Five nonprofit groups whose work focuses on improving parks have formed the Cleveland Parks and Greenspace Coalition to push for equitable access to green space, transparency in how investments are made, and residents taking “ownership” over parks in the city. Cleveland has fallen behind its peer cities in providing equitable parks for all, they say, and the time is right to dismantle structures that perpetuate racism.
The groups — TPL, LAND Studio, Neighborhood Connections, Western Reserve Land Conservancy, and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress — have launched a website promoting their platform and offering ways to get involved. They’ve also submitted a questionnaire to the candidates running for mayor and participated in a debate hosted by the Ohio Environmental Council where all of the candidates discussed their positions on environmental topics.
“We are trying to bring awareness to why parks are important,” said LAND Studio’s David Wilson, “and bring some of these issues of community to the forefront.”
According to these leaders, the Covid-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on the need for better, more inclusive green spaces in the city, and they decided to come together to elevate the issue during the election.
“Cleveland is a city filled with accessible, culturally inclusive green spaces that connect residents to our natural world,” the website states. “High-quality parks contribute to improved public health, generate economic development, and support a clean, sustainable environment. The COVID-19 pandemic further illustrated the necessity for parks and green spaces for recreation, respite, and to connect with nature and each other.”
Improving equity and engagement
Coalition members said the pandemic elevated the importance of parks and public spaces to a necessity and a basic human right for all city residents. For its part, Neighborhood Connections added a “Get Outside” category to its program for grantees who build small “pocket parks” and community gardens.
“During Covid (last) winter just the anxiety of how we’re going to survive this expanded what we thought of as public space,” said Anastazia Vanisko and Kaela Geschke of Neighborhood Connections. “One of our favorite (grantees) was the line dancing group that took place in the vacant parking lot of a former Dave’s Grocery Store,” they added, noting that the vacant lot hosted other civic events such as the recent Stop Asian Hate rally.
Coalition members feel that parks should be inclusive to residents of different abilities, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, gender identities and races, and should do this through appropriate events, programs and displays.
“Cleveland has accomplished quite a bit in park investment,” LAND Executive Director, Greg Peckham said, “but we are behind our peer cities. We have the expertise to step up our game.”
Barriers to success
In Cleveland, park advocates have had to contend with some barriers, including the city’s decision to demote the Parks Department a few years back from a full-fledged department with a commissioner to an office under the city’s Public Works Department, citing budgetary constraints. Currently, there is no parks and green spaces master plan, much less one that includes resident input.
More recently, the Jackson administration has shown it can be swayed to reconsider the stature of parks. In 2021, when park advocates called for a goal of having a park within a 10-minute walk of every resident, Cleveland formed a 10-minute Walk Committee that is composed of staff from its Public Works and Planning Departments with representation from some of the members of the coalition.
“You need a coalition that can be a resource for the new mayor, because not all of the work can be done by the parks department,” Ed Stockhausen, Vice President of Advocacy & Public Policy at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, concluded. “You not only need seats at the table, you need to build the table.”
The coalition wants candidates to give residents a platform to discuss what they want in the green spaces as well as to support advocacy for green spaces among residents. In doing so, it is asking for the creation of an advisory board, which would include residents of the communities and trained professionals. The board should meet regularly with government officials to enable communication between everyone involved.
Additionally, the coalition is asking for residents to be trained and resources to be provided to the communities in order to keep the parks well maintained. Other demands include asking candidates to create a plan that is open and accessible to “everyone who wants to participate” and asking for a “city department with cabinet-level leadership and experienced staff” in regards to caring for greenspaces.
Residents should be driving the conversation of what they want, said Sean Terry of the Ohio office of the Trust for Public Land, like in Buffalo where TPL is part of a parks master plan about to be launched after a 12-month process of listening to residents.
Although the website is geared towards the upcoming election, Terry said the group has staying power. “This is bigger than any one election cycle,” he said. “Parks are essential infrastructure.”
View the Cleveland Parks and Greenspace Coalition platform and resources for taking action here: https://www.parkscoalitioncle.org/our-platform-1. Coalition members said mayoral candidate responses will be added soon. They’re also planning to host a debate between the two candidates who win the primary.
Marc Lefkowitz is a writer and sustainability expert in Cleveland Heights.
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