Last Updated: August 29, 2020
Large park clean up projects can restore important benefits from nature, restructure how a community imagines its open spaces, or even perhaps change the perception of an entire part of the region.
Cleaning up a big park may seem to be a frivolous or trivial way to address community-wide or regional needs. However, we have seen several examples of ambitious projects that increase resident involvement in the health of the park, decrease municipal or private landowner expenses over the long haul, expand the diversity of uses that can be accommodated in a particular park, and create new focal points for revitalization of nearby residences and neighborhoods.
On this page where we invite visitor contributions,
we're really interested in your experiences working with parks of all sizes and all states of repair. However, our text will apply to large parks of city-wide or regional significance. If you want to know how to organize a clean-up for a neighborhood-level park or very small pocket park, you will find our cleaning up your neighborhood park page to be more relevant, at least until you decide to share your story through the use of the form on this page.
Sometimes portions of larger parks have been neglected for decades, or a former park may have become so overgrown it's not even common knowledge that it is a park. Invasive species, which might be kudzu, bush honeysuckle, or something else entirely, may have taken over. So we're hoping you can tell stories about how you have worked on such a large problem over time.
In many towns and cities, parks suffered in the Great Recession, and municipal budget cuts for parks have not been restored. Despite good intentions, the assigned personnel may not be able to keep up with required maintenance. Drought, flooding, vandalism, graffiti, invasive species, wildfires, overuse in a few high-traffic spots, and random dumping all take a toll.
The problem is that when the park looks as though no one cares, that situation seems to attract laziness about property maintenance in general and may lead to a decline in nearby property values or at least in perceived attractiveness of the neighborhood or even the entire city. If your large park contains cultural institutions of regional significance, you will need to be especially vigilant that the rest of the park matches visitor expectations for cleanliness and beauty. They will be forming subtle opinions of your whole city as they drive or ride transit into and out of the park.
1. Organize several opportunities for residents and other stakeholders to walk through the park with the owner
of the park, presumably a government. Collect the comments about current conditions and ideas for future projects and even re-purposing sections of the park in an organized fashion and post them prominently on a website and on social media. Unless you encounter controversy, don't let this phase run for more than about two months.
2. After there has been considerable public input, including an overweight sampling of residents who live nearby, residents and the owner need to meet to establish commitments about exactly what resources the park's owner can and will provide. In major cities, the local parks department may say essentially we're doing all we can. If you the concerned residents are leading this initiative, at some point you will need to accept the government's word on that, while quietly going about organizing an ambitious series of volunteer efforts. Volunteer projects both help a municipal government that may be genuinely financially strapped, and also help to shame the local officials into doing more.
This tactic may seem to be strange advice, but we find that over the course of a few years, a parks department generally will do more and more after residents and philanthropists have pitched in to create a pleasing environment for a short while.
3. If you find a somewhat receptive audience in the city government, ask them to divide large tasks into smaller ones and set up a timeline that would allow them to expand present levels of maintenance over the next few years. Residents can offer to help with a particularly large or daunting task that is suitable for volunteer engagement. Usually some people who take a particular interest in a problem park, or one that just is a little under-maintained, will be glad to help.
4. Careful pruning, selective cutting of the understory plants and removal of dead debris may be "all" that is required for large park clean up in areas that appear extremely overgrown. (Understory means just what it sounds like--the plants that are just shorter than major trees but taller than ground cover, shrubbery, or turf grass.) This may or may not be a suitable volunteer project, depending on the scale and difficulty of the work.
5. Identify together community resources that can be brought to bear on the project. Contractors may be able to contribute and personnel on several successive Saturday morning. While you should not expect a landscaping contractor to do your whole project for you, identify a few tasks in which their expertise and equipment would be most helpful. Street departments from a different level of government may be able to help out with personnel or equipment. The Army Corps of Engineers might be looking for a project. Teen groups, and teens looking for an elite scouting designation, can bring remarkable energy.
Take full advantage of the appeal of your clean up to environmental organizations. Some will be glad to help simply because you're picking up refuse and trimming trees appropriately, but if you can create an important environmental benefit, such as a pollinator garden or a wetland re-creation, expect big enthusiasm and a ready source of volunteers.
6. Corporations often are willing to help with both volunteers and financing of a clean up if you can figure out how the resulting revived area might be named for them. For example, you might create XYZ Meadow, XYZ Amphitheater, the XYZ Picnic Pavilion, or even the XYZ skating rink or horseshoe pits.
7. Lastly, be aware of jobs that volunteers shouldn't be asked to do. If you have a major jungle somewhere, don't expect volunteers to fix it. Consult the professionals who clear land for subdivisions and so forth, as they will have the right equipment. Sometimes potentially dangerous conditions must be stabilized by paid contractors before volunteers can be safe and healthy while they pitch in to do the finish work and the follow-up maintenance.
OK, that is enough of what we think. What's your experience?
What have you found that works, or doesn't work, in terms of large park clean up, or even small park maintenance projects? You can send us your photos and stories through the use of the form below; if we can use your submission you get a freestanding web page you can use in your social media. Below you can read other approved submissions for other ideas and perspectives. Please circulate this to other organizations and neighborhoods in your city so they can contribute their wisdom too.
Did you organize a one-day, half-day, or multi-day park clean up? Whether volunteer-driven or undertaken for a modest budget, tell us how you recruited helpers, what was improved and how, your best clean up tips, and how you celebrated, if you did. What equipment did you need? Would you do it again? What would you change?
And when you send photos, if you have "before" and "after," we'll all be grateful.
Click below to see contributions from other visitors or the editors.
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