Park ‘angels’ lead community effort
WRITTEN BY Laura Thompson
Charleston is known for its gorgeous, historic architecture and its meticulously manicured private gardens but the city’s public green spaces, due to budgetary constraints and seemingly indifference, have not been maintained with the same consistency and devotion. The Charleston Parks Conservancy—green-thumbed ‘angels’—is working to change that by reinvigorating Charleston’s 120 public parks and greenspaces, while engaging and educating the community.
“Fourtunate convergences” is how Conservancy Executive Director Harry Lesesne describes the creation of his organization. Through the strategic vision and passion of dedicated philanthropist and native South Carolinian Darla Moore, the Conservancy has grown over the past seven years into an expansive community collaborator that is catalyzing Charlestonians to revitalize and maintain their public green spaces.
“Darla Moore, who has been a highly successful businesswoman in New York City, became more engaged in Charleston after purchasing a second home here,” said Lesesne. “After spending more and more time in Charleston, seeing the beautifully restored private homes and gardens, she saw an opportunity to do something to raise the bar for Charleston’s public spaces.”
With this desire to pump life into parks and public green spaces, Moore sought the expertise and talents from New York, seeking advice and guidance from one of the world’s premier parks’ conservancies—New York’s Central Park Conservancy. This organization, along with an additional collaboration with faculty at Columbia University, was able to provide critical strategic advice on how to structure, maintain and grow a new 501(c)(3) dedicated to restoring Charleston’s public parks. “Darla is not just interested, she is engaged in the Conservancy,” said Lesesne, “and has been involved in every important strategic decision.”
“While we have done remarkable things to preserve and enhance our buildings and the ‘Charleston’ way of life, it is now time to reinvigorate the areas our citizens use most and enjoy: our parks,” said Darla Moore. “In pulling together the talent and energy to create the Charleston Parks Conservancy, I hope it will serve as a catalyst for a renewed private/public partnership between the city and its many wonderful neighborhoods to preserve, sustain and enhance the beauty of Charleston’s parks and public spaces.”
ENGAGED COMMUNITY BUILDING
Since its inception in 2007, the Charleston Parks Conservancy has grown steadily, developing four main tenets of work: gardening in public parks, restoring and refreshing parks, developing community gardens, and educating Charlestonians on how to create and maintain their parks. Charleston boasts more than 120 parks and greenspaces, which, in total, comprise more than 1,800 acres. The conservancy has taken on more than 30 projects in the past seven years and along the way, it works closely with the city to coordinate efforts on projects.
“The city of Charleston does a terrific job with our parks,” said CPC Program Director Jim Martin. “The conservancy builds upon the work that they do to raise the bar in our public spaces through landscape design and plant selection.”
As CPC grows and becomes more established in the Charleston community, neighbors are eagerly approaching the organization with offers of help and ideas to renovate their local parks. Corinne Jones Park serves as a terrific example of what CPC Executive Direct Lesesne calls “engaged community building.” Neighbors who live near Corinne Jones Park came to the CPC with a desire to reinvigorate their neighborhood park, which is being used more and more by younger families with small children who move into the area. The park included a playground that had become outdated, as well as plantings that had been neglected. The neighborhood worked with the CPC to draft and refine design ideas, and worked with the city of Charleston to identify work and budget assignments. Collectively, the neighbors then raised the money to pay for the project. They gathered to build a beautiful shade structure, in addition to installing new playground equipment. The results are stunning.
“The feedback that we have had from the neighborhood has been terrific,” said Martin. “Neighbors have commented on how they never knew how many kids lived in the neighborhood. For years, parents had been driving their children to other parks 10 to 15 minutes away, but now parents and children walk to and use their neighborhood park.”
The investment, both financial and through sweat equity, also pays dividends. “Volunteering for a neighborhood project is a rewarding experience for many,” said Lesesne. “Volunteers can see their own handiwork in a park that they use, they recognize their work and it creates a sense of ownership.”
Martin agrees and sees that ownership come alive in many of the parks and projects that he has worked on in the past six years. Allan Park is one that stands out. Located behind Hampton Park, the city’s largest, Allan Park is a small, more intimate park, in a mostly older African American community.
“At the start of the project neighbors talked about how years ago they used to use the park, and the project team was looking at a park that was mostly dirt, beautiful but unmaintained trees and a huge white fountain. No one was using the park,” said Martin. “After the renovation of the park, neighbors are in the park once again—it has become a meeting place, concerts are held there, and neighbors prefer their small park to the larger Hampton Park, which is just a block away. Neighbors feel comfortable using their park again and it is amazing to see this positive effect in the community.”
The beautification of Charleston’s parks is the core of the Conservancy’s work, but expanding the knowledge, awareness and engagement of the community through community gardens and education is also a large park of their work. Beginning with Elliotborough Park in 2010, the CPC expanded the park to include 20 garden beds available for lease to members of the community, four of which grow produce for a local homeless shelter as well as for neighborhood residents. Lettuces, rainbow chard, mustard greens, kale, and other greens abound from the Elliotborough Community produce that can be incorporated into meals created daily by Charleston’s local Crisis Ministries.
In April 2014, CPC launched the Magnolia Park Community Garden in West Ashley, which offers 40 garden plots for lease to the community. Fourteen plots are maintained by the CPC which, again, will grow and harvest produce for local food banks. The CPC’s hope is that these gardens will serve as an opportunities for neighbors and communities through educational opportunities to get their hands dirty together, while reviving the parks and inspiring urban gardening.
“THE MAGIC OF VOLUNTEERS”
Creating the greatest catalysts for change with the Charleston Parks Conservancy is the Conservancy’s dedicated corps of volunteers. CPC has a deep well of more than 900 volunteers, most of whom contribute on large projects. But a solid ten percent of those 900 are dedicated Park Angels who contribute on each and every project possible—helping to restore and reinvigorate Charleston’s public parks, but more importantly, they maintain Charleston’s public parks.
“We aim to provide our Park Angels with a structured volunteer opportunity,” said Executive Director Lesesne. “We have hundreds of volunteers from local businesses and larger corporations, like Boeing and Starbucks, who want to dedicate their volunteers hours to the Charleston Parks Conservancy. We don’t want their experience to be a waste of time. We want them to engage with the park, with each other and offer valuable horticulture training.”
With the talent and passion that many Charlestonians have for their gardens, as well as a dedication to reviving their public parks, the Charleston Parks Conservancy’s Park Angels have made a tremendous difference in over 30 projects across the Charleston area.
“There are so many parks in Charleston, the partnership between the Conservancy and the city and other organizations is a brilliant example of how nonprofits can benefit from cooperation, “ said Sally Ann “Sam” MacLaighlin Oliver, a CPC Park Angel. “The variety of projects they sustain—from maintaining existing parks, starting new parks, the vegetable gardening programs, expanding parks, fundraising events—all of it is well done and admirable. All the angels are gifted!”
While much of the Conservancy’s work involved reinvigoration, renovation and renewal, its work also includes innovation. The CPC looks to engage the community through Urban Gardening education classes, providing community members to learn new planting techniques to bring plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables closer to Charlestonians—tweaking the concept of “farm-to-table” to “garden-to-table.”
The Conservancy has also found that engaging technology—wi-fi—in parks is another way to bring the community outside, into the parks and create more interaction with Charleston’s civic spaces. “We have been amazed to find that by installing wi-fi in our parks we have increased use of our parks,” said Lesesne. “By giving people a digital connection we have seen an increase in these spaces.”
Concerts have blossomed in various parks across the city. The Conservancy has partnered with the Spoleto concert series which included a very special event last year that featured the screening of the documentary “Olmstead and America’s Urban Park”—the story of world renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Part of Piccolo Spoleto, the screening was offered in addition to a jazz concert in the heart of Charleston’s Hampton Park—yet another one of the “fortunate convergences” of the Charleston Parks Conservancy.
For Charleston residents, both natives and transplants alike, the contributions of the Conservancy have been invaluable. “The sheer joy and pleasure of strolling and admiring the beauty of one of Charleston’s parks is something one should not miss while visiting the Holy City,” said Conservancy supporter and Charleston native Lesa Watts. “The CPC is providing an incredible service to our city, its residents and visitors. Through the restoration and preservation from the Conservancy our parks will continue to be an oasis for future generations to enjoy.”