Planning for Parks Renaissance

Management recommendations to fix our parks

SPUR Report July 1, 1998

In September of 1997, SPUR and the Neighborhood Parks Council initiated the Community Parks Task Force, charged with developing a comprehensive set of recommendations to fix the underlying problems with San Francisco's park system. Two hundred community leaders and parks activists, along with representatives of businesses, foundations, unions, and city departments, met over the next half year to debate, deliberate, and problem-solve. In May of 1998, the Task Force released its final recommendations.

San Francisco's parks are in trouble.

Recreation and Park Department staff levels have gone down or remained steady while usage, service expectations, and park acreage have increased. Since 1975:

• Gardener positions in neighborhood parks decreased 20%

• Custodial positions decreased by over l0%

• Structural and maintenance staff decreased by 21%

• Recreation staff decreased by 10%

• Administrative personnel decreased by 30%

The 1997 Capital Projects Needs Assessment estimated that a minimum of $125 million is needed to renovate Recreation and Park facilities. This estimate does not include the cost of new capital projects, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, lead abatement or landscaping and forestry.

$104 million in park bonds have been approved for capital repairs and improvements in the last 30 years. The $76 million Golden Gate Park Bond of 1992 represents almost 3/4 of this total. The last Recreation and Park Bond for the system as a whole was passed 11 years ago for $18 million. (See side bar, Bond History 1968-1998.)

It is essential for the health of the city that we do better. The Parks Plan of the Community Parks Task Force approached this complex set of problems by proposing three sets of recommendations: management, funding, and policy. AT SPUR's May, 1998 Board of Director's meeting, we began by adopting the management section of the report.

Management is one of SPUR's primary areas of expertise. In the case of the Rec and Park Department, we believe it also poses some urgent problems. The park system cannot be fixed by money alone. In order to be effective, the Rec and Park Department needs to be an active participant in the broader world of open space and recreation agencies. It needs to draw on the failures and "best practices" of other agencies. It needs to begin to use modern management methods. We believe the following recommendations point the way.

Year Name of Proposition Amount Pass/Fail Est. Cost to Taxpayers
1968 Recreation and Park $14,885,000 F $20,200,000
1968 Bayview/Hunters Pt. $6,425,000 F NA
1969 Recreation and Park $9,998,000 F NA
1977 Park Department Irrigation $9,270,000 P $14,797,000
1987 Rec and Park Bond $18,000,000 P $27,504,000
1992 Golden Gate Park $76,300,000 P $130,091,500
Total amount of Recreation and Park bonds passed in the last 30 years: $103,570,000



The Management Committee was charged with determining innovative management practices that can improve delivery of park and recreation services and serve the public most effectively. The Committee divided into three subcommittees to consider management topics: Hurdles and Opportunities, Training, and Best Practices.

The recommendations fall into seven categories:



1A. Strategic Planning

Recommendation: Make long-range strategic planning an integral part of Rec and Park operations.

1) Prepare a 10 year strategic plan by 6/99 which is more detailed in the early years. Update it every 5 years.

2) Prepare detailed annual operating plans tied to the strategic plan.

3) Prepare an annual preventive maintenance program (see Maintenance, 6C), a 5-year capital plan for necessary improvements and a 10-year capital plan (coordinated with the strategic plan) for desired improvements.

WHY? Rec and Park needs a clear strategic direction to plan ahead, set priorities, anchor goals and measure accomplishments. Strategic plans succeed when employees are held accountable to detailed operating plans.

HOW: There are two components to creating the strategic plan:

First, a joint Rec and Park and Community Advisory committee should re-examine the mission and prepare a draft mission statement for approval by the Rec and Park Commission.

Second, a process should be developed to create the strategic plan. This should include input from all levels of Rec and Park, MUNI, DPW, Human Services, the School District and the community. The resulting plan should be in synch with the City's General Plan. An outside consulting team should help develop a strategic planning process, and then facilitate to ensure that a clear plan which holds Rec and Park accountable is created. Consulting should be privately funded. Volunteers such as Stanford Business School's Alumnae Consulting Teams (ACT), could also be used.

1B. Operational Audit

Recommendation: Conduct an operations/management audit of the Rec and Park in order to:

1) Align resources available in the current structure. Recommend ways to improve scheduling work flow to optimize allocations of people and equipment.

2) Indicate the best organizational structure for Rec and Park, with realistically defined employee responsibilities.

3) Determine where additional resources, staff and equipment are needed to bring service to an acceptable standard.

WHY? An operations/management audit is needed to clarify how Rec and Park can be run more efficiently. Knowing what the department needs will help with planning and setting goals. Defining job responsibilities will increase accountability.

HOW: Hire an outside consultant experienced in current management techniques. This audit should be conducted before the scheduled 1999 audit by the city budget analyst.

1C. Senior Management Positions

Recommendation: Provide Rec and Park with the exempt management positions needed to improve planning and management capabilities.

WHY? Rec and Park efforts to re-organize and provide better service to the public have been hampered by too few senior managers and too little flexibility in changing their assignments. Citizens regularly interacting with the department know expertise is lacking in key areas. This deficiency hinders quality of service, internal communication and management, and efficient use of public funds.

HOW: Rec and Park senior management staffing needs should be analyzed by a human resources (HR) work group consisting of Rec and Park's General Manager and HR manager, HR experts from San Francisco's private sector (possibly pro bono), a Community Parks Task Force representative and other city departments. A comprehensive set of senior management staffing recommendations should be produced, including the best organization of the top management team, and presented to the Rec and Park Commission and the Board of Supervisors. The Board should support these recommendations and, if necessary, change the City Charter as soon as possible so they can be implemented.

1D. Planning Department

Recommendation: Expand the planning department.

WHY? All Rec and Park staff need to understand the process and to some extent the content of ongoing strategic and operating planning and audits for these efforts to be successful. Someone to educate, coordinate and manage the process is required.

HOW: Hire a professional strategic planner.


2A. Management Information System

Recommendation: Institute consistent, department-wide reporting of operating information (i.e., a computerized management information system) which includes work plans, operational performance, scheduling, program development, staffing and budgeting, and move quickly to automate. If necessary, seek funding sources outside the routine city budget cycle.

WHY? Consistent reporting of operating performance to management is essential for decision making. Also, comparisons among performance, work plans, and budgets are necessary to hold people accountable, operate efficiently and communicate department accomplishments.

HOW: Development of work plans by facility/site and a new inspection program will provide data for management. Plans for automation have been developed, but additional funding is needed for implementation. Hiring MIS/management consultant(s) to help design and implement the MIS system and train Rec and Park employees in its use may be necessary.


3A. Mission Statement

Recommendation: Update the department mission statement to emphasize customer service.

WHY? A new mission statement is the first step towards changing Rec and Park's relationship with the public.

HOW: A joint Rec and Park and Community Advisory Committee should prepare a draft mission statement for R& P Commission approval.

3B. Customer Service

Recommendation: Develop and promote a customer service attitude among all Rec and Park employees.

WHY? The public is the customer; customer service is currently poor, and staff salaries are paid by the public. The Department must improve customer service.

HOW: A change in orientation requires a sustained effort throughout the organization:

1) Management must set the example and communicate the service orientation commitment to staff and the public.

2) Require customer service training for all employees. This has begun, but it will be a long term process. Consider the Santa Rosa Wellness Program as a model.

3C. Public Information Availability

Recommendation: Establish a system for routing calls concerning staff contact numbers, programs and complaints.

WHY? The lack of a system for routing calls in and the adequate staff training for public interaction often results in multiple calls to reach the right person at Rec and Park, and makes a poor impression on the public. Rec and Park must be viewed as "community friendly" on the public and the starting point is at the reception desk, and the subsequent effective routing of calls.

HOW: Rec and Park should establish a goal of a maximum of three calls to reach the right person. All personnel answering the phone must be trained in customer service and must be friendly and knowledgeable about staff and where to reach them.

3D. Uniforms

Recommendation: Require all field staff to wear uniforms, and all staff who interact with the public to wear name tags or department identification.

WHY? Uniforms identify Rec and Park staff for park and recreation facility users; uniforms can also instill pride and improve morale among staff.

HOW: Management should form a committee within the department to make recommendations about the uniforms. Every group that will work in the uniforms must be represented. All necessary clothing, such as rain gear, should be discussed. Urban Park Rangers should get special uniforms and hats to give them an authoritative appearance. Find sponsors for uniforms (The Gap, Levi's, North Face, etc.).

3E. Baseline Service Level

Recommendation: Consider current budget and service levels as a baseline for minimal quality service. Augment current budget and service levels to excellent standards. Once an operational audit has been conducted, determine what funding and staff levels are required.

WHY? Current service levels should be defined as minimal because budget cuts and staff reductions have resulted in severely neglected parks and facilities and inadequate programs, while at the same time expectations for service and usage have grown.

HOW: An internal audit will reveal an acceptable standard baseline for services and budgets that meet the system's needs. This baseline can be locked into place by an agreement with the Mayor to stabilize city funds to meet the baseline for a period of five years. This will help to increase department stability as it seeks to develop community partnerships to fill the service gap.


4A. Training Budget

Recommendation: Expand the training budget and institute ongoing training at all levels of the Rec and Park.

Relevant categories of training include:

1) Technical training for gardeners, custodians and recreation center employees (including Emergency Preparedness and computer skills).

2) Program and property management training for site managers.

3) Customer service training should be ongoing and required of all staff. (see Customer Service, 3B)

WHY? Levels of skills and knowledge are inconsistent throughout the department. Employees do not always have the skills to do their jobs well.


1) Training should be consistent, sequential, have follow-up and include a feed-back mechanism.

2) Require all employees to attend "x" training sessions a year.

3) Rotate employees through relevant parts of the department. For example, gardeners might rotate through reforestation, golf, the nursery, neighborhood parks, etc.

4) Establish mentoring programs wherever possible.

5) Provide funding and require specified management training for employees hired as, or promoted to manager.

6) Develop an internship program for people moving into management which would involve rotations through each administrative area.

4B. Highlight Training

Recommendation: Emphasize the importance and availability of training.

WHY? Publicizing and providing incentives for training will help increase enrollment in training classes.

HOW: Identify specific training needs and options which meet the requirements of "x" training sessions a year. Establish incentives, including ties to promotions, raises and scholarships, and tuition reimbursement for continuing education and skill development. Track and acknowledge employees who participate in training. Consider Santa Rosa as a model.

4C. Training Position

Recommendation: Create a training/staff development position at Rec and Park. Assign the launch of the department training initiative as an immediate project in 1998.

WHY: Rec and Park needs a staff position to create and administer training plans and programs, and to manage a training budget.

HOW: A staff person with personnel expertise, along with outside consultants with knowledge of training programs in other park programs, should initiate training efforts and develop a training plan. Training needs can be met by working within the department and by contracting out.


5A. External Communication

Recommendation: Communicate the Rec and Park mission to residents, employees, non-profits, community and neighborhood organizations, and the unions. In 1999, communicate the revised Rec and Park mission in as many forums as possible.

WHY? Clear and consistent communication of the mission would help integrate direction, clarify decisions about the allocation of resources and hopefully improve everyone's understanding of the Rec and Park's primary purpose.

HOW: Review the mission at quarterly department meetings. Ask all managers to routinely (monthly) communicate the mission to their subordinates. Put the mission on the department's newsletter, publications, and letterhead. Read the mission at least quarterly at Commission meetings. Display the mission statement in parks and recreation centers.

5B. Communication From the Public

Recommendation: Improve communication flow from the public by developing processes which solicit feedback. Use this information in the planning process to improve department operations.

WHY? Soliciting public opinion allows constant monitoring and improvement of service delivery. Rec and Park responsiveness to feedback will generate public support and confidence.

HOW: There are many ways to improve communication:

1) Make sure all programs include a vehicle for anonymous feedback. 2) Develop a uniform questionnaire for use in all classes, programs and perhaps parks. 3) Place a customer survey inside the Rec and Park program directory. 4) Suggestion boxes should be placed on Rec and Park properties. 5) Create a phone line for the public to report recreation center and park conditions. 6) Listen to reports from the Office of Volunteers.

5C. Communication to the Public

Recommendation: Improve communication to the public.

WHY? Communication to the public is integral to delivering good service. Currently, communications are often inconsistent.


1) Fund and distribute a comprehensive, city-wide program directory to all San Francisco households twice a year. Access private funds for more frequent distribution.

2) The department should develop internal staff expertise to offer technical assistance and support to neighborhoods seeking Park Improvement District (PID) financing, volunteer opportunities, etc. The Office of Neighborhood Services should fulfill this function.

5D. Communication with Employees

Recommendation: Establish better communication between "management" and "line" personnel.

WHY? Better communication can save time and money, and increase morale and productivity. Line employees generally know where there are problems and whether or not policies are working.


1) The department newsletter should appear monthly and communicate department news, policy changes, meeting schedules, job listings and encourage training.

2) A phone line with a recorded message should report any current department news.

3) The department's web site should provide a page for employee "feedback" and anonymous reporting of irregularities.

4) Decision-making should include a "bottom up" process. Reward employees whose suggestions are adopted.

5) Cross fertilize: educate Rec and Park staff about each other's work. If "recreation and parks" is going to merge, then recreation needs to know what parks does, and vice versa.

5E. Communication Among Employees

Recommendation: Improve communication, equipment and procedures.

WHY? Rec and Park employees work all over the city, making good communication even more critical. The absence of modern communications equipment and procedures causes inefficiencies in routine operations and in responding to unforeseen circumstances.

HOW: Get employees the necessary equipment. Gardeners may need cell phones for safety and efficiency.


6A. Flexibility

Recommendation: Add flexibility to the work force.

WHY? Flexibility in meeting department service objectives would allow greater operational efficiency and reduce costs in some areas, thereby freeing up funds for other areas and helping to eliminate the current practice of crisis management.


1) Revise job descriptions and civil service job classifications as necessary for full department decentralization.

2) Re-institute "as needed" temporary employees and full-time, permanent "mobile crews" without routine assignments who can respond to problems when they arise. Tightly control the use of "as needed" workers so they don't substitute for meeting full-time needs.

3) Identify ways to hire supplemental labor when necessary. Contract with non-department labor pools such as SLUG, the S.F. Conservation Corps, or the Garden Project. (see Private Partners, 7-A)

4) Share resources (labor and equipment) with other city departments. Put development of reciprocal use agreements on the agenda of the inter-departmental committee.

5) Re-establish the "Assistant Gardener" classification as a general entry-level position for gardeners, in which they train under veteran gardeners.

6) Establish internships. Look at DPW as a model.

6B. In-house Capital Projects

Recommendation: Authorize Rec and Park to manage its own capital projects.

WHY? Currently, Rec and Park capital projects must wait their turn on DPW's crowded schedule, resulting in lengthy delays. Taking DPW out the loop will not only speed up project initiation and completion, it will save Rec and Park considerable funding which can be used for parks and recreation programs. In addition, if a parks bond measure is approved, the amount of capital projects to be scheduled will require more service than DPW can deliver cost effectively.

HOW: The charter revision of 1996 made the requirement to use DPW an ordinance, which therefore can be changed by the Supervisors. Rec and Park will require a capital projects manager and a staff team devoted only to capital project management.

6C. Preventative Maintenance

Recommendation: Prepare an annual preventative maintenance plan and budget, including equipment and staffing needs, for Rec and Park facilities.

WHY? The department currently lacks a maintenance plan.

While years of deferred maintenance have led to huge capital requirements, preventative maintenance will save money in the long run. Poorly maintained parks must be taken care of before new staff duties are added. The public 's impression that some parks are very poorly maintained must change for the Rec and Park to win their support.

HOW: Hire a consultant to do a 10-year preventative maintenance plan which includes an overview of the equipment required. The department is currently doing an equipment inventory. Develop a system that reports whether or not each park or facility is being maintained. Results should be posted for public review. Rec and Park should present an annual report to the public and the commission which details work completed and planned. Maintenance plans should be part of the annual operating plans.


7A. Private Partnerships

Recommendation: Make a commitment to increase public-private partnerships.

WHY? General Fund money for Rec and Park, as in most cities, has been on a downward trend, even with increased support from Mayor Brown. Those cities that are meeting their service needs as well as building public support are using private partners. Partnerships are a critical way to take advantage of city and department resources, expand funding, and increase programs and services to citizens. While the Rec and Park already participates in numerous partnerships, it needs to be better organized and prepared to initiate and respond to projects with community groups and non-profits.

HOW: There are at least five components to executing this recommendation:

1) Management needs to sell the value of private partnerships to staff. Partners should supplement Rec and Park resources, rather than displace civic commitment to parks or city workers.

2) Establish an Rec and Park unit for Grants, Community Alliances, Partnerships and Sponsorships (GAPS) programs. Expand Rec and Park's Office of Neighborhood Services to include the GAPS function by hiring staff with expertise in grant writing, community relations, nonprofit collaboration and contract negotiation and preparation. This group should also include staff dedicated to state and federal grant proposals.

3) Evaluate private/non-profit partnership arrangements that provide services (facility management, maintenance, programs, events etc.) to find out what works and what doesn't. Look both inside and outside the department for models ranging from the department acting simply as a landlord, to various forms of joint management.

4) Put together a team to create guidelines for developing relationships with non-profits based on past experience. Participants should at least include local organizations with relevant experience: SLUG, S.F. Conservation Corp., neighborhood park groups, the unions, and others. This can be compiled in a resource guide or primer on what it takes to get projects done.

5) Rec and Park needs to develop a list of services that might be provided by private non-profit partners and offer these services for competitive bidding, as a supplement to city workers. The city already has many contracts with non-profits to provide a variety of services. The list should include areas where the Rec and Park doesn't want to or can't do the job or it isn't meeting service needs. Examples include equipment maintenance by the central shops, tennis courts in Golden Gate Park and theater in recreation programs. The Mayor's commitment to baseline staff retention at Rec and Park will ensure city jobs won't be lost. As in Oregon, fair pay requirements and other criteria can be established that meet approved city objectives.

7B. Volunteers

Recommendation: Commit further to working with volunteers.

WHY? Volunteers are another way to take advantage of public funds to meet service objectives. In addition, volunteering instills a sense of stewardship, educates the public and builds support for the department.

HOW: Expand the current Office of Neighborhood Services to include:

1) A department-wide process with centralized coordination for identifying and matching department needs with volunteers. The beginning of this process may come out of the 1998 Assessment, but an ongoing process needs to be created. This process must define what jobs can be done by volunteers. Volunteer contributions can range from weeding to lawyering and should not be limited to park activities. In addition, there are many kinds of volunteers: high school and middle school students doing community service, graduate school students doing projects, the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program (SWAP), members of the business community, etc.

2) Training and equipment for line personnel who will work with volunteers. This includes goal setting, project planning and people management as well as providing tools such as shovels or art supplies.

3) Seek a nonprofit partner to fund and create an expanded "Community Action and Education Center." This center will be a resource for volunteers and be connected to other city volunteer centers.

4) Establish department policies about working with volunteers, including a policy to use volunteers and setting ratios of staff to volunteers in various situations. Demonstrate the benefits of using volunteers when communicating volunteer policies to Rec and Park staff.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

This report was written by the Community Parks Task Force, a joint project of SPUR and the Neighborhood Parks Council. Isabel Wade of NPC and Anne Halsted of SPUR were the co-chairs. The Funding Committee was chaired by Roberta Achtenberg, senior vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. Jane Hart was the staff point person for the Funding Committee. The report was reviewed and debated by the entire SPUR Board of Directors, and passed on July 15, 1998. The Board directed that the introduction on page 1 be added to the Task Force Report as part of the official policy of SPUR, which this report constitutes.

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