Park Votes Nurture Urban Life

The city of Grand Rapids’ fiscally responsible choices over the last several decades have laid the foundation for economic growth. Thanks to the tough choices of our city leaders and the ingenuity of local businesses, entrepreneurs and advocacy groups, Grand Rapids is not only poised for growth — we’re leading West Michigan’s urban revitalization.

But, to date, there’s an important part of that revitalization we’ve overlooked: our urban parks.

Parks in disrepair
Here’s a date to consider: 1996. This is the last time the city made major investments in repairing or building new amenities in our Grand Rapids parks. Staffing and has been cut by 70 percent since 2002. Today, 91 percent of our city parks are rated at a “C” for maintenance, and 50 percent of these parks are in danger of falling to the lowest service ranking, “D.” Over the past decade, groups like the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks have stepped in to mobilize volunteers and source private funding for projects. But with no dedicated public funding, the backlog of repairs keeps growing. As Chris Reader, chair of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, put it, “Right now, when things break in our parks, we don’t fix them. We just remove them.” For a city that values investing in its own community so highly, this is simply unacceptable.

Park voids
Those of us who live and raise families in urban Grand Rapids understand the void this disrepair has created in our communities.A Midtown resident myself, I’ve noticed this recently as my daughter and I explore parks near our house. A lonely, dilapidated swing set up the hill from Fuller Park was a favorite of ours, until one day it was simply gone. The adjacent playground behind an empty elementary school incubates weeds as parents and kids walk by in search of a place to play. I also was surprised to learn from Chris that the city has six pools. In recent years, only three large pools at Briggs Park, Martin Luther King, Jr. Park and Richmond Park have been open for 7 weeks a year, due to lack of budget for maintenance and staffing. These few weeks of operations have only been made possible thanks to the community’s rallying for private funds. “We have public pools in GR?” was my response.

Maintenance plan
A proposed parks millage, which will be voted on Nov. 5, would raise taxes by .98 mills, or roughly $3.66 per month for the average homeowner, for the next seven years. Neighbors for Parks, Pools and Playgrounds, the citizen advocacy group proposing the millage, has worked with the city and Friends of Grand Rapids Parks to map out a plan to allocate this revenue to much-needed repairs to playground equipment, restroom facilities and drinking fountains, as well as re-making unused wading pools into splash pads, updating large pool systems and expanding trails and boardwalks. The bulk of the proposed work focuses on repairs that are more than a decade overdue.

Connection to home values
For those of us who are residents of Grand Rapids, this is a simple matter of investing in our own homes and communities. Studies have shown that neighborhood and community parks can make a positive and dramatic impact on nearby housing values, raising values of facing homes by 20-30 percent. The economic benefit of these parks radiates out up to 2,000 feet outward, but the benefit to the community extends much farther. Safe, updated green spaces and recreation facilities attract life and engagement from nearby residents. This life and interaction is critical to creating community in a very real sense. Vibrant parks become a place for neighbors to meet and share common interests, for kids to learn and for everyone in the neighborhood to take a sense of ownership. This is place making, at its most basic level. And it is essential for us as an urban community.

For us at 616, supporting the parks millage on Nov. 5 is an easy choice. Community is the focal point of our development model, and basic maintenance of our parks is a simple step we as a community need to make. After all, this is our place. Who better to make it than us?

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