Last chance for our parks

The Philadelphia park system is undergoing a major reform when the parks and the recreation department merge in July. The DN editorial board will be paying close attention every step of the way. Here is the first of a series of editorials ("Parks 2.0") commenting on the state of affairs.


The next chapter of our Parks and Rec

CITIES RARELY get do-overs, so Philadelphia's opportunity to remake its park system for the 21st century is both thrilling and terrifying.

Thrilling because at long last, the entrenched park-governance system that oversaw the city's 9,800 acres of parkland with little public input and virtually no transparency is about to change.

Terrifying because the dissolution of the Fairmount Park Commission and the merger of the parks and recreation departments will demand coordination, cooperation and collaboration. It comes at a time when resources are squeezed.

And we can't afford to blow it.

Seven years after this page first began scrutinizing the legacy of an isolated and underfunded park system, voters approved a change to the charter that will create a Commission on Parks and Recreation.

Today, that change moves closer to reality when Mayor Nutter announces that he'll begin accepting applications for the commission. A 15-member body is intended to replace the Fairmount Park Commission. The old commission, which has been the overseer of the parks since the 19th century, had been handpicked by the Board of Judges behind locked doors. Although many commissioners were dedicated to the parks, it was hard to figure out the rhyme or reason for their appointments, other than political connections.

The result: a park system removed from city responsibility and thus economically starved, with oversight and management more custodial than visionary.

The merger of parks and recreation, while a logical combination that is more the rule than the exception in other cities, will require exceptional management. The commission is a good start. It will require people with interest and expertise, and their selection will be a public process. (We have reproduced the application on Page 19, with deadline and submission details.)

But that's only the beginning. Nutter needs to seek a park and rec leader in earnest - and find someone who can harness the political will, the strength of a new board and new energy to take our system to the next level.

This is not simple: There are constituents and interest groups that have a vested inerest in the status quo, or in protecting their piece of the pie. And organizations that were allowed to grow to compensate for lacks in the old set-up, like the Fairmount Park Conservancy, will need to redefine their roles.

Finally, the long-ingrained division between the rec and the parks that formed the basis of much of the original resistance to the merger needs to be reconciled with this century.

A good leader will be able to pull all these factions together and enhance the advantages we already have.

Council members Darrell Clarke and Blondell Reynolds Brown are to be commended for sticking to this issue. It is because of their relentlessness, and Nutter's support, that it finally happened. But it should be not up to those two to choreograph the transition to new management.

Already, the city is right up against the legal deadline for seeking commission applications. The merger takes place in July. With all the other problems the city faces right now, it would be too easy to drift along and make do.

But the city needs a singular visionary for this singular asset. We won't have another chance to do this one over.