What do park maintenance workers who spend the summer mowing ball fields and clearing debris from trails do in the winter when parks are scarcely used? If the public works department is in charge of parks, crews begin jumping into snowplows and filling in the gaps for other duties.
By making park maintenance the public works department’s responsibility, some local governments are streamlining their operations, making better use of equipment and staff. But others, having tried the arrangement, have decided they achieve better results if parks departments are responsible for maintenance.
Trial and error
In 1993, Pittsburgh reorganized its parks department, placing it under public works to reduce head count and share equipment. A few years later, though, the city had to seriously re-think its implementation. “It looks like a good idea on paper, but it was a mistake,” says Tom Murphy, who inherited the combined parks and public works department when he became mayor in 1994. “We improved efficiency, but we did not improve effectiveness. The maintenance is what suffered,” says Murphy, now a senior resident fellow for the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.
After receiving numerous complaints from residents about the condition of city parks, in 1997, Pittsburgh retooled its organization with the parks department loosely under the Department of Public Works (DPW), but assigned a public works crew solely to maintain the parks. The parks department staff now mainly focuses on programming recreational activities and events in the parks.
Since rededicating a maintenance crew of 122 to care for Pittsburgh’s 171 parks spread out over 2,800 acres, they’ve “made a nice rebound,” says Mike Gable, DPW deputy director. He says the move has increased efficiency because park crews have access to the public works department’s equipment, such as backhoes, that they did not have before.
For instance, without a backhoe to load clay onto trucks for the ball fields, Gable says they used to place the material delivered by the supplier on the fields instead of storing and loading it by hand for each application. “We had the storage, but not the means to put the right amount on the field,” he says.
The parks also have benefited from using street crew members with specialized maintenance skills to oversee various parks. The workers know how to fix drainage systems, sewers and roads — skills that parks maintenance crews may not have.
When Oakland, Calif., reorganized three years ago, it followed Pittsburgh’s model, moving only park maintenance under the DPW, forming the Department of Facilities and the Environment. Parks programming remains under the Parks and Recreation Department.
Because all 90 parks maintenance workers, including gardeners and equipment operators, were brought into the new department, no money was saved. “The idea was not to save money, as there were no staff cuts, but to put all of the responsibilities for outdoor maintenance in one department of the city,” says Department Director Brooke Levin. “That includes city facilities, grounds landscaping, street cleaning, graffiti abatement, illegal dumping and homeless encampment removal.”
Now, gardeners can focus on gardening, and other crews clean up illegally dumped trash and homeless encampments. The city also uses a new online system to schedule park maintenance, and it tracks reported problems to ensure proper response.
Less positive results
Although public works oversight of park maintenance has worked well in Pittsburgh and Oakland, those experiences have not been shared universally. In the late 1980s, Anne Arundel County, Md., moved its parks and recreation maintenance crews under the public works department, dedicating three DPW workers to troubleshoot pressing problems in its 100 parks stretched out over 7,000 acres, and assigning another crew to road maintenance.
Road maintenance was the “real priority” under the reorganization, says Dave Dionne, trail superintendent. “They work on the roads first, and then they get to the parks when they get to them,” says Dionne, who oversees the maintenance of 50 miles of county trails.
Parks suffered with limited staff, which drew the ire of Little League organizations for un-mowed ball fields and bike riders for tree branches blocking trails. “Stuff that would have been taken care of [was] ignored,” Dionne says. “You can’t roller blade around the ring trail in the park because there are three or four branches, and they’ve been down for three or four months. It [was] a low priority for public works, where it would be a high priority for parks and rec crews.”
The county expected to save money on grounds maintenance equipment by consolidating departments, but it discovered that not all maintenance equipment was created equally. “You don’t use the same mower to mow a ditch that you would to mow a playing field. The machinery that’s perfectly suited to mow a steep hillside two to three times a year is not suited to manicure a ball field,” Dionne says.
The county executive moved the maintenance crews devoted to parks back under the parks department in the mid-1990s and switched from “a reactive maintenance mode to a preventative maintenance mode,” Dionne says. “Since the change, we’ve been able to save money, and you’re seeing a much higher level of maintenance [of the parks]. It’s always more expensive to fix something that’s broken than to prevent something from breaking.”
Maintenance is improved because “we had a crew that understood the importance of park maintenance,” Dionne says. “Is the ball field grass too high? Do fences need to be repaired? Are there safety problems in the bleachers? All things that public works were not necessarily paying attention to, our guys came in and refocused on.”
During the winter, some park staff also pull snow plow duty, but re-seeding fields and training courses keep the rest of the parks crews occupied. “We keep ‘em plenty busy,” Dionne says.
Another test ahead
San Diego officials now are considering incorporating parks and recreation into DPW. The city operates Torrey Pines golf course, which will host the U.S. Open next year, as well as two other golf courses, 13 swimming pools, four skate parks and a cemetery. “We’re looking at one group of managers overlooking all the maintenance,” says Rick Reynolds, assistant chief operating officer. “At the end of the day, what I see is a grounds maintenance group that takes care of anything alive in the city, and then a public works crew that takes care of all the facilities, including lighting, fences, buildings, roofing, parking lots, curbs and sidewalks.”
Although Mayor Jerry Sanders’ plan for the city’s parks has yet to be presented for city council approval, Councilmember Toni Atkins appears far from sold on any potential changes. Atkins argues that the skills needed to run a large urban park system — such as knowledge of sports turf management, irrigation, and playground design and safety — are different than those needed to manage streets. “I would have grave concerns about a proposal that would transfer these responsibilities to city staff with less specialized knowledge,” she says.
Peter Harnik, director of the Washington-based Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, also sees potential danger in treating a park as a “public work.” “[A park is] a complicated, interconnected ecosystem, and you can’t just say a park is like a road is like a highway is like a sewage treatment plant [and] we’ll just give it to the public works department to take care of,” Harnik says. “You can get all these efficiencies in scale, but in real life, something very major can get lost in the process: the health of the living matter in the park, the user’s experience and potentially the very historic infrastructure of the park.”
At stake, Harnik says, is not just the height of the grass in right field, but also the vitality of one of a city or county’s greatest assets. Neglecting parks, even unintentionally, can end up hurting a city in the long run, he says. “Good parks add value to cities, so rather than skimping on maintenance, city managers should work on the value generated by their parks to add economic value to their cities,” Harnik says.
Paul Kilduff is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.