creating a separate park division, which could ensure some staff focus on parks, or it could simply rearrange the org chart to no real effect depending on how it's implemented.
When Kwame Brown announced he's open to an income tax increase, he stipulated the money go to maintaining schools, rec centers, and parks. That's a change from earlier promises to use extra money for affordable housing, but could alleviate DPR's woes.
Parks are a significant piece of building a good city for neighborhoods of all types and for all residents. We need to show that DC parks can be great. Failings at DPR aren't an excuse for NPS not to do better, but if DC could make its parks a model for urban parks, it would certainly help set an example for other, federal parks around the city.
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