Former Fairmount Park Conservancy Executive Director Kathryn Ott Lovell was recently appointed Commissioner of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department by Mayor Jim Kenney. We asked her to reflect on her dynamic five years as Director of the Conservancy and express her hopes for its next chapter.
How has your vision for the Fairmount Park Conservancy help to shape the organization for the past 5 years?
When I first started as Executive Director of the Conservancy, I wouldn’t say I had a specific vision because I didn’t know enough about the organization’s work or needs. That vision started to form in the first few months once I understood the potential for a parks conservancy in Philadelphia, including potential partnerships to be made and strengthened, projects that could be developed, and programs that could be implemented.
We have built that vision over time. We’ve given the city a glimpse of what a great parks conservancy can be. Although it’s been off to a good start these past five years, the Conservancy is only at the beginning of where it needs to be to support parks, recreation centers and open space in our city.
What would you like to see the Conservancy accomplish in the next 5 years?
It needs to continue to grow. We need to bring even more resources into the park system to leverage the city’s investment – not just financially, but seamless partnerships to make parks and open space a great place for projects and programs.
The Conservancy can continue to lift the brand of the whole park system in Philadelphia, ultimately to enhance the user experience in every neighborhood. Those are big opportunities over the next five years.
Which projects are you most proud of from your time as the Conservancy?
Definitely the Hunting Park project, which was a $5 million revitalization project in a park that’s been ignored for almost 30 years, in a community ready for and deserving of this investment. It was a game changer for the Conservancy because it was the first time that we planned and managed a project on our own, but more importantly, we worked intensively with an engaged community over a long period to get it right.
The Hunting Park project started early in my tenure at the Conservancy and opened the door for many other projects that I’m really proud of, including the Reimagining the Civic Commons work. The Civic Commons is a pilot initiative that has started here in Philadelphia thanks to the William Penn and Knight Foundations, and is now being expanded to other cities across the country. This project brings partners together that are re-thinking civic assets in our city, exploring how to strengthen those assets and better serve their communities by working collaboratively together.
I’m also very proud of The Oval, which has been a big success for the Conservancy, Parks and Recreation, and the city. The TreePhilly program has been a wonderful partnership we’ve been able to expand over the past few years. The park stewardship program has been the most important program because of the connection and constituency base it gives the conservancy in neighborhoods across the city. Also, those communities continue to provide a voice and direction to our work.
What do you think the public can do to help support the Conservancy in its work?
I think the most important thing people can do is to make a difference in their own communities and neighborhood parks. Although it’s great if they’re a Conservancy member, we’re trying to build a leadership capacity in neighborhoods. If an individual’s park is really well served, then they should look to the next neighborhood and see if they can support a park in that neighborhood. Beyond cleaning up that park once a year (although it’s valuable), it’s important to become a critical voice and supporter of parks in communities that need it.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about Philadelphia from your time at the Conservancy?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of partnerships. One of my colleagues once said to me, “when I enter a room, I just remind myself that instead of competitors, everyone in this room is a potential collaborator.’ Although I come from a competitive fundraising background, that sentiment changed the way that I thought about how we do our work. Those mental shifts helped strengthen our work, and created new opportunities for the communities we’re working in.
Now, I’m always looking at how we work together, share resources and leverage investment with our partners. How do we lift those partners up to be better? That mentality has served the Conservancy well.
Speaking of collaboration, how do you think the city government and non-profits can work better together?
I think there’s a lot of potential for it work better. It’s sometimes hard in city government to be open to partnerships because there’s a culture of control that comes with the accountability required in the public sector. However, it’s important to try to shift that mentality and help people realize that the city can benefit by bringing others in to help support the work.
Change begins with building level of trust and instilling enough confidence to bring in partners, and giving them what they need to do the work.
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role as commissioner?
I hope to make Philadelphia the best parks and recreation system in the country.