What can a standalone parks and recreation department do for Cleveland? Mayor Justin Bibb wants to find out

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Among Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s early priorities is creating a city department focused solely on parks and recreation – an idea Bibb hopes will set the stage for better, more equitable greenspaces and all the social, civic and health benefits they can offer.

One of Bibb’s goals for his first few months in office is introducing legislation to City Council that would carve out a standalone Department of Parks and Recreation from the city’s massive, 3,000-person Public Works Department.

“In order to have world-class municipal parks that are both vibrant and inclusive, we need a dedicated team to develop a strategy, build programming, work on facilities improvement and engage residents to ensure everyone has access to healthy outdoor activities,” said a Bibb spokeswoman.

As it stands today, Public Works essentially serves as an umbrella department that oversees many of the city’s core operations. It’s comprised of a division of recreation, a division of park maintenance and properties, and several other divisions, collectively handling everything from street repair to waste collection to maintenance of government buildings.

And responsibility for big upgrades at parks — like new playground equipment, the resurfacing of basketball courts and complete redesigns – falls to one office in Public Works, while routine park maintenance falls to a different team that’s also tasked with some snow removal and care of vacant lots.

Current state of city parks

Park advocates, and particularly members of the Cleveland Parks + Greenspace Coalition, say that having such a management structure means the city’s roughly 150 parks, playgrounds and greenspaces aren’t getting the kind of attention that they ought to.

“It’s set up in a way where you have this mentality of just maintaining parks, like the way you maintain roads and asphalt,” said Shanelle Smith Whigham, former state director for the Trust for Public Land.

The effect of the current structure, according to advocates, is neighborhood parks that lack the amenities and conditions that would make residents want to use them. And that means city-owned parks aren’t necessarily bestowing the benefits that quality greenspaces could bring, like civic engagement, social cohesion with neighbors, better health outcomes, crime reduction, stormwater management, other green infrastructure — and just offering a safe, fun space for people to enjoy themselves.

“A park is supposed to be an asset. It’s not an asset if it’s neglected, dangerous, poorly maintained or badly designed – it’s an eyesore,” said Julian Khan, who works for Neighborhood Connections and is a community activist in the Buckeye neighborhood area.

Khan used three of his neighborhood parks as examples. Kossuth Park is largely the same today as when Khan was a child three decades ago. “My baby is playing on the same equipment I used,” he said. Artha Woods Park, he said, largely lacks shade in places where parkgoers gravitate on hot summer days, and it also lacks lighting, cutting community events short once dusk hits. And standing water issues at Helen Simpson Park means a large swath of the space is rendered unusable after rain, he said.

The city, in a recently completed assessment obtained by cleveland.com, rated the condition of Kossuth Park as a 2. (It is based on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the best condition and 1 being the worst.)David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Equity and quality concerns loom large

Khan and other advocates pointed to two key areas where Cleveland parks are falling short: ensuring equitable access to quality public parks and designing and programming parks in line with how residents want to use them.

One example: “We have so many baseball diamonds in Cleveland, and I’m pretty sure we don’t have any numbers on how many people use them,” Smith Whigham said.

Brookside Park

Brookside Park, at 111 acres, is among the city’s largest parks. Off John Nagy Boulevard, its condition is rated “5”, the highest on the city’s scale. The Jim Thome All Star Complex is the highlight of the park.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

The Trust for Public Land routinely assesses Cleveland parks and the parks of other cities across the United States. In its 2021 assessment, Cleveland ranked 24th in the nation based on various factors. Per capita parks spending in Cleveland (by the city, other public agencies and private organizations) was an average of $137, versus the national average of $96.

The trust also found that 83% of Cleveland residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park – well above the national average of 55%.

But a quick walk to a park is a baseline, and it means little if it doesn’t give people a reason to visit, said Smith Whigham. She cited as an example the East 69th and Central Playground. “It’s literally just a swing. It wouldn’t spark you to convene with neighbors there, to exercise, to take your family there.”

E. 69th St. Park

Conditions at city parks vary widely. The East 69th and Central Playground is one the city recommends re-establishing, according the assessment. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

And every advocate who spoke to cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer pointed to equity concerns under the city’s current approach to parks, programs and where it invests money, particularly when it comes to Cleveland’s largely Black, largely impoverished East Side.

Just over a century ago, a Cleveland Foundation study found there were already disparities in how much the city spent on parks, and the number of parks available to different populations, according to Stephen Love, environment program director at the foundation.

To understand how that historical context plays into the parks Cleveland has today, Love said one must then “layer on 100 years of disparities in the same neighborhoods – the legacies of systemic racism, redlining, cutting communities off from our lake- and riverfront, and simply not putting the same investment in our parks and greenspaces in those communities.”

And though some may point to the Cleveland Metroparks as a local gem that offers ample greenspace, those parks are on the city’s periphery or well beyond it, meaning they’re difficult to access for many residents, and especially those without a car, the advocates said.

Determining priorities

The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com sought information from the city about how it currently determines which neighborhood parks to invest in. Though some of the advocates said the city has already started to shift how it prioritizes park investments over the past few years, with equity somewhat in mind, they also said politics have historically played an outsized role.

“There’s a squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease mentality,” said Greg Peckham of LAND Studio. “Over time, you might have parts of the city where parks are a really important priority for council people or for community development organizations. They do their rightful job of being advocates for [their areas]. But are we spending our dollars equitably across the city and where they need to be spent, or are we spending where people are making the most noise?”

Davinwood Park

Davinwood Park, off West 191st Street, received a rating of “4,” putting its condition on the higher end of the city’s rating scale.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Establishing a city department focused only on parks and recreation could remedy some of these spending and inequity problems, the advocates said.

“Having a dedicated team whose single focus is on bringing high-quality outdoor programming to residents can help enhance the quality of life, mental and physical health, and overall neighborhood vibrancy,” said Bibb’s spokeswoman.

Ideas for the future

Members of the Cleveland Parks + Greenspace Coalition, comprised of the organizations mentioned in this story and 30-some other members, established a platform in 2021 with various recommendations around how the city handles its parks, one which Bibb endorsed during his mayoral run, coalition leaders said.

That platform calls on the city to craft a master plan to create a long-term approach to parks and recreation and provide transparency about park investments. The coalition also specifically recommended the creation of a standalone department and for such a department to have a cabinet-level leader at City Hall.

The mayor hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll make the department head a member of his cabinet. His spokeswoman, Marie Zickefoose, said he’s still “working to identify an optimal structure and understand the fiscal implications” of a cabinet-level position.

But establishing a standalone department, whatever its leadership looks like, is aimed at curtailing the drawbacks that come with the current set-up of housing parks and recreation within the bureaucracy of the Public Works Department.

Luke Easter Park

A bench at Luke Easter Park, which, at 116 acres, is also among the largest of the city’s parks. The city’s recent assessment of park conditions put Luke Easter in the middle of the pack, giving it a rating of 3 on a 1-5 scale. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Fallout from last restructuring

Matt Zone, a former city councilman who is now with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, said that housing parks and recreation within the Public Works Department stymies “oversight and accountability” and fails to ensure residents are “getting the highest level of care” in their parks.

Even the New York City parks commissioner, in a 2019 City Club forum, identified the current structure within Public Works as a problem. One advocate told The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com that any city with a successful park system generally has a standalone department.

Parks and recreation landed in its current set-up in 2010, when former Mayor Frank Jackson, with City Council approval, merged the Parks, Recreation and Properties Department (then-tasked with maintenance of vacant lots, 200-plus city-owned buildings, and parks and recreation) with the Public Service Department (then-tasked with trash collection and bridge and street maintenance).

Jackson also formed a new entity, adding it to Public Works umbrella too: the Mayor’s Office of Capital Projects, which oversees major upgrades and building projects citywide and was meant to streamline such projects in one office, rather than having individual departments pursue them on their own.

The merger was recommended by an efficiency study. Jackson, at the time, said he pursued the idea in hopes of “doing more with less.” One of his administrators said the restructuring would result in more than a million dollars in cost savings in just its first year, with the potential to save much more.

At the time, council members had concerns. Then-Councilman Kevin Kelley publicly worried whether the combined department would be as responsive as the individual departments had been, according to Plain Dealer reporting.

In looking back on that decision today, Zone said the intent of the merger – that is, the efficiencies it would bring — was the right idea. But there were “unintended consequences” and simple aspects of park management, like orchestrating community or youth programs, fell to the wayside, he said.

“Often those conversations were drowned out by leaky roofs on police and fire stations and making sure the vehicle fleet was up to standard,” Zone said.

Oman Park

The city gave Oman Park a rating of 2 in its assessment.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

A long-standing debate

Jackson’s merger was not the first time parks and recreation had been restructured.

They’ve bounced back and forth between being standalone units and divisions within public works or other departments four times since 1901, according to council’s historian.

Prior to Jackson’s merger, the last restructuring was in the early 1980s, when then-Mayor George Voinovich sought to reshuffle it for the first time in four decades by creating a standalone Department of Parks and Recreation. He did so at a time when there was much outcry over what some saw as the deteriorating condition of city parks.

Voinovich pushed for the change on the grounds that the city could better coordinate maintenance of parks, recreation facilities, golf courses and cemeteries. And council agreed because it wanted to help Voinovich hold city workers accountable, Councilman Michael Polensek told The Plain Dealer at the time.

A standalone department — either back then, or in present day – carries with it the potential for improved parks. The restructuring alone won’t be a fix-all though, said Drew Sargeant of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, adding that good parks will also require proper staffing and funding.

But having a standalone department, he said, “changes the conversation about this actually being integral civic infrastructure, which opens the door to a whole bunch of different possibilities.”