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Revitalization of city parks sought; Seeing crisis, activists organize conference


City parks activists such as Sandra Sparks and Peggy Stansbury say Baltimore's park system is not just in trouble, but in crisis -- which is why they are convening a conference starting today on "Great Urban Parks: Sustaining the Legacy."

The opening event will be a reception at Druid Hill Park's Conservatory and Botanic Gardens to show that there was a time when Baltimore cultivated beautiful and graceful parks. After two days of tours and workshops, the conference will end with a rally led by Mayor Martin O'Malley at noon Tuesday at City Hall Plaza.

The conference, which will be the first of its kind in Baltimore, took volunteers about two years to organize. It is being held here because recreation and parks advocates -- outside city government -- agree that Baltimore is falling behind other U.S. cities in its stewardship of parks and recreation, and needs outside help and advice.

The conference comes as O'Malley is considering whom to appoint as recreation and parks director. The current director, Thomas Overton, was appointed by O'Malley's predecessor, Kurt L. Schmoke.

"We're doing homework for the city on places people can come together and connect," said Stansbury, a board member of the city's recreation and parks department. "Grass-roots activists brought in national experts as a way to educate our political leadership."

In the late 1990s, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston park professionals developed fresh models and philosophies of park use, spending money on public gatherings such as weekly summer fireworks in Chicago's Grant Park.

Meanwhile, Baltimore's recreation and parks department was suffering. Its operating budget has leveled off at about $20 million for 6,500 acres of parkland, which critics say is not enough for a city Baltimore's size.

"We're nickel-and-diming ourselves to death. It's not sustainable, this disaster mode," said Sparks, executive director of the Midtown Community Benefits District.

"We need to rekindle the idea that parks are a civic space. It really speaks to quality of life."

Revitalizing parks

Peter Harnik, author of a soon- to-be-published book comparing the 25 largest city park systems in the nation, said Baltimore has done nothing to distinguish itself lately.

"Baltimore has a lot of parkland, particularly in relation to the population, but in terms of innovation, it's not on the cutting edge. Boston is pushing the envelope much more, in public-private partnerships," Harnik said.

The keynote speaker for the conference, Charles Jordan, the parks director in Portland, Ore., will discuss what he called the movement to revitalize urban parks.

"We're often the first to be cut," he said. "But can parks and recreation be more than fun and games?"

Encouraging community

Even if a city program is purely recreation for children, teens and adults, it can help solve social problems such as racial tension, teen-age pregnancy and juvenile delinquency, Jordan said. "That's the full value of what we bring to the table," he said. Jordan and others will bring to Baltimore an emphasis on parks as a vehicle for building communities.

"It's really Neighborhood 101," said Steven Coleman of Washington, a workshop leader and director of the Washington Parks and People Foundation.

His commitment to parks was sparked by the murder of a 17-year-old in Malcolm X Park, then known as the most violent in Washington.

From 1991 to 1994, violence in the park fell by 95 percent, said Coleman, and the park was reclaimed by a volunteer network of multiracial, night-and-day patrols. The volunteers made a point of saying hello to everyone they encountered. "Saying 'Hello' is incredibly disarming," said Coleman.

Chicago is example

Jacqueline Carrera, executive director of the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation in Baltimore, held up Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley as the leading example of a "parks mayor." Daley planted a roof garden on City Hall, insisted on wrought-iron park fences and supported a tax dedicated to parks.

"Baltimore's behind the times," Carrera said, noting a general decline in the priority the city has placed on parks. "We see parks as interwoven into planning and health."

There is hope for Baltimore's parks, conference organizers said. Designed by two sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect of New York's Central Park, the city's parks system has "beautifully integrated green spaces" waiting to be revitalized as public places, said Sparks. "They are lovely in their conception, just neglected."

From trolleys to playgrounds

At one time, Baltimore was a leader in public parks and recreation, thanks to a tactic Harnik called "just brilliant." After the Civil War, Mayor Thomas Swann started a trolley car tax that allocated 1 cent of each fare to the parks budget, an arrangement that encouraged a sense of public ownership. The tax remained in effect until 1910.

Today, Carrera said, the goal is to "formulate a common vision for people to all rally behind, including government agencies. It's a starting point and we have high hopes."

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