Parks & Recreation: An Interview with Mayor Edwin M. Lee

Mayor Lee at Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

Ed Lee became the first Asian-American mayor of San Francisco in January 2011 when he was appointed to complete the term of Gavin Newsom, who became lieutenant governor of California. Lee was elected mayor in his own right in November 2011. He previously served as city administrator and director of public works. Lee has emphasized making San Francisco a hub for high-tech business development and has strongly encouraged green industry, pedestrian safety and neighborhood quality of life. One of his most significant accomplishments for parks and recreation was the overwhelming voter passage of the $195 million Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond in November 2012.

San Francisco has passed several key bond issues recently. What will these funds be used for, and why was there such strong support from voters?
We are incredibly fortunate to be home to some of the world’s most iconic parks. Our extensive and diverse system of parks is rare for a city of this density and size, making us the envy of many other cities. Great parks like Golden Gate Park, McLaren Park, Mission Dolores, Coit Tower and the many smaller neighborhood parks give our city places where we can play, relax, enjoy nature and spend time with our friends and families.

There is a significant need to fund capital projects in our parks to keep them world class, and that’s why San Franciscans, in their wisdom, have passed a series of parks bonds to address dilapidated playgrounds, worn-out playfields and deteriorating swimming pools, among other capital needs.

Voters enthusiastically supported the 2012 San Francisco Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond with 72 percent approval, giving the department an additional $195 million to continue capital projects for the renewal and repair of our parks, recreation and open-space assets. The 2012 bond includes funding for 15 neighborhood parks and long-awaited investment in Golden Gate Park, McLaren Park and Lake Merced, as well as renovations to the support infrastructure of the park system.

San Francisco residents understand the important role parks and open space play in making this the greatest city in which to live and work. The public’s wise investment in our parks is one of the main reasons we get to boast that the Trust for Public Land awarded us as the number-one urban park system in the country.

San Francisco’s parks have been in the news quite a bit recently — food trucks in the parks, protests because of perceptions of incompatible uses, and questions about new fees and new sources of revenue. Do these issues point to problems or conflicts, or do they just show the passion that your citizens have for their parks?
San Franciscans are passionate about a number of issues, and parks are definitely one of them. It shows how important it is to have access to open space and affordable recreation programming. Across the board, we are committed to keeping our parks clean, filling our recreation facilities with programs that serve our communities and providing new, exciting ways for residents to enjoy their parks. But we are not doing it alone. In an era when city budgets are severely limited and parks are closing across the nation, Rec and Park is finding innovative ways to get the job done at the end of the day.

For the past couple of years, we have developed strong partnerships with individuals and organizations to support our park operations, reorganized our recreation division to expand the number of high-quality programs and classes, and increased the number of special events that people want in their parks. For example, the Outside Lands and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festivals in Golden Gate Park have become some of the must-see music festivals in the country. This type of creative park management has made San Francisco a leader and model of innovation in the recreation industry.

At the end of the day, it is important to note that for every dollar that we raise, that’s one less dollar we have to cut in service, a dollar that would help support a gardener at your local park or a dollar that would help keep your favorite recreation program going.

How did the city’s quality parks and recreation play a role in San Francisco being named America’s Best City by Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012? 
One of the keys to our high quality of life in San Francisco is making fun, interesting recreation opportunities available to our communities. Our recreation staff takes incredible pride in providing programs that pique and sustain the interest of residents of all ages. More than 328,000 people visited our nine pools last year, and more than 2,200 kids and young adults received scholarships to the tune of more than $800,000 of subsidized programming, ensuring that everybody can get out and play no matter their economic background.

Since 2003, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and the Office of the City Controller have been conducting Quarterly Park Surveys, and we have been seeing an annual increase in the quality of our parks and overall scores. Our parks received an 88.4 score in their last annual maintenance standard report, the highest it has been since the start of the reporting. These findings reflect the hard work of our maintenance, gardening and custodial staffs, who, despite working in an era of limited resources and reduced staffing, have continued to perform at a high level, providing the public with clean, safe and beautiful parks.

We also asked Philip A. Ginsberg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department: Why is the mayor’s support for parks and recreation so important to the continued success of San Francisco’s parks? What does he do to support them?  
Mayors play a vital role in promoting recreation opportunities and prioritizing parks in their respective cities. San Francisco is incredibly blessed to have a mayor who not only understands the importance of having a world-class urban park system, but who also pushes us to find and utilize cutting-edge ideas to tackle today’s most pressing park-management issues with creative and innovative solutions. Under Mayor Ed Lee’s strong leadership building www.datasf.org, the city released the Recreation and Park mobile app for smartphones last year, making it easy to find city parks, playgrounds, dog parks, picnic tables, gardens, restrooms and more.

Additionally, as we are facing the challenge of climate change, increasing demand on our urban parks as families and former commuters move back into cities, and persistent pressures on our annual operating budgets, the vision and steadfast focus of Mayor Ed Lee to transform San Francisco into the innovation capital of the world has allowed us to harness and tap into the creative and entrepreneurial talent of our residents and organizations to help make our city and department work better, smarter and more efficiently. Mayor Lee fits the mold of being a “recreation and parks mayor.” He formerly ran the city’s Department of Public Works, so he understands well the challenges associated with maintenance operations and capital infrastructure, and he has had hands-on experience with budget challenges, labor and personnel issues, and “passionate” constituents.

More inspirationally, our mayor loves and enjoys the services we provide. He is a frequent visitor to our golf courses, loves sports, loves our concerts and special events, loves kids, and understands just how much families and business rely on our parks and programs. He is a kid at heart.

Interview by Elizabeth Beard, Managing Editor, Parks & Recreation.

Read more at http://www.parksandrecreation.org/2013/June/San-Francisco-Mayor-Edwin-M-Lee/