Philadelphia – Combining Parks and Recreation

In most cities, parks and recreation are closely linked. The city maintains parkland so that people can use it for recreation. In Philadelphia, though, parks and recreation only recently found their way to each other in the traditional sense.

Fall foliage at Philadelphia’s Morris Arboretum

Fall foliage at Philadelphia’s Morris Arboretum. Credit: Judy Miller

The Fairmount Park Commission was formed in Philadelphia in the 1860s to acquire land for the city to help protect the area’s watersheds. Fairmount, at its founding, was focused on buying property along the Schuylkill River to prevent industry from setting up on its banks. As an operating department of city — funded through the city budget, but with its own governance board — Fairmount would operate for the benefit of the city, but outside its direct control for 150 years, focusing on land management for the health of the city’s residents.

The city’s Recreation Department came along in the 1950s to provide a “comprehensive and coordinated program of cultural and physical recreational activities to be instituted and conducted in all city recreational facilities.”[1] The department focused on diverse interests from sports and athletics to the performing arts. While some of these activities may have occurred on parkland, the Recreation Department was focused on active recreation more than the land itself.

These two groups operated independently, side by side, for decades, until a movement began in the City Council to officially pair them. After decades of being stymied in these efforts, on July 1, 2010, The Fairmount Park Commission and the Recreation Department officially joined and became Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.[2] All powers and fiscal responsibilities that used to reside in the separate groups are now held by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. However, some Fairmount Park Trust Funds, which were created to hold funds for particular areas of parkland, do still exist.

Within the newly formed Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is the Urban Forestry and Ecosystem Management staff. This team is responsible for all street trees in Philadelphia and also for all of the natural spaces under the city’s control. When it comes to those natural spaces, the goal is to “maintain a level of service delivery from our natural resources,” says the team’s director, Joan Blaustein. “We do a tremendous amount of actual restoration in the natural areas — everything from gully repair along the stream corridors to meadow creation and maintenance, large-scale invasive control and reforestation projects. We do this work mostly through grant funds that we raise through a variety of sources.” Fairmount Park had been doing this type of work for decades, but looking at the street trees and natural areas as one continuous urban forest is a newer philosophy.

Blaustein notes how prior to the merger, trees were dealt with on a “by-request” basis. If a citizen wanted a right-of-way tree planted, the city would go out and plant it. If a citizen wanted a tree removed, it was removed. There was “no comprehensive approach to street tree inspections, maintenance, removal and plantings,” says Blaustein.

The city and federal government actually recognized this problem in Philadelphia long before the merger. The U.S. Forest Service has been working with the city since 1994 to try to update Philadelphia’s urban forest management systems. “The city has not had sufficient resources to manage the trees they have,” says Phillip Rodbell with the U.S. Forest Service Philadelphia Field Station, “but they’ve embarked on a campaign to plant more, so they need to prioritize effectively in order to achieve the goals they’ve set.”

This was a task put on Blaustein and her team’s shoulders — to figure out how to make the city’s urban forestry team proactive in addressing the city’s street trees. This task is made more difficult by the fact that the city has increased the capital funds going toward buying new trees, but not funds to increase staffing to handle those trees once they’re in the ground. Blaustein and her team haven’t solved the problem yet, but she feels that they are moving in the right direction.

While the kinks are being worked out in terms of canopy management, though, the city is working toward an ambitious goal of increasing tree canopy coverage to 30 percent in each individual neighborhood by 2025, as part of the mayor’s Greenworks Philadelphia plan.[3] With a citywide average canopy of only 20 percent now, the task is daunting.

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[1] City of Philadelphia. Parks & Recreation. A Short History of the Recreation Department. (accessed Sept. 8, 2012).

[2] City of Philadelphia. Parks & Recreation. A Short History of the Recreation Department. (accessed Sept. 8, 2012).

[3] City of Philadelphia. Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. About Greenworks. (accessed Sept. 9, 2012).