Toward a Useful Teaching Strategy: City Parks Partnerships

Last month the City Parks Alliance (CPA) held a new workshop, a pilot effort, in a concerted effort to discover a teaching strategy for helping park professionals learn and understand partnerships and collaboration. Just over twenty participants attended the day-long event held at Augustus Hawken Park in Los Angeles, supported by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and hosted by the Los Angeles Parks Foundation.

I had the privilege of facilitating the discussion and was supported by City Parks Alliance staffers, Angie Horn and Executive Director Catherine Nagel, as well as a team of three long-time city park professionals: Jackie Carrera, a recent transplant to Los Angeles after twenty-one years as CEO for Parks and People in Baltimore; Gordon Robertson, Director of Planning and Design for Denver Parks and Recreation; and, Dale Larsen, Professor of Practice & Honors Faculty at Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ) and formerly the Parks Director in Phoenix. Together they represented over 100 years of experience in city park partnerships!

We structured an agenda based on surveying park partners in southern California to find out what they wanted to learn about. Response to the survey centered on four ideas for shaping an agenda:

Understanding the need for partnership; why and how partners should work together

Getting Started and scoping out responsibilities and structuring agreements

Working together day to day, communicating, team-building and establishing trust

Building a culture of collaboration and shared vision for the long run

And so for the day-long session we shaped our workshop around these four areas. The small size of the group meant that we could use our time for discussion, telling stories, and sharing successes and failures. The experts in the room with both public and private partner experience reflected on their own experiences and share their lessons.

We experimented with learning strategies – panels, small group discussions, storyboarding, case studies and facilitated Q&A sessions. The workshop was well-received and since the group was small enough, we were able to delve a little deeper in our discussions about how and why things worked out the way they did as well as strategies for changing things that didn’t work well. Above all, we talked about the ‘holy trinity’ of fairness, transparency and inclusiveness – setting the right tone to be effective and accountable.

But we have much to learn to create a more rigorous and complete learning experience. We know that there are competencies around collaboration and engagement including good leadership, good process (group dynamic) skills, being strategic and creative, being inclusive and sharing of knowledge, and being competent around accountability and engagement. Some people – change leaders – can do it naturally; others need help in breaking down the steps; that’s what we’re working to figure out at City Parks Alliance.

If the average American city works with private partners to perform 23 of 65 basic municipal services (according to Rick Norment of the National Council on Public Private Partnerships) then we know that partnerships are changing the way cities work. We in the parks field need to know how it’s going and how we can position parks to succeed in the midst of changing governance roles.


Our next workshops – one for getting started and one advanced discussion – will be held at City Parks Alliance’s Greater and Greener Conference in April 2015 in San Francisco. They will again be offered in the spirit of teaching, sharing and learning from the speakers and participants. Over the next year it is City Parks Alliance’s goal to create an intellectual foundation for park partnerships that includes a framework for cataloguing their myriad types, an understanding of the skills needed to be effective partners, case studies around successful partnerships and maybe most importantly, teaching strategies for conveying the learning.

I believe we’re up to the challenge with a terrific membership of partners all around the nation and increasingly around the world who collectively are the creative force behind this new movement. I welcome your ideas and your participation at the City Parks Alliance spring conference where we’ll be taking our learning from Los Angeles and other cities over the last year and shaping it once again for another set of workshops.

The photo is from the City of LA parks and recreation website