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Parks and Rec as Political Legacy for Philadelphia's Mayor

Jim Kenney went all in on a $400 million plan to fix neighborhood parks, rec centers and libraries. Now entering his last year in office, what is there to show for it?

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Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney visits with young constituents at the ribbon cutting for the 8th & Diamond Rebuild, pictured on July 21, 2021. (flickr/Albert Lee, City of Philadelphia)
Dana Clark has been hanging out at the playground at 8th and Diamond for about 65 years.

Clark, 67, fast-moving and light on his feet, figures he started going to the playground when he was two or three. The whole family would go. At one time the park was a key link in a legendary basketball circuit that cut across North Philadelphia — 33rd and Diamond, 25th and Diamond, 16th and Susquehanna, 8th and Diamond, 3rd and York. Even when the neighborhood was plagued by gang violence, “The playground was a safe haven,” Clark says. In the thick of the basketball years, it created a community.

“My mom would do the hot dogs,” he says. “My brother was reffing. And there was no danger. You might hear a gunshot around the corner, and everybody would get up and be like, hold up. That might stop the game. But we never had any incidents inside here when our basketball league was going on … . It was a thing to come to: ‘There’s a game tonight!’ People would get their chairs lined up, bleachers — we had all that. It was beautiful.”

The park fills a narrow block of North Philadelphia, just east of Temple University, in a census tract where nearly half the residents live in poverty and the median family income is $19,500 a year. In the old days, before there were strict rules about background checks, Clark says the basketball league would hire some of the older kids who sold drugs on the corners to coach the younger kids for a few hours a week. The games started to become a venue for neighborhood fights between parents before the league died off. Over the years Clark helped coordinate Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the recreation center building and church services on Sundays. He became the recreation leader in the 1990s and worked there for the next two-and-a-half decades.

One day a few years ago, when he “happened to be standing in the playground,” a few officials from the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development walked in and told him they had money in the budget that they needed to spend before the end of the year.“

"They asked, ‘What do you need in the playground?’” he says. “And I said, ‘We need a whole new playground.’”

In 2021, the city finished a $2.2 million renovation of the playground, expanding the rec center building; resurfacing the basketball court; installing new playground equipment, a sprayground and trees; and building a new ADA-accessible entrance. Physically, Clark says, it’s now as nice as it’s ever been.

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Children with scissors join Dana Clark (center), a life long resident of the 8th & Diamond neighborhood, community leader and retired Recreation Leader of over 20 years, at the 8th & Diamond Rebuild ribbon cutting. (flicker/Albert Lee, City of Philadelphia)
The renovation at 8th and Diamond is one of dozens of projects, completed and in development, funded partly through Philadelphia’s Rebuild initiative, a signature effort by Mayor Jim Kenney to overhaul the city’s neighborhood parks, recreation centers and libraries. The initiative was originally billed as a long-overdue investment in neighborhood assets, backed by $300 million in bonds and more than $100 million from local philanthropic foundations. Kenney pegged his legacy to the program from the outset, proposing and eventually passing the nation’s biggest soda tax to raise money for the repairs. It was an idea that put public space at the very heart of city life, and that framed caring for public space as a central task of city government.

Seven years later, the successes and shortcomings of the Rebuild program reflect both the unique hardships of the COVID-19 era and the enduring challenges of making a poor city a better place to live. Of the more than 400 neighborhood parks, rec centers and libraries in Philadelphia, just 13 Rebuild projects have been completed to date. Another 60 or so projects, from wholesale redevelopments to smaller repairs and improvements, are in various stages of progress. Initially envisioned as a $500 million investment, Rebuild leaders now say the total expenditure will be between $400 million and $450 million. And after a concentrated period of inflation, with chaotic cost fluctuations for the construction industry, the impact of that investment is comparably even smaller.

Still, city leaders say they’ve made strides in making public investments more equitable. More than 62 percent of Rebuild’s contracts for construction and professional services have gone to minority- and women-owned businesses (MWBEs). Rebuild has also launched training programs for women and people of color who want to enter the overwhelmingly white and male building trades, along with certification programs for MWBEs and technical assistance for diverse vendors seeking to bid on Rebuild contracts. The precedent that Rebuild has set for prioritizing capital projects based on neighborhood needs has become more commonplace in cities around the country, and officials say the program is well positioned to outlast the Kenney administration and be continued, or even expanded, by the next mayor.

After 15 years as head of the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, Michael DiBerardinis now teaches leadership in local government at the University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government (

A Big Vision

Over the course of 15 years as leader of the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, under two mayors, Mike DiBerardinis came to see the city’s extensive system of neighborhood parks as a single criminally underappreciated asset. Highly visible portions of the system, like the vast Fairmount Park and the Free Library’s central branch, could command big fundraising efforts for necessary improvements. But neighborhood libraries, playgrounds and rec centers were often left to languish with inadequate heating and cooling systems, leaky roofs and rusting playground equipment, while limited Parks and Rec funding was doled out without respect for which neighborhoods needed it the most.

“You have this massive system that serves citizens every day in a very egalitarian way, but you don’t have the capital dollars to take care of it,” DiBerardinis says. “You’re just keeping the system afloat with spit and gum and chicken wire.”

After talking with leaders in Harrisburg, where he had led the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, DiBerardinis hit on the idea of floating a bond to fund a run of park improvements across the city. A bond could raise more money more quickly than a dedicated tax to increase park funding, which might also be a tough sell politically. And the idea of making investments based on neighborhood data, prioritizing projects in areas with high poverty and crime and poor health, also appealed to local philanthropies. The Philly-based William Penn Foundation had made grants to local public-space projects in the past, including a plan to re-envision the Delaware River waterfront, but it was looking for ways to broaden its impact. DiBerardinis met with the foundation, which promised “big money” if the city could set up a program to do the projects, and then took the idea to Jim Kenney, who had just been elected mayor.

The nascent Kenney administration quickly rallied around the idea and decided to propose a tax on sugary drinks to pay back the debt on the bonds, and to fund the beginnings of a free pre-K program at neighborhood schools. Pegging the soda tax to popular social programs, with established networks of neighborhood park groups and education activists, helped lead to its eventual approval by the City Council, which had shot it down twice before under the previous mayor.

Jim Kenney’s predecessor, Michael Nutter, spent much of his administration promoting reforms to the city’s zoning code, a process that was largely seen as a benefit to big developers in Center City and the adjacent gentrifying neighborhoods. He also oversaw a makeover of Dilworth Park, the western gateway to Philadelphia’s gigantic City Hall, transforming the plaza from a dank mass of concrete walls and tunnels into a splashy, Instagrammable park and play space with private management. So by the time Kenney was elected, the political pendulum was swinging back to a focus on neighborhoods. And it aligned with the shifting focus of the city’s biggest foundation.
Shawn McCaney, Executive Director of the William Penn Foundation. (

“We wanted to invest in public spaces in neighborhoods citywide, but we didn’t have a framework,” says Shawn McCaney, executive director of the William Penn Foundation. “There was so much need that it was hard for us to make good choices and prioritize our investments.”

Stumbling Blocks

The City Council approved Kenney’s soda tax proposal in the spring of 2016. But while the city began collecting revenue immediately — accumulating an estimated $409 million to date — it was hesitant to begin spending the money while the beverage industry was still pursuing lawsuits in court. That delayed projects by several years. Even after the legal fights were won, community engagement around specific projects took time to complete. Rebuild’s early leaders left the city for other jobs. The onset of the pandemic froze the initiative along with everything else. And as the city began to emerge from the pandemic, the costs of supplies and labor were reaching new heights.

There were administrative challenges too. In 2019, Nicetown Community Development Corporation, one of the nonprofit project users that were qualified by the city to manage Rebuild projects, was selected to lead a $9.5 million overhaul of Barrett Playground. The group went through a nine-month community engagement process with the neighborhood and developed an initial design, only to be told later that the design didn’t fit within Philadelphia Parks and Recreation guidelines, says Zakariyya Abdur-Rahman, the group’s president and CEO. It was challenging to run the project without being its ultimate owner, Abdur-Rahman says, and to navigate the guidelines of a new public “startup” like Rebuild. The group is now 31 months into what was supposed to be a 23-month schedule, he says, and the $9.5 million budget has ballooned to $17.8 million. Nicetown CDC is scrambling to raise the balance and expects to break ground on the project later this year.

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Councilmember Cindy Bass represents District 8 and serves as majority deputy whip on the Philadelphia City Council. (
“I don’t think the expectations [about Rebuild] that were laid out in the beginning have ever come at all close to fruition,” says Councilmember Cindy Bass, whose district includes Barrett Playground. “Overall, you haven’t seen the massive level of improvement that I think was packaged and sold.”

The city has only sold $86.5 million in bonds to support Rebuild projects so far, with more anticipated this year. Just 13 of the 70-some full-scale projects have been completed, though the program has paid for emergency repairs at a few dozen other sites where larger overhauls are planned. Leaders from all over the city have been frustrated with the pace of construction, even as they support the program’s goals. While the program was billed as an investment in state-of-the-art facilities, in many cases it’s delivered more or less deferred maintenance.

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Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker serves District 9 on the Philadelphia City Council. (
“We want to see diversity and inclusion taking place in the projects and they’ve done a good job with that. Sixty-two percent of the contracts went to diverse firms — you can’t argue with those stats,” says Cherelle Parker, a former city councilmember who resigned to run for mayor last year. “But that doesn’t mean a damn thing to the person who lives across from a rec center that they don’t want to send their children to because it’s not clean, it doesn’t look safe, it’s not modernized, the lighting is not good … That’s not how Philadelphians in neighborhoods across the city should have to live.”

The slow rollout of the program compounds a problem of disinvestment that was building for years. Kira Strong, Rebuild’s executive director, says that just 10 percent of the city’s parks, rec centers and libraries were believed to be in “good condition” going into Rebuild. The program itself will only touch about a quarter of the facilities. And in many cases, the repairs funded by the program are closer to maintenance than transformational improvements. At 8th and Diamond, the new basketball court is already showing cracks.

“I think we all agree we wish things were done faster,” Strong says. “But we are making up for really an incredible amount of time.”

McCaney, of the William Penn Foundation, says the group’s $100 million commitment to Rebuild will still go a long way. And its investment in building staff capacity for capital improvement projects and standing up a model for spending that prioritizes high-need areas, will outlast the initial phase of construction. But as the months tick by, the impact of the public and private investment in Rebuild continues to shrink, bit by bit.

"All of us have to do a better job managing expectations and being careful about commitments when you can’t control for externalities …” McCaney says. “$100 million isn’t what it used to be.”

Unfinished Work 

Now in his final year in office, Kenney finds himself in a familiar position for late-tenure Philadelphia mayors: personally diminished, politically disempowered and generally not well liked. Gun violence, which was a crisis in Philadelphia long before he took office, has spiraled further out of control in the last few years. Last summer, after a shooting incident during a July 4 concert, Kenney suggested that it had all become too much for him, that he couldn’t enjoy anything about the city, and that he was looking forward to leaving office. But Kenney, who now refers to the incident as a “learning experience about not being so honest with the press,” is doing his best to move on, and in future years, public judgments are liable to evolve. In a city that tends to be defensive about its past, time itself can be forgiving.

The biggest threat to the Rebuild program was the possibility that the soda tax would be undone, and Kenney says he doesn’t see that happening. Even mayoral candidates who opposed the tax aren’t likely to fight for fewer resources if they win the election, he says.

“I don’t hear complaints from Coke and Pepsi and Canada Dry anymore, and Coca-Cola was able to keep their luxury boxes at Citizens Bank Park … so I guess everybody weathered that terrible tax,” he says.

He acknowledges that time was lost to staff turnover, but says the time spent on community engagement pays off in buy-in from communities that are getting new projects. And investing in parks and rec centers is an important anti-violence strategy, he says. For kids in poor neighborhoods, in dysfunctional homes, access to high-quality neighborhood parks with positive role models can be a chance to “understand what life should be like,” he says.

“Part of this is showing [adults] that the government cares about their children, and that we’re willing to spend good money that we raised with a beverage tax to show them that they have value and worth,” Kenney says. “I wish there were more stuff that was finished, but I’m happy with the things that have been finished already.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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