Op-Ed: Houston Parks and Recreation Dept tackles city's park equity
Artencia Cloud, Trevor Merritt and Mark Whittaker seen here in this July 2017 photo enjoying the Houston Parks and Recreation Department's 'Let's Play Carnival' event treating over 3,000 area youth to activities focused on fun, nature and fitness. Photo by Aswad Walker, July 2017.

BY KENNETH ALLEN, Houston Parks & Recreation Department

Close your eyes.  Take your mind back to those blissful days of your glorious youth.  Think back to those fun times when you and your friends were so excited to visit your neighborhood park.  The fun.  The memories.  The simple joy of being outside enjoying nature and fresh air.   Now, imagine that same park with broken swings, trash and litter everywhere, signs of neglect, and the frightening proof of illicit activity all around. 

Kenneth Allen

For many in Houston’s underserved neighborhoods, the latter is an all too common reality.  For this reason, Mayor Sylvester Turner, in cooperation with his Complete Communities program and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, has created the Love Our Parks Complete Communities initiative. The goal is to improve and upgrade five neighborhood parks in underserved Houston communities and improve the quality of life for the community they serve.

These are neighborhood parks – with names you may not be familiar with, like Malone Park, Our Park, Woodruff Park, Delce Park, and Henderson Park.  They are in the Third Ward, the Magnolia-Manchester area, Kashmere Gardens, and Near North Houston.  But there are hundreds of similar parks all across the city.  They all need help. 

The Love Our Parks initiative is targeting these parks for upgrades and improvements that will hopefully inspire community engagement and lasting connections to these parks with neighborhood residents.  As Director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, it is my mission to ensure park equity is more than an empty promise for Houston. The Bayou City is among a growing number of cities like Detroit, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, New York, and San Francisco that recognize parks and greenspaces as an equity issue.  What Houston and those other cities want is for everyone to have access to first-rate parks that offer amenities and programming that accompany quality of life improvements.    

Since March, workers have been transforming Malone Park in the Third Ward – adding a new pavilion roof, resurfacing the basketball court, upgrading playground equipment, new fencing and seating areas, landscaping and other upgrades.  The work is the visual representation of the Department’s commitment to make this .69 acre greenspace a source of neighborhood pride.  This community deserves it.

“Oh yeah, there will be pride.  They’ll love this park,” said Leroy Wayne McCook, a longtime Third Ward resident.  “They don’t have to walk way down to Emancipation (Park), they can come right here …have a nice park to do what they got to do.  And I think, yeah, they’ll be proud of this.  Not just the kids, but I think a lot of parents out here will be proud of it too.” 

Improvements are also underway at Our Park next door to Shape Community Center, and Woodruff, Delce, and Henderson Parks, as well.   

Achieving equity in our parks is not a simple or easy fix.  Money and resources are real concerns.  Signature parks like Memorial, Hermann, and Emancipation all have conservancies, to fund raise for extra amenities. But neighborhood parks do not all have that extra help. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Love Our Parks initiative is beginning to address some of those challenges in these underserved communities. 

We are making progress, but we need help.  If you can, adopt a neighborhood park and vow to make it better, or organize a volunteer group to clean up a park, or, simply visit one of our neighborhood parks for a fun outing or a healthy workout.  We appreciate it all.  Just do your part.  One last thing, we appeal to all Houstonians do these four things – enjoy our parks, take pride in our parks, protect our parks, and especially, love our parks.