Better Parks in San Francisco

An action plan for the Department of Parks and Recreation

SPUR Report May 17, 2000

The outlook for San Francisco's parks is much brighter after the successful passage of SPUR-supported Propositions A and C in the March election. However, as we all know from past experience, the city does not always implement the will of the voters. Now is the time to press the Recreation and Park Department and Commission for full implementation of these measures.


Over its 41 year history, SPUR has consistently supported the development and maintenance of outstanding parks in San Francisco as a key to quality of urban life. Working with the Neighborhood Parks Council, we co-sponsored the Community Parks Task Force in 1997. That task force, with the participation of more than 150 individuals, developed the "Park Plan," (San Francisco Community Parks Task Force Report, prepared by the Neighborhood Parks Council and SPUR, May 1998), a series of recommendations for improving neighborhood parks and programs in San Francisco. Simultaneously, we encouraged the Recreation and Park Department to assess its facilities and programs so that they could project to cost of bringing the system up to date. The assessment was completed in the fall of 1999 and estimated the cost of needed capital improvements to be $390,000,000.

Working with Supervisor Gavin Newsom, We went to work and put together a funding package to meet that projected capital improvement cost:

(1) $110,000,000 in general obligation bonds, passed as Proposition A in March of this year; and

(2) A renewed, more effective Park, Recreation and Open Space program, passed in March as Proposition C.

Proposition C extended the Open Space Program to 2030 and permits the issuance of revenue bonds, which will leverage San Francisco's dollars for greater access to state and federal funds, as well as private philanthropy. Prop C also includes policies to encourage operational efficiencies and increased revenues, by requiring that increases in Department-generated revenues be dedicated to capital/facility maintenance improvements and that new revenues from outside sources are used only for enhancement of park and recreational programs. Thus, funds which otherwise might have been subsumed by the General Fund of the city must stay in Rec and Park. In addition, departmental savings are to be retained by the department to be dedicated to one-time expenditures. Any increases in revenues must be consistent with the city's policy of charging city residents lower fees than what nonresidents are charged for use of Department property.

Other requirements included in this successful charter amendment include:

1) the setting aside of at least five percent of each year's fund for open space acquisition;

2) an allocation of three percent of monies each year for an undesignated contingency reserve;

3) continuation of the allocations for after-school recreation programs, urban forestry, community gardens, volunteer programs and a significant natural areas management program, unless such programs are funded elsewhere;

4) full public participation in the budget process through specified public hearings;

5) establishment of a new Citizens Advisory Committee (legislation detailing this is now at the Board of Supervisors' Parks Committee)

6) development and adoption of written environmental and design guidelines

7) establishment of a committee with the Department of Public Works to develop a written capital implementation plan which will cover staffing in both departments and resource allocation; and

8) several planning and reporting measures to be prepared by December 1, 2000:

a) a five-year strategic plan, to be updated annually

b) a five-year capital plan, also to be updated annually

c) following an audit of Departmental performance, a five-year operational plan detailing proposed improvements to the Department's services and responsiveness to customer needs – plus measurable performance standards.

Prior to adoption of any of the above plans, the Department must conduct at least five hearings throughout the city. Both Propositions A and C passed by landslide votes – a sure indication that San Franciscans value their parks and want them to be improved and maintained.

Now, together with the other organizations that constitute the Committee for Better Parks, SPUR insists that the changes we voted for take place.

Recreation and Parks Planning and Management Principles

In the long run, we are seeking clean, safe, fun and beautiful parks. To get there, we need to begin to implement changes in the way the department does business. Propositions A and C and the Action Plan we propose in this paper hold fast to two basic ideas:

1) Parks are basic to the quality of urban life, and their regular maintenance and programming must be consistently funded by the city's General Fund. For years, Rec and Park, like many other city departments, has let is facilities deteriorate. Maintenance has been funded by hook or by crook, begging and borrowing from whatever source, including the Open Space Fund (not intended for general maintenance). Thus, funds originally intended for other purposes have been spent on regular maintenance. Returning to the standard of paying for maintenance, an ongoing operating cost, out of the General Fund will require a multi-year plan. Use of capital funds for their intended purposes, and not for other purposes, will facilitate maximum leverage for state, federal, and philanthropic funding.

2) Our parks system will prosper when the Department fully embraces its roles as community-based steward. For example, planning for all aspects of parks must include not only Departmental management, but also park users, community and labor leadership. The Capital Plan, which has already been initiated, has incorporated these principles; the Strategic Plan and a needed Operational Plan must likewise reflect these standards.

Immediate Action Plan

To fulfill these principles and carry out both the letter and spirit of Propositions A and C, SPUR proposes the following Action Plan for the Recreation and Park Department:

1. The 2000-2001 budget, to be approved in June 2000, should begin the transition to a General Fund allocation to the Recreation and Park Department that includes the full cost of maintenance of our parks. (In the budget year just ending, 120 positions were being funded from the Open Space Fund. For the next year, $2.8 million and 40 positions should be moved to the General Fund.) The total transition should be accomplished within three years.

2. This year's budget must include funding for the Strategic Plan, Operational Plan, a planning team for the Capital Plan, staffing for the new Park, Recreation and Open Space Committee, and support for district-based advisory groups.

3. The Open Space Committee, which will be reconstituted in January 2001, needs to develop a new way of doing business to accomplish the mission prescribed in Proposition C. The current Open Space Committee began a process last month to meet this need. SPUR will track and support its progress.

4. SPUR encourages the appointment of a highly qualified General Manager as soon as possible and the authorization of additional exempt positions on the department's staff. In particular, it will be critic al to hire outstanding staff to be responsible solely for capital projects.

5. Initiatives to stimulate and coordinate the needed philanthropic funding should be undertaken. Foundations and major donors should be consulted as to how to maximize results. SPUR supports efforts by the Committee for Better Parks to accomplish that end and encourages the reinvigoration of Friends of Recreation and Park to become a City Parks Foundation or another 501c(3) to play a larger role in developing funding from private sources for the recreation and park system.

Additional Action Items to Be Addressed within Two Years

1) SPUR urges the Recreation and Park Commission to review the recommendations of the Park Plan of 1998 and advise SPUR and the Neighborhood Parks Council of its progress on each recommendation.. Particularly of interest to SPUR are recommendations with regard to:

a) Department initiatives for the operating budget, such as concessions and leases, facilities usage, marinas, golf courses., etc. (Parks Plan, Section F1; also published in SPUR Report 367, September 1998)

b) safer, better maintained parks (Parks Plan, Sections P2 and 3; also published in SPUR Report 365, July 1998)

c) cooperation with other departments and agencies (Parks Plan, Section P4; also published in SPUR Report 365, July 1998).

d) a commitment to increase public-private partnerships, and a commitment to working with volunteers. (Parks Plan, Sections M7A and B, SPUR Report 365, July 1998)

2) SPUR urges the Recreation and Park Commission to develop a method of measuring the Department's effectiveness that will include public evaluation of parks and programs. Key to that will be a detailed budget analysis by facility and district. Muni's new Performance Indicators might be a good example to follow.

3) The Commission should demonstrate to the public that it has accomplished the requirements of Propositions A and C.

4) The Department should create a summary of recreation programs, both public and private, in San Francisco, and mail that summary to residents at least annually.


For years, San Francisco has had many excuses for not having the best park and recreation system in the country. We are now poised to improve nearly all aspects of our open spaces and the activities conducted in them. SPUR encourages the mayor, Board of Supervisors, Recreation and Park Commission, and all others to seize this golden opportunity to maximize the quality of our park and recreation system by following through on all the requirements of ballot measures A and C and by positively addressing the recommendations of the Park Plan.SPUR logo


About the Authors: 

This report was written by the SPUR Better Parks Committee.

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