New taxes spark debate and disgruntlement, and it’s no exception with Oakland’s Measure Q, the parcel tax that improves our parks and waterways by doubling the frequency of litter collection, bathroom cleaning, and sports field mowing while augmenting services to unsheltered residents (which in turn can decrease park encampments). But remarkably, in a town where no one seems to agree on much, we agree about parks.
In 2019, the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation conducted a citywide survey that, for the first time in at least a generation, asked Oaklanders about their parks. It found that 95 percent of respondents — across race, class, age, and district — agreed with what research is also showing, that well-maintained, safe, and actively used parks increase health and wellness, make communities safer and more connected, increase equity and local cultural and economic vitality, provide positive options for youth, and support the environment. Moreover, respondents overwhelmingly (95 percent) want Oakland to invest more in its parks, fields, pools, and recreation centers. Nearly 80 percent want more arts and cultural events in our parks and want recreation centers open seven days a week. These responses amount to an inspired civic vision. It’s time to make it happen.
The League of Women Voters, Rep. Barbara Lee, and dozens of local organizations endorse Measure Q because they share Oaklanders’ understanding that parks represent a strategic social investment that strengthens Oakland’s neighborhoods. They see this parcel tax as different because it requires a visible return on investment through pre-set, quantified service increases that directly deliver cleaner, better-maintained, and higher-quality parks and recreation facilities. They also endorse Measure Q for its ironclad taxpayer protections that place a lockbox on current service levels while adding new dollars for these enhanced services. Only a council resolution declaring a fiscal emergency for the entire city could change these allocations. The tax sunsets in 20 years and it includes a smart, optional annual CPI adjustment to prevent decreased investment due to inflation.
Measure Q takes on the damage done by 50 years of underfunding one of Oakland’s greatest civic assets: its extraordinary parks system, which encompasses approximately 2,000 acres, 130 parks, and 30-plus recreation centers. The Trust for Public Land’s 2019 ParkScore Rankings of the largest 100 US cities exposes this divestment, ranking Oakland 40th for park investment, with spending at a third of that of Minneapolis and just half of Portland, Ore. Given that public-private partnerships are de rigeur for civic transformation, failing to make this public commitment to our parks leaves money on the table: private investment per capita in Atlanta and Minneapolis is 9 times and 5 times that of Oakland, respectively.
For over a decade, the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation has chronicled the aftermath of this under-funding. Its 2018 parks maintenance survey, “Continuing Crisis,” gives the overall condition of Oakland parks a C+, with parks in lowest income neighborhoods scoring around a D. The report explains that park maintenance staffing is only 60 percent of what it was in 1970, even as park acreage and population have increased. Maintenance staffing hit a nadir in 2012 but the incremental recovery still sacrificed 57 skilled gardeners, even though landscape maintenance increases real and perceived park safety and utilization.
Our parks now operate at a level that would be unacceptable to prior generations. The ramifications are profound: the foundation’s citywide survey found at least half of respondents experienced barriers to park use, mainly due to maintenance issues: dirty bathrooms (51 percent), encampments (47 percent), run-down/littered parks (46 percent) and safety (44 percent). Barriers to parks mean barriers to community benefits. Our bathroom crisis is especially keeping people with children from our parks. Oakland’s younger residents and residents of color reported less access to good spaces for exercise, relaxing, socializing, and enjoying nature. These disparities show that, without Measure Q, our legacy risks failing the future and perpetuating the social and environmental injustices of the past.
We applaud Oaklanders’ previous investment in capital/physical improvements to parks with Measure DD, Measure WW, and State Park Bonds. But no new money has been allocated to maintain this necessary capital investment. Measure Q stops deplorable park conditions from becoming the “new normal.” Listen to Oaklanders: our public places, our beloved parks, are worth caring for. Our people without shelter are worth caring for. Each of us knows what Oakland can be; now is the time to act on it and support Measure Q.
From: Continuing Crisis: The 2018 Report on the State of Maintenance in Oakland Parks, by the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation.
Heather Kuiper is president of the foundation, Ken Lupoff is executive director, and C.N.E. Corbin is chair of the Oakland Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission.