Last summer, after months of lockdown, Philadelphia residents and beyond craved adventures in the great outdoors. Idyllic pictures of waterfalls and forests on social media drew people to bring their friends and families to city parks. A record amount of people biked on trails, met up for picnics, and swam in rivers — even if it wasn’t all legal and some natural pools were contaminated with wastewater.
Along with issues of overcrowding, the increase in visitors also led to mountains of trash being left behind in parks and for trees and rocks being vandalized with graffiti. Due to limited funding from Parks and Recreation and few park rangers to educate visitors on the rules, the onus of keeping parks clean and safe was largely put on neighbors and local park groups.
At one point, city residents rallied to bring more park rangers to Philadelphia. While the protests didn’t result in more park rangers — an issue impacting every park system in the country, not just cash-strapped Philadelphia’s — they did bring changes.
Parks and Recreation introduced social distance ambassadors into popular parks, like Lemon Hill and FDR Park, to hand out masks, direct visitors, and enforce social distance regulations. The ambassadors drastically reduced the amount of litter at some parks, including Wissahickon Valley Park, where debates over what to do with the clamor and commotion of visitors at Devil’s Pool becomes a cause célèbre every summer.
Informally, the increase in visitors mobilized locals and park groups to make changes — that will also be implemented this summer — to keep their parks clean and safe.
Julie Slavet, Director of Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, tells News Break that the increase in visitors led to more residents wanting to be involved with the park. Since the pandemic made all non-essential gatherings virtual, Slavet reports that more people than ever were able to participate in community meetings.
“[Virtual meetings] are easier for people,” says Slavet. “They don’t have to get babysitters to go to an evening meeting or worry about being out too late if they’re older [...] It’s been really successful.”
As social distance guidelines ease, Slavet says that in-person meetings will resume. However, virtual meetings, to an extent, are here to stay. Additionally, this summer will commence the beginning of a master planning process for the park, which will focus on community engagement and getting a better understanding of what the community would like to see at the park.
Last year in West Philadelphia, Friends of Morris Park reformed and started to have official community meetings about the park. The local park group mostly focused on clean-up efforts, which, according to Friends of Morris Park President Evan Cantiello, has two purposes:
“Our cleanup events are focused around, obviously, removing trash, but also establishing trails that serve the needs of the community,” he says. “The goal is to increase the access to the park so that neighbors can get to the park more easily, but also to put in some safeguards to discourage dumping, which is a big problem here.”
During Love Your Park Week earlier this month, Cantiello estimated volunteers working with Friends of Morris Park removed over a thousand pounds of trash — including bottles dated from the 1960’s — from the park. As well as removing some invasive species like knotweed and garlic mustard, the clean-up effort allowed the park group to build a new trail by Brockton and Pennwood Roads. In total, the 147-acre park now has over five miles of continuous trails.
This summer, residents and visitors should be expecting more of the same from Morris Park: Community clean-ups and park improvements. In the coming weeks, students from Drexel University will come to the park and help restore a natural spring that was filled with concrete several decades ago.
About thirty minutes away in Logan Square at Matthias Baldwin Park, where trash and litter aren’t a regular issue the park faces, the area will be seeing a lot more events — including history walks — that pandemic restrictions previously made impossible.
“We’re always trying to get the community more involved with the park,” Joe Walsh, Vice President of Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park, says. “Last month, we had a story walk where we post pages from a children’s book at 16 stations throughout the park, so people can walk around with their kids and read a story. This weekend, we had our [annual] neighborhood scavenger hunt.”
In the coming months, residents and visitors should expect the park to fully return to its regular programming. During August, the park will be hosting a movie night; in October, they’ll have another story walk and then they’ll host their annual Halloween costume dog parade.
“We want people to use [the park] as an educational resource, to learn the history of the neighborhood and get more involved in the community,” says Walsh. “From my point of view, all the parks are an equalizer. I think that whether you’re rich or poor, Black or White, you can go to the park and enjoy its beauty. And it’s all free.”