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Parks in Peril

Recent budget cuts have left Oakland's parks struggling for survival. Without a funding fix on the horizon, do they stand a chance?


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Despite the best efforts of neighborhood volunteers, North Oakland's Linden Park is not a pretty sight. Nor is it entirely safe for the elementary school students from North Oakland Community Charter School who use it every day. The flat, half-acre park situated in a working-class neighborhood on the Emeryville border was once a haven for loitering and drug use; years ago, concerned parents would scan the park for needles after dropping off their children. Today, the needles are mostly gone — but in their place are new dangers: a rapidly decaying and heavily pocked playground surface, a playing field of hard-packed dirt and concrete-block pavers, and persistent litter.

But that's only half of it. Linden Park has received almost no attention from the city since July 2009, when it and 211 other Oakland parks, medians, and plazas were placed on a "no-routine-maintenance" list stemming from an $83 million citywide budget deficit. Instead of closing parks, the city opted to reduce services — in some cases dramatically.

Between the 2009 cuts and an earlier round in November 2008, the Public Works Agency lost the equivalent of nearly 23 full-time park maintenance employees and $2.5 million in funding — a roughly 25 percent hit absorbed over eight months. Tree services, budgeted separately, lost 42 percent of its staffing, while litter enforcement lost 50 percent. These figures are even more alarming in the context of historical trends: Park maintenance staffing has been gradually cut in half since 1968, from 176 to today's 88, even as hundreds of new acres of parkland have been added.

A 2009 report by the nationwide nonprofit organization Trust for Public Land identified Oakland as the number-one US city in parkland per 1,000 residents among high-density cities. Yet the parks' condition is another matter, and the ongoing decline in maintenance contributes to a problem that reaches well beyond their borders. According to the Trust for Public Land, parks, greenways, and natural lands can boost property values and attract and support businesses. But if neglected, they can be a magnet for blight, crime, and vandalism, while lowering the value of adjacent properties.

Today, Linden Park's only ground-level greenery — a smattering of native and drought-tolerant plants along two edges of the park and a trampled strip of grass in one corner of the playing "field" — was planted by volunteers. The city supplies irrigation to the grass patch, but since 2009 many of the other plantings have only received water thanks to a hose running from a neighbor's yard. The rest of the park is bone dry. Weeds run rampant. The lone water fountain leaks. And the park gets no trash service. Instead, volunteers spend hours each week collecting litter in city-supplied bags, then leave them on the curb and contact public works to let them know they're there. City employees usually pick them up within a couple days. But not always.

The situation at Linden Park is bad, but it's merely a symptom of a much larger problem. Expansive maintenance cuts have impacted every neighborhood park, mini park, linear park, parking lot, plaza, street median, and streetscape in the city — a total of more than 150 acres. The only parkland and green spaces kept on routine maintenance schedules were grounds at city buildings, larger "community parks," recently completed capital improvement projects, and athletic fields and parks with recreation centers, which can be rented out and are a potential revenue source.

But small neighborhood parks like Linden, where Oakland residents take their kids to play or just enjoy green space in the middle of an urban environment, are maintained on a complaint-driven system. This means, with few exceptions, that public works crews won't show up to trim trees, pull weeds, edge lawns, or clean up large debris unless someone calls and complains.

For now, efficient allocation of city resources and staff time, plus concerted efforts from residents to maintain and even improve their local parks, has staved off severe deterioration problems. But many of the most serious issues associated with this approach are only beginning to be realized. If funding continues at its current low level — or is perhaps cut even further as the city grapples with a new $40 million deficit — safety and liability issues may eventually force Oakland to close some of its vaunted parks after all.

The task of assessing the condition of Oakland's neighborhood parks following a year and a half of deferred maintenance is not as straightforward as it seems. Park use and litter levels vary from day to day, and maintenance standards among urban pocket parks and ten-plus-acre community parks vary widely. But every year, the Oakland Parks Coalition, an organization whose prime directive is to promote citizen stewardship over Oakland's parks, dispatches dozens of volunteers to all corners of the city to assess their overall condition.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the 2010 survey, which covered 119 parks, plazas, and medians, showed a decline over 2009 in nearly every area. It also turned up some of the worst scores since 2006 in greenery, outdoor children's areas, and overall condition.

Oakland Parks Coalition chairperson Susan Montauk stresses that the report is far from scientific, but said that it does offer some insight into how the parks are faring. For one, it gives credence to public works' theory that removing trash bins from most no-scheduled-maintenance parks actually results in less litter — ratings this year, on average, improved over both 2008 and 2009. The survey's findings also identified degraded and overgrown greenery as the most conspicuous maintenance issue. Time and again, surveyors encountered un-edged lawns, bald spots in lawns and fields, un-watered and un-weeded flower beds, and shrubs in need of weeding and pruning.


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