Parks: A call for action

July 18, 2002

DUMPED GARBAGE. Drug paraphernalia. Rusty oil barrels. Welcome to Baltimore's city parks.

More than a week after Mayor Martin O'Malley pledged an emergency cleanup, the landscape is still littered, as reported in The Sun on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Mr. O'Malley fired Marvin F. Billups Jr. as recreation and parks director, but that should only be the start of a major turnaround effort aimed at the badly demoralized and chronically underfunded department. Clearly, much more needs to be done.

The city and private-sector contributors should prepare an audit of park and recreation facilities, their condition, rehabilitation needs and costs. A baseline then must be established for improvements, along with a long-term funding plan.

Private support groups should be formed for the many parks that don't have them. And neighborhoods ought to adopt local parks, helping to clean them up and popularizing their use.

But none of this matters much unless City Hall makes recreation and parks the funding priority they were more than three decades ago. Unless the department is financed adequately, further deterioration is assured.

For far too long, Baltimore's 7,000 acres of park land has been viewed as an expensive maintenance burden. This is wrong. It is not a burden but an incredible asset and a significant component in the rebirth of residential neighborhoods.

East Baltimore's Patterson Park is a case in point. Housing demand and real estate prices have soared as joggers and strollers have retaken the park, and it has become the site of frequent programmed events.

Can this success be repeated elsewhere? You bet.

A few examples:

The modest rowhouse neighborhoods around Carroll Park should take advantage of the transformation of the old Montgomery Ward catalog warehouse into a showpiece office complex.

The residential area around Druid Hill Park's lake and tennis courts should be promoted as Baltimore's equivalent of New York's Central Park addresses.

Leakin Park neighborhoods -- from Fairmont to Windsor Hills -- should emulate nearby Dickeyville's success.

Forest Park should take advantage of golf course views.

Frederick Law Olmsted recognized the economic worth of parks. The visionary landscaper argued for using taxpayer dollars to build New York's Central Park and then documented the economic benefits.

This linkage is being recognized again. A New York advocacy group is about to release a joint study with Ernst & Young cataloguing the impact of well-maintained parks on property tax revenues. And the American Planning Association, in a recent report, argues that money spent on recreation and parks can produce plenty of revenue for cash-strapped cities.

Mayor O'Malley, too, should start thinking in these terms. But the first thing he should do is see to it that the oil barrels, used syringes and broken glass disappear from the city's parks and playgrounds. Fast.

Because if he can't do that, how can he do the rest?

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