Five Questions With: Wendy Nilsson

Executive director of the Partnership for Providence Parks talks about the second annual Winter/Spring Parks Academy. More

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Five Questions With: Wendy Nilsson

"We all enjoy a beautiful park and one that serves our community, so the partnership doesn’t play favorites."
Posted 1/31/14

Wendy Nilsson, executive director of the Partnership for Providence Parks, has applied her extensive experience transforming urban schools into thriving communities in such places as South Boston, along with a passion for Providence’s green spaces, play, health and the arts, to help develop the Partnership. She is also the chairwoman, since 2006, and founder of Friends of Brown Street Park, a park that has been cited locally and nationally as a sustainable and innovative example of urban park revitalization. The partnership has just begun its second annual Winter/Spring Parks Academy, which runs through May 1.

PBN: What is the second annual Winter/Spring Parks Academy and how is that furthering your mission?

NILSSON: The Parks Academy 2014 is a series of wonderful free workshops at which local experts give technical assistance and support to friend’s groups and community partners interested in bettering Providence parks. Some of the workshops are about organizational development and others are about specific topics that our “friends” have requested. All of the workshops are led by stars in their field. They offer an opportunity for people who care about parks to network and learn from each other’s experiences. I attend all the workshops and I’ve learned a lot from both the instructors and the real-life situations and solutions our “friends” share.

The Partnership is extremely grateful to the community partners who facilitate and host the workshops because of the critical role they play. The Academy furthers the mission of the Partnership by giving everyone access to the same toolbox of resources and skills.

PBN: The city of Providence has 93 parks in 26 neighborhoods. That's a lot of turf! How do you prioritize and are there any key neighborhoods that require more attention?

NILSSON: We all enjoy a beautiful park and one that serves our community, so the Partnership doesn’t play favorites! But of course we do have to prioritize. One answer is, the most successful parks are the ones with active friends groups. When the Partnership first started in 2012, our goal was to work with park groups which had been doing this work for years. We thought they could use help because without an infrastructure to support them they were often reinventing things and competing for scarce resources. Our second phase was to cultivate and grow park groups where there was a spark of interest.

While we are still actively engaged in working with the first two groups, we are also looking creatively at how to jump-start parks where there is little or nothing going on but a lot of potential. In some of these communities we are encouraging youth groups to “befriend” a park, in others we are looking at what organizations could take the lead.

As the community starts to see and experience a transformation, the Partnership can step back and engaged citizenry can step in. Right now we have 35 Park groups, (conservancies, friends of, neighborhood associations, or community partners).

PBN: By its very nature the partnership's mission to invigorate the city's parks and surrounding neighborhoods involves many partners. What are some key strategies for collaboration?

NILSSON: We collaborate with the Parks Department on all of our projects and initiatives, including representation on our board. Working together, we hope to institutionalize best practices and make our parks more sustainable and accessible. An indication of the success of the Partnership-Parks collaboration is the invitations we get from other cities to speak about how we make a public/private partnership work.

Beyond the collaboration with the Parks Department, we work with quite a diverse range of people. The generosity and creativity in our city is mind-boggling. By finding ways to connect with citizens, city departments, nonprofits, businesses, and schools we have exponentially increased our reach and impact. We have a simple formula: We identify a need, determine who could help fill that need, and then ask!

We look at every opportunity to partner with corporations and businesses to advance our work, including grants, in-kind donations, volunteers, and co-marketing. I call it the “stone soup” approach to creating healthy parks; we rarely go for the big ask. Instead, we ask for a specific resource that is aligned with one of our initiatives or priorities that can be contributed to make our parks better and ultimately our city more livable.

PBN: Earth Day on April 22 isn’t all that far away. What are the partnership’s plans?

NILSSON: Earth Day is a big event on the Partnership’s calendar as it resonates with our aims: revitalize Providence’s parks and green spaces, promote volunteerism, and create an awareness and appreciation of our natural resources and extensive park system.

Last year, I was blown away by the 1,800 people that came out on a rainy, raw Saturday to volunteer at over 37 sites for the city’s first annual event. Currently, we are working with a range of city departments and community partners to organize and promote Providence’s 2nd Annual City-Wide Earth Day Spring Cleaning Celebration on Saturday, April 26 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The city groups involved are the Department of Parks and Recreation, City Forestry, and the Mayor’s offices of Sustainability and Healthy Communities Office. Our community partners are Serve Rhode Island, Johnson & Wales University, Providence College, the YMCA, Whole Foods, the Center for Ecosystem Restoration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and over 35 other “friends” of parks groups, neighborhood groups, or park conservancies.

The morning part of the Earth Day program will consist of park, and community clean ups along with environmental education events and activities and tree plantings. We will also encourage people to make their own clean ups.

PBN: Which of your Parks Academy Workshops was the most successful and why?

NILSSON: Each of our workshops provided skills or information to help our Friends do their work in the community. But ultimately, I think the most eye-opening one was on “Creating a Vision for your Parks.” We asked people how they want their parks to look, sound, and feel. When you ask those simple questions and share images and hear stories about what other parks groups have done, there is no holding anyone back. No longer are people asking for the most expensive new-fangled play structure, but they are thinking about ways to encourage people to interact by placing benches; how to promote sustainability through using recycled and repurposed materials, how to create free and open place for children to play, how to get a fitness class going for families, and so on.

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