Because the needs of Philadelphia’s parks far outstrip their resources, the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department (PPR) relies on the participation of volunteers to contribute to the care and maintenance of the city’s 100+ parks. However, rates of volunteerism are at a historical low. This, coupled with the problem of unequal distribution of volunteer time and resources, results in dozens of parks throughout the city that are unsafe, poorly maintained outdoor spaces.
For my Masters of Science in User Experience and Interaction Design, I studied the problem of park maintenance in Philadelphia. Using a combination of research methods, including literature review, contextual inquiry, ethnographic research, expert interviews, surveys, competitive analysis and more, I sought to understand the complex history and context of Philadelphia’s parks system and possible solutions for increasing volunteerism.
I believe that only by thoroughly understanding a problem can we reach meaningful and lasting solutions.
The problem of park maintenance in Philadelphia has many causes and consequences rooted in political history, public health, and municipal governance. Designing solutions to such intractable problems is immensely challenging.
However, my research led me to conclude that a currency system designed to incentivize and reward volunteers for participating in the care and maintenance of designated parks would improve the quality of public greenspace (and consequently, public health), at a low cost to the city. This low-cost, high reward system is outlined in full in my thesis paper, as well as this summary report.
Well-maintained greenspaces confer considerable health benefits, particularly for low income groups. According to recent studies, researchers demonstrated that those exposed to the greenest environments also have the lowest levels of health inequity related to income deprivation. Simply living near a park dramatically reduces health inequity among the poorest members of society.
Improving the quality of public parks is integral to public health, yet the parks system remains chronically underfunded. Over the past several decades, the PPR has grown to rely on the participation of citizen volunteers, “Friends Groups” who take an active role as advocates and caretakers for their neighborhood parks.
However, according to survey data, the person most likely to volunteer for a Friends Group is a person with a full time salaried job, or someone who does not need to work outside the home. This does not describe the employment status of many low-income Philadelphia residents. Consequently, Philadelphia residents with the highest incomes are the most able to participate in the care and maintenance of their parks, donating their time as well as their financial resources. This public private partnership exacerbates wealth and health inequalities in the public sphere.
Low income communities, regardless of their level of active participation in the management and advocacy of their park, can experience vast inequalities in the health and vitality of their greenspaces.
To address the problem of health inequity in Philadelphia, we need to improve our parks. To improve our parks, we need to both increase volunteerism and direct volunteers to the parks that need it most. To increase the number of park maintenance volunteers, we need to provide incentives which reward participants, at a low cost to the city.
In studying city currency models, we know that local governments can leverage their existing resources to increase desired behavior among project participants. In our case, we need to increase volunteer behavior.
Recyclebank: A Philadelphia Currency
Over ten years ago, Philadelphia began using a type of currency (currency can take many forms: airline miles, store loyalty “cash”, etc.) to help shape the habits and behavior of its residents.
In the face of low and stagnant recycling rates, Philadelphia contracted with Recyclebank, a company working to improve waste diversion rates using a rewards system.
Each week that participants recycle, they receive a set number of points which they can then redeem for rewards like gift cards or products, or donate towards projects in the “Green Schools” program. Over the past 10 years, Recyclebank has donated over $500,000 to local schools for sustainability projects.
But more essentially, Recyclebank has been very successful, dramatically increasing waste diversion rates in Philadelphia, something it’s founders credit to the use of incentives and rewards.
A Philadelphia Parks Community Currency
Community Currencies are economic, policy and social instruments, operating to supplement conventional money, addressing issues or problems that would otherwise remain unmet in the current money system.
This Philadelphia Community Currency would be designed to increase volunteer participation in the parks department for designated maintenance projects at sites selected by PPR .
While research indicates that volunteers devoting the most hours tend to represent higher than average incomes, this tool should be accessible to residents representing all income groups and levels of digital access.
While low income users are equally likely to own a smartphone as high income users, they are less likely to download apps. I propose the development of a web-based mobile tool to allow all users ease of access.
This web-based mobile product should allow program organizers with the PPR and related groups to schedule routine and preventative maintenance work (i.e. watering and mulching trees, weeding, trash and debris removal) at needed locations throughout the city.
Research indicates that community currencies increase rates of volunteer participation, particularly in structured group settings.
The web platform should allow users to:
- Register as volunteers
- Sign up for available shifts
- Check in/check out of shifts
- View their time credit balance
- Apply their time credits towards:
Septa key card balance
A local business partnered with PPR for donating hours
Transfer to another user’s account
The problem of poorly maintained parks in Philadelphia is profound and complex, but in part, it is a problem of connection. Scores of Philadelphia residents would likely volunteer their time to maintain landscapes in designated parks, but they’re currently unable or unpersuaded to connect with the groups and organizations who can coordinate these efforts.
Digital technology can’t solve all of society’s problems, but it excels at helping to connect people and groups to one another. A volunteer corps, facilitated through a web based mobile platform, would create a new and strong connection between park staff and city residents.
The current model, with neighborhood friends groups working to support their nearby parks is vital and important. Parks need advocates. But we can improve upon this model which has proven to exacerbate inequality in the vibrancy of parks. In order to provide ongoing land maintenance in the parks that need it most, we need a more inventive and alluring way to recruit volunteers.
In addition to improving the parks and consequently, the health of those living near those parks, volunteers will also bene t. Research into similar community currency models reveals that volunteers feel less isolated and more socially connected when participating in group projects. In a city with as much inequality as Philadelphia, we should explore any program which encourages people of different backgrounds to work together towards a common good .