Thanks to a new program, Michael DiBerardinis and Kathryn Ott Lovell are working to ensure that one of the world’s largest urban parks also remains one of its finest.
Philadelphia has been riding high on a wave of national and international attention since The New York Times dubbed it, in January, one of the world’s top destinations to visit this year. One reason for the city’s number-three ranking among 52 farflung locales: a forward-thinking approach to parks.
At the helm of many of Philly’s transformative urban projects are Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor of Environmental and Community Resources, and Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy. Together they work to preserve and maintain the more than 10,000 acres of green space in Philadelphia known as Fairmount Park. Stretching across several neighborhoods and studded with attractions like the Philadelphia Zoo and Please Touch Museum, the diverse landscape of trails, woodlands, and wetlands is one of the largest urban park systems in the world. “The Times listed Philadelphia as the number-three world destination for 2015 because of our progress in creating high-quality public space and rethinking and repurposing our old urban infrastructure,” says Ott Lovell. “Parks and Rec and the conservancy have been at the forefront of that effort, and I am extremely proud of our role.” This summer, the duo continues its efforts through Re-Imagining the Civic Commons, an initiative led by the conservancy and backed by $11 million from the Knight and William Penn Foundations, as well as matching funds from the City of Philadelphia, that will serve as a barometer gauging how valuable public spaces furnish community interaction and, ultimately, whether this makes a city more successful. Together with local organizations, Civic Commons will see five projects—the new Reading Viaduct Rail Park and Lovett Memorial Library & Park among them—take shape this year. “Civic Commons will level the playing field between more affluent communities and those in need,” says Ott Lovell. The project is based on the history of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, the first World’s Fair, which brought Philadelphia global attention along with all levels of political and civic investment. “The Parks and Recreation department and the conservancy work together to connect citizens to the city’s public recreational spaces,” says DiBerardinis. “This work is done by connecting citizens and neighborhoods [to] high-quality public space.”
Civic Commons is a large part of that, allowing Philadelphians a chance to support their city as a result of their use of its parks. The conservancy has stepped up community involvement through a number of volunteer opportunities where residents can see the effects of their work. “Our biannual Love Your Park service days [bring together] over 4,000 annual volunteers to create more than 60 community events, to make improvements, and hold events in neighborhood parks,” says Ott Lovell. Bringing people together in sup- port of their community is essential to the department and the conservancy. “We can’t effectively serve all citizens without involving them in the process,” agrees DiBerardinis.
This involvement is realized through a number of different outlets, including The Oval, the pop-up park at the Art Museum; renovations to Love Park; Tree Philly; and the neighborhood Parks Revitalization Project—a few of the success stories that have grown out of DiBerardinis and Ott Lovell’s partnership.
“Civic Commons will level the playing field between more affluent communities and those in need.”—Kathryn Ott Lovell
“The most significant accomplishment has turned out to be a game-changer,” says Ott Lovell. “In the past five years, we have worked with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to make improvements [to Hunting Park], including upgrades to the football field, baseball field, and tennis courts. A community garden and orchard were planted, and a new farmers market was established.” A recent study shows that green spaces also bring about a decrease in crime. “The project has shown an 89 percent drop in the number of crimes in Hunting Park and the surrounding neighborhood between 2009 and 2013,” says Ott Lovell. “What was once a dangerous eyesore and hotbed of criminal activity that residents avoided has become a ‘green anchor’ for the surrounding community. This will surely inform our work planning projects in other underserved communities.”
As a result, Philadelphia has been nationally recognized as a city whose green spaces do more than change the landscape. “The [Fairmount Park Conservancy became] one of the country’s leading conservancies in advancing the values of equity, fairness, and opportunity through our parks and recreation system,” says DiBerardinis, and Ott Lovell concurs. “It is proof to us that parks can catalyze positive change,” she says.