“Making Space” is Taking Space Away From Philadelphians

Photo of a series of tables with people sitting at chairs, eating and talking to each other. Signs on the walls say "Fund More Tree Canopy".
Kingsessing Recreation Center full of life during a community event in May 2022

By Kimmy Cook

Last month, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation (PPR) leadership announced a new program called “Making Space: Reimagining Recreation.”

The program’s stated goal is to support the next generation of entrepreneurs by offering them physical space and up to $75,000 in seed money to start their businesses. In exchange, these businesses are required to provide programming for youth to develop entrepreneurial skills.

While these goals appear admirable, they represent a massive giveaway of a strained public good to private interests – an all too familiar theme in our city. As a city resident and former Philadelphia Parks and Recreation employee, I am stunned and heartbroken to see these vital community spaces handed over to enterprises with no tangible benefit to the neighborhoods they operate in.

Making Space was announced with an eye-catching website, an all-out media blitz, and support from Councilmember Isaiah Thomas and State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta. While department leadership and electeds pick up the good PR, the plan’s administration will fall to recreation center staff, who “will guide in the best times and days for programming for the Rec Center and for the Community. Starting and running your business is the priority.”

I’ve worked side by side with hundreds of dedicated civil servants in PPR. None of them have the time or energy to prioritize a business over the kids and communities they serve.

The plan also states that “we are aware that it is critical that we accommodate the requested operating hours to give the business the best chance for success.” However, recreation centers are open for limited hours when staff are available to support the space, and these are unlikely to be the ideal hours for running a business. And how will recreation centers and businesses juggle conflicting building and business related L&I or health-related requirements? Short answer: they won’t. Private entities will be able to dictate recreation center hours and be able determine what youth programming receives priority. This is not “making space.” This is taking space.

This initiative assumes that our recreation centers have unused spaces. But in reality, chronic underfunding has made these spaces sit empty for years. If the city wanted to breathe new life into recreation centers, Councilmember Thomas and his colleagues would hire new staff, fund desperately needed building repairs, and create budget lines for public programs that are responsive to community needs. In other words, provide more funding for what frontline PPR staff already do. Despite budget increases this year, the adopted PPR budget is still about 7% less than it was in 2008, after adjusting for inflation. Proper funding would provide well-paying union jobs, with ample benefits and a pension, to city residents. Whereas PR-driven grant funds dry up and businesses may not last, recreation workers provide long-lasting community programs for their entire careers.

Underfunding is a choice. We can fully fund our recreation centers, as well as our libraries and all our public spaces. The funding exists – it is just being hoarded by the wealthiest Philadelphians who dodge paying taxes that should be going towards these vital city services. Instead of letting the ultrarich dictate how public spaces are used through foundation money, City Council should create policies to ensure the rich pay their fair share in taxes and use those funds to bolster public programming. The City could also use funds to activate vacant storefronts with incubator space similar to what Making Space sets out to do, but along commercial corridors rather than where kids go to learn and play.

Earlier this summer, in this paper, reporters detailed the connection between the city’s twenty shuttered pools and the epidemic of gun violence (“Ghosts in the Water” – July 2022). This is exhibit A of the results of shuttering our public services. Making Space is a give-away of public property to private businesses, without clear benefits to either the community or the businesses themselves. As a city, we should take immense pride in our public goods and say NO to programs like Making Space.

Kimmy Cook is a Philadelphia resident and a former Parks and Recreation employee for five years at Carousel House Recreation Center.