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Adopt-a-Park Programs Improve Community Green Spaces

"Great parks make great neighborhoods," says Alex Moroz, quoting the simple philosophy driving the adopt-a-park program in Hamilton, Ont.

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Communities pitch in to help with everything from basic trash pickup to planting gardens. (Image courtesy of City of Detroit)

"Great parks make great neighborhoods," says Alex Moroz, quoting the simple philosophy driving the adopt-a-park program in Hamilton, Ont. Communities like Hamilton have relied on adopt-a-park programs for years, while others are just exploring the possibility for any number of reasons. The adopt-a-park program in Fernley, Nev., was started earlier this year in response to a suggestion by the city's Rotary Club, which already had its sights set on a local park. In Killeen, Texas, it was to help out the city's work crews as they struggled to clean up after weekend events. The cost-saving benefits of such a program are obvious, but the community impact can be immeasurable.

Started about five years ago, the adopt-a-park program in Hamilton serves as a typical example of a successful program. Community groups interested in adopting a park are asked to commit to a minimum of four workdays a year for three years. Workdays include cleaning up litter and graffiti, clearing brush and mulching around trees. "If they want to do additional beautification activities or other fundraising activities, we'll work with them on an ad hoc basis," says Moroz, who serves as the program's community liaison coordinator. "The first year, most groups are usually on the ground doing the litter removal; the second year they're looking at how to improve the park - planting or shrub maintenance. We've had a couple of groups do some fundraising for trees, benches, plant materials and so forth."

As part of the program, volunteers also undergo a day of training, learning how to perform tasks in accordance with the city's safety ordinance. The agreement also asks groups to notify the city prior to a planned workday, which not only allows the city to make sure the event does not interfere with other activities, but also allows a group to access the city's resources. "We have a community clean trailer," says Moroz. "It has rakes, cleanup materials and graffiti kits. They can request that and we drop it off at the park the day of their cleanup. And if they're going to do any type of enhancements, they contact me and say, 'This is what we're thinking of doing.' I'll call in parks, forestry, horticulture, whomever I need to call based on what they want to do. If they're going to do some tree planting, we have a council budget for tree planting."

The benefits of adopt-a-park programs extend beyond the improved look of the park to an improved community. "If a park is clean and looks good, it really becomes a community gathering point," explains Moroz. Between the increased park traffic and the added eyes of adoptees looking to protect their investment, parks that are part of an adoption program tend to see a marked decrease in crime. Moroz adds, "By getting volunteers engaged, we saw one of our local parks that had a constant problem of needles and vandalism go almost a whole year without any issues."

No city should forget to show appreciation for its volunteer work force. Hamilton posts signs with the names of adoption groups in their respective parks, and, like many cities, asks that one of a group's four scheduled workdays coincide with a citywide cleanup event. "We are very focused during the month of June when we do park appreciation days," says Moroz. "We have sponsors who donate products to give away, we present groups with certificates, and we compile a huge report to tell the story of what they've been doing."

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The City of Hamilton stocks trailers with everything from rakes to sunblock that adoption groups can request for their workdays. (Photo courtesy of Hamilton Adopt-a-Park Program)

Over the past 30 years, the parks and recreation department in Houston, Texas, has capitalized on the success of adoption programs and taken it even further. The department's adopt-a-park program is one of six such opportunities open to citizens and organizations. The city's esplanades, trails, library lawns, dog parks and sports fields are also up for adoption. "And if we have something else someone wants to help us with, we'll create an adoption program for that, too," adds Joe Turner, parks and recreation department supervisor.

Unlike other adoption programs, which supplement the regular maintenance done by city workers, Houston's program asks its citizen workers to take on the routine mowing and trimming normally done by paid employees. The programs translate into nearly $2 million a year in savings, according to Turner's estimates, and with nearly 39,000 acres of land under its care, the city's parks and recreation department appreciates all the help it can get. Says Turner, "In those areas of town where we don't have adoptions, adoptions still allow us to do a better job because we're not stretched as thin."

Like other adoption programs, though, Houston's program participants still have the option to go beyond the routine care, giving the community more control over the look of their neighborhoods. The adopt-a-sports field program, which offers youth groups a break on rental fees in exchange for field upkeep, allows groups to mow more often than the parks and recreation department requires if they wish, maintaining a higher level of quality. And for the past several years, the city has been emphasizing its adopt-an-esplanade program, which gives groups an opportunity to add a touch of color to their neighborhood medians. "We do not landscape esplanades as a rule of thumb," says Turner. The city has more than 2,400 acres of medians that require routine mowing and upkeep, a big enough job without adding any type of planting to the mix. "We can't do that with our limited dollars."

The basic adopt-an-esplanade agreements ask individuals or groups to tend to the mowing and trimming, but groups can also do more elaborate landscaping work. In the city's commercial district, larger sections of esplanades are adopted by businesses and landscaped to create an impression on visitors. "It's a great way for us to do business and to let the communities have a say in what their areas look like," Turner says. "Those esplanades are showcases for different parts of the city."

Just as a good planting can improve the city's image, untended or dead plantings can detract from it. Houston's program focuses on native plants that will be able to endure months of dry conditions. Water is a carefully regulated resource, and all landscaping projects that require irrigation must be approved by the city before work begins. This is one of the reasons adoption programs must carefully oversee and approve projects - after a group's adoption commitment ends, the parks department does not want to be stuck with the burden of taking care of a plethora of plants or the job of tearing them out if they die off.

"Groups have to follow our guidelines," says Turner. "You have to set some ground rules and make sure the people doing the work understand them." There are times when an adoption just doesn't work out, either because the group cannot or chooses not to fulfill its commitment, but more often, Turner says, his department is able to work with a group to fix any problems. "Nothing is 100 percent in life," he says. "We have some issues, but we just deal with those individual ones as they come up. We focus on those who are doing the job great for us and thank them for it."

With all of its programs' successes, the Houston parks and recreation department is turning its emphasis to expanding the adopt-a-park program this year, as well as finding new ways to improve its other operations. "We're always looking for that right opportunity to figure out a better way to do business," Turner says. "You have to be flexible and understand what the final goal is and how you get to it."

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