City parks are not open after dark. Mayor Mitch Landrieu cited this little-known regulation when he attempted to shut down Occupy New Orleans last week.

A push to create a better park system is underway

Public workshops can augment the information on personal preferences and community needs that has already been collected.

A city-wide plan aiming to create an equitable and resilient park and recreation system is underway. Attending one of four community workshops between now and May 11th will give you a chance to speak up and voice your concerns. Most notably, your input at this week’s public workshops can augment the information on personal preferences and community needs that has already been collected. The details for the workshops are available on the City’s Children and Families webpage.

The call for new solutions and the implementation of best practices with parks and open spaces began with the increasing recognition of the critical roles of parks, parkways, and open spaces in our city. Consider the power of the Lafitte Greenway and the linear open space between Crescent and Woldenberg Parks to connect neighborhoods, offer non-motorized access to the river, encourage environmental education, improve public health, and bolster economic activity. On top of that, more and more people realize that a well-run park and recreation system will strengthen neighborhoods and promote public safety by creating wholesome activities for our city’s youth.

The Audubon Commission’s initiative highlighted the necessity for a more equitable distribution of funding. On May 4, 2019, a new millage was approved that distributes the funds among the Audubon Commission, City Park, NORDC, and Parks and Parkways. That approval has allowed City Park to receive funding from a city-wide property tax for the first time. The measure also called for a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement to create new procedures for the four millage recipients.

Since then, the momentum and passion for park equity, along with the attention to the importance of the financial and management structure of the city’s parks and recreation facilities, has blossomed. Parks For All called for the adoption of a new parks and recreation vision plan for the city’s green spaces. Their actions bore The Big Green Easy – A Park and Recreation Vision Plan, a plan funded by a $433,800 grant from the National Recreation and Park Association. The funding allowed the City to hire a consultant to create a comprehensive parks and recreation plan for the first time.

However, the ideal parks and recreation system needs stable and sufficient municipal funding. Up until several years ago, Audubon Park was the city’s only park funded by a millage. In 2014, years before their millage was set to expire, the Audubon Commission floated a ballot measure that would have authorized a new millage for an additional 50 years. Grass-roots opposition to the millage proposal arose, and the measure was defeated by a margin of 2 to 1. Subsequently, the non-profit organization, Parks For All, the city’s first citywide parks advocacy group, was formed by concerned citizens representing diverse communities and interests. A movement was born to secure financial support and access to quality green spaces for all residents.

Design Workshop, a landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm with an international portfolio, was selected through a competitive process to create the plan. The firm had already made a significant imprint on the city with its design of the wildly-popular Lafitte Greenway. In fact, the extensive, multi-faceted public engagement process that Design Workshop conducted for the greenway earned them the 2013 Award of Excellence in Analysis and Planning from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Fortunately, the citizens of New Orleans realize that the management, accessibility and content of our parks, open spaces, and recreational facilities are vital components of heathy communities. So, we’re encouraging everyone to get involved in the planning process. The first step is to reflect on the data that Design Workshop has shared from the four public engagement sessions that were held in March. The data is available on the The Big Green Easy’s virtual workshop page. There is also an opportunity to participate in a survey that’s on the project’s website.

It’s important to note that there are 16 distinct providers and/or managers of our parks and recreation facilities. Two hundred twenty-three parks and greenspaces are under the authority of these providers, but there isn’t adequate coordination between them. In addition, the city’s park inventory – a complete list of open spaces that did not exist until now – is organized by a classification of open space types and their percentages of acreage.

The Big Green Easy plan rates the quality of parks and recreation spaces on a 1-5 scale. A rating of 5 indicates the worst condition, while a rating of 3 means the space has reached a tipping point where irreversible decline will occur without reinvestment. The innovative concept of a parks report card that allows residents to grade their public parks, develop priorities for improvement and funding, and measure improvements over time, was introduced at a public forum in New Orleans by Tupper Thomas, the former executive director of New Yorkers For Parks, a highly respected parks advocacy organization. It’s a best practice among great park cities that ensures citizen participation and looks for responsive oversight.

Design Workshop has brought the report card concept to full fruition through its analyses of our parks. Sadly, a significant number of open spaces or improvements have a rating of 3, 4, or 5. Moreover, the firm’s findings show that impoverished households and households with disabled people are most likely to be near parks with the worst rating. The plan also identifies Equity Investment Zones, areas of the city where short-term investment is needed due to a history of underinvestment in those neighborhoods.

Design Workshop will submit the Vision Plan to the City this August. The publishing of the plan must not mark an ending to this multi-year process. Instead, it is up to all of us to make sure it’s a beginning.

Shaun Duncan is an honorary member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

Lake Douglas, PhD, FASLA, is Professor Emeritus at the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at LSU. Both Shaun Duncan and Lake Douglas serve on the board of Parks For All.