Greater and Greener – A Victory Lap in San Francisco’s Parks

It was a kind of San Francisco parks ‘love-fest’ that evoked images of another set of park-lovers from the 1960s. But this time the peace-loving vibe was coming from civic leaders and park professionals attending the City Parks Alliance (CPA) international parks conference, Greater and Greener: Innovative Parks, Vibrant Cities, a few weeks ago in sunny San Francisco – a city with more public open space than any metro area in the country.

One thousand global park leaders, city planning and design professionals, and urban park advocates from 35 U.S. cities and 16 countries shared stories, photographs, lessons, data and some good humor about how parks change and enhance our urban quality of life.

The diversity of participants made for a vibrant and robust conversation about parks and their link to just about everything in our lives that has value – health, recreation, learning, clean water, kids at play, education, economic development, social cohesion, urban resilience, and on and on. By making parks broadly relevant the conference attracted and engaged leaders from health, science, technology, and other professions to collectively re-imagine parks in a new context of economic, environmental and social opportunities.

In addition to the one hundred and fifty speakers leading workshop sessions inside classrooms, the conference also offered more than 80 expert-led tours of parks, mobile workshops and special events that featured San Francisco’s beautifully groomed parks and community facilities.

At the start of each day we heard from inspirational speakers that set the tone for the conference with humor, insight and new knowledge. Reverend Norman Fong, Executive Director for the Chinatown Community Development Center made us laugh out loud with his personal experiences greening the city’s neighborhood parks and alleys; Deborah Cohen from the Rand Corporation surprised us with the latest research on parks and health; Zynga founder and chairman Mark Pincus showed us that nature and technology in parks go together like…a horse and carriage in Central Park? And, a comment on Lt. Governor Gavin Newsome’s rising star that was made during his introduction had us dreaming about a national leader who might make city parks a priority.

Image result for san francisco parks greater and greener One team of plenary speakers wowed us with innovations in resilience using green infrastructure in parks and another group, masterfully led by Benjamin de la Peña from one of the conference sponsors, the Knight Foundation, charmed us with insights on the value of park designs that embrace community process and out of the box thinking.

Woven through all the workshop tracks was my favorite subject – park partnerships. I had the pleasure of moderating an expert panel on partnerships and capital campaigns with Caroline Cunningham from the Trust for the National Mall, Chris Nolan from Central Park Conservancy and Greg Moore from Golden Gate National Park Conservancy.

CPA’s 2008 international parks conference in Pittsburgh, Body and Soul: Parks and the Health of Great Cities, was the first year that CPA worked to attract international participants. This year, international attendees played a much larger role at the conference capturing seats at many of the plenary and workshop presentations and sharing their innovations from afar, such as David Escobar’s presentation on Medellín’s library parks and Nico Tillie’s resilience lessons using green infrastructure in Rotterdam.

At the root of all these terrific discussions that went on during the conference is still the simple fact that everyone loves parks but no one wants to pay for them. The good news is that even though most of us know that parks and green spaces can have a net positive change in cities the conference sessions were more sophisticated in their approach to measuring that benefit, building support, raising money and raising consciousness to make parks a higher priority.


Ending on a high note, the folks from Minneapolis and St. Paul – where CPA and a local host team are already hard at work getting ready for the next time – played a video showing their hometown parks to attract us all back to the conference again in 2017. Given what we saw and heard in San Francisco, I don’t think there will be much arm-twisting to get us there. I know all of us from Miami will be there!