Outgoing Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Kathryn Ott Lovell, in Love Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Listen to Morning Edition’s Jennifer Lynn talk with Kathryn Ott Lovell about her legacy as commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

Rec centers in Philly are shifting to a dynamic staffing model that assigns resources based on need instead of size. The move to “staffing neighborhoods, not facilities” is one of the legacies that’ll be left behind by Kathryn Ott Lovell.

After seven and a half years as Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation commissioner, Ott Lovell is on her way out.

A 48-year-old West Philly resident who grew up in Mayfair, Ott Lovell leaves her post today, and will soon start work at the Philadelphia Visitor Center Corporation as its new president and CEO. She previously spent four years leading the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Her tenure at Parks and Rec included leading it through the early days of the COVID pandemic, when parks usage jumped by an estimated 50% and recreation centers were converted into spaces for social-distanced virtual learning.

Ott Lovell chatted with Billy Penn about some of her main takeaways from her years on the job, and what she thinks is next — or should be — for Philadelphia’s public spaces.

People want ‘activated’ public spaces

Over the past decade, Ott Lovell told Billy Penn she’s noticed more of an expectation for parks to be “programmed” with events, concerts, or other activities — rather than just being “passive” spaces, though those are important too.

She pointed to LOVE Park and Dilworth Park in Center City as examples, and said there’s definitely space for more activation in the Parks & Rec system going forward, like in East and West Fairmount Park.

The Rothman Roller Rink at Dilworth Park (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ott Lovell sees the opportunities for connection in public spaces as particularly important in today’s world, where people might feel isolated because of a reliance on technology.

“When you activate parks and public spaces, it brings people out,” she said. “It connects them to people that they know — their family, their friends, their neighbors — but it also most importantly, connects them to people that they don’t know.”

The pandemic led Philadelphians to appreciate public spaces more — and to expect more from them

Ott Lovell thinks of her time at Parks and Rec as “BC” and “AC,” she said: “before COVID,” and “after COVID.”

The pandemic demonstrated that Parks and Rec employees are essential workers, she said.

Some examples she pointed to: Staffed rec centers served as “access centers” where students could attend virtual school socially-distanced, and as food pantries and meal distribution sites. Other Parks & Rec employees were deployed as “social distancing ambassadors” in outdoor public spaces.

COVID also just drew more people to outdoor public spaces, Ott Lovell said, some of the few places where people could safely enjoy a distanced “respite” from early pandemic life. 

Now, people see parks more personally, she said, and they have higher expectations for their public space.

“I think ultimately, that’ll be great,” Ott Lovell said. “That’ll be great for public space and for the city.”

But… that’s not necessarily reflected in how public spaces are funded

Although the pandemic may have caused more people to appreciate public space, Ott Lovell said, that isn’t evident from the size of the city’s Parks and Rec budget.

Parks and Rec, in her view, is “grossly underfunded.”

“We do not fund and resource our Parks and Recreation system the way that we need to, and the way that our residents deserve,” she said. “And I thought that COVID would change that … but it didn’t.”

Philadelphia has invested an average of $80 per person annually in its parks over the past 3 years, per the Trust for Public Land. That’s $28 per capita less than the average among the 100 most populous US cities.

Philadelphia ranked 31st in the the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore rankings this year, a metric that reflects how U.S. cities’ park systems stack up against each other in the areas of access, investment, acreage, amenities, and equity. That’s up one spot from 2022, but still down from its 19th place spot in 2021.

Glendinning Rock Garden in Fairmount Park. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Ott Lovell believes the answer to properly investing in Philly’s public spaces lies in finding a “dedicated funding source” for Parks and Rec.

“We rely on the General Fund for parks and recreation, and that in a city with as many needs as our city has — around public safety and education and health and human services — we can’t compete against that,” she said. “We have got to identify a dedicated funding source either at the local or state level to appropriately fund our parks and recreation system.”

Even so, change is underway for the city’s public space

Even though the state of funding might not be where Ott Lovell would like to see it, she pointed to a number of changes coming down the pipeline to expand, improve, or overhaul Philly’s public spaces.

For one, there are some changes in progress to how the Parks & Rec department operates. The department is working on a “really comprehensive overhaul” of how it distributes staffing under a plan called “Realigning as We Rebuild,” she said, which is reevaluating the staffing levels at rec centers.

fishing pier at Grays Ferry Crescent. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Rec centers have generally been staffed based on their size, Ott Lovell said, but Parks and Rec has shifted to a more dynamic model that staffs and programs rec centers based on “the needs of a community,” using data on things like poverty, crime, and health.

“We’re staffing neighborhoods, not facilities,” she said.

There are also lots of big projects on deck for Parks and Rec and other organizations that develop Philly’s public spaces, from the redesign of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, to the revamp of FDR Park, to the remaining Rebuild renovation projects scattered throughout the city. 

“There’s so much,” Ott Lovell said. “It’s so exciting … [there’s] a lot underway, but not completely done yet.”

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...