Philly’s parks and rec system deserves millions more in Kenney’s budget, advocates urge at City Hall rally

Public space is an anti-violence solution, leaders say, but the department is underfunded and understaffed.

Members of Hace, My Voice Matters, and Just Act rally outside City Hall for more Parks and Recreation funding

Members of Hace, My Voice Matters, and Just Act rally outside City Hall for more Parks and Recreation funding

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Dozens of advocates for Philly’s parks and recreation programs rallied Thursday afternoon outside City Hall, to push for more money in Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget. The rally, which drew out organizers, residents, and city officials, was part of the Rec It Philly campaign, a coalition of over 50 community organizations convened by the Philadelphia Parks Alliance.

Strawberry Mansion resident Marc Rowell, in attendance at the rally, said he was glad to see people come together for an important cause.

“One of the places I spent a lot of time growing up was Hank Gathers Memorial Recreation Center, and it’s a good combination of green space, outdoor and indoor activities for youth,” Rowell said. While glad he had a safe space to learn and grow, he knew that experience wasn’t as common as he’d like it to be.

“I think if every North Philly neighborhood had that level of funding,” he added, “then it would lead to better outcomes for our youth.”

Rec It Philly is seeking an $8 million bump for the Parks and Recreation operating budget, on which City Council holds hearings May 3. The ask was a few million short of the additional $5.58 million that figured into the mayor’s $68.1 million proposal for the department in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

According to figures from the City Controller’s office, Kenney’s proposal represents an 8.9% increase from funding received last year. Alex Doty, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, still wants to see the number tick up so that increased demand can snowball into expanded programming.

“People use parks more in the pandemic, and they’re still going to parks more,” Doty said. “That’s a fantastic thing for the city, but it also means that there’s more trash to pick up, and there’s more things to fix.” he guessed the increased usage alone necessitated $2 million “just to keep up.”

It’s not a niche concern — fiscal support for public spaces is on the minds of residents across the city, he said

“The Mayor’s Budget Engagement focus groups identified Parks and Public Spaces just behind public safety in the top four budget priority areas that there should be in the city,” Doty said in a speech to the roughly 60 people assembled at City Hall’s North Apron.

The role of public spaces and recreational opportunities in stemming community violence was a motif throughout the event.

“​​With the gun violence that’s currently occurring, a lot of our rec leaders are finding themselves really looking after the kids,” said Lula Defersha, Rec It Philly campaign director. “In the winter they’re in the recreation center between 3:30 and 6. By six o’clock it’s dark, so they’re finding themselves walking the kids home.”

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, formerly the executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, was also present at the rally. She agreed with the advocates on the importance of more parks funding.

“It’s not a coincidence that we keep cutting the Parks and Rec budget, and cutting the Free Library budget, and cutting the arts and culture budget, and that we’re seeing this enormous spike in violence at the same exact time,” Gauthier said. “Because it’s places like our parks and rec centers that keep our kids safe in the first place.”

A pressing need for workers and for capital improvements

At the rally, Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker highlighted the need for operational funds.

“As much as I love all you advocates who are here today,” Parker said, “if somebody’s not paid to organize this in every recreation center across the City of Philadelphia, the work won’t get done appropriately.”

The volunteers in attendance didn’t take the comments as a slight, agreeing that too much maintenance and programming in the city’s recreation centers fell on the shoulders of unpaid residents.

Brett Bessler, a recreation leader in South Philly and Denver of Local 2186, a union representing city supervisors, noted that District Council 47’s PPR Budget Committee — which Bessler serves on — was requesting even more than the Rec It Philly crew: a $15 million increase.

“Philadelphia Parks and Recreation is one of the biggest parks and recreation systems in the world,” Bessler told Billy Penn, referencing the system of over 300 parks and rec centers. “And when you run the numbers, it just doesn’t add up.”

The mathematics he hinted at: across the system, the city’s budget allocates for only 271 permanent recreation program staff.

“We really want to see two full time staff members at every operating recreation center,” Bessler said, “and to do that we would need to hire 100 additional recreation leaders.” Bessler clarified the union also suggests hiring 80 full time maintenance workers, 20 social workers, and 30 recreational therapists. It calculated that would require an extra $9.42 million, on top of Kenney’s proposed $5.58 million increase.

Philadelphia Parks Alliance executive director, Alex Doty (left) and campaign director Lulu Defersha (right) joined a rally for more funding for city Parks and Recreation outside City Hall

Philadelphia Parks Alliance executive director, Alex Doty (left) and campaign director Lulu Defersha (right) joined a rally for more funding for city Parks and Recreation outside City Hall

Other goals highlighted by Doty, the Parks Alliance director, include ensuring the continuation of the still developing Philly Tree Plan, which aims to increase tree canopy in Philly after a recent decline in shade. It’s unclear if funding for the program is in this year’s budget, one of the questions the coalition asked City Council to answer.

“There’s lots of good reasons to fund the tree canopy, but the most compelling is that 22 degree difference in summer between the hottest and the coldest neighborhoods,” Doty said. “That’s all about those heat islands and it’s only going to get worse.”

Asked what he would like everyday Philadelphians to understand in the fight for more PPR funding, he said a more comprehensive understanding of the budget process makes all the difference.

“We’ve made investments in capital that were long overdue for parks, and we need to make the investments in people, we need to make the investments in operating,” Doty said. “I’d love it for people to understand that and then just speak to your city councilperson about how you want to see more programming at Parks and Rec.”