Fairmount Park Conservancy

Funding Received: 2015
Philadelphia, PA
July 7, 2016

ArtPlace America’s Community Development Investments (CDI) program provides funding and technical assistance to community development organizations who haven’t previously had a significant history of working with arts and culture.  

The first nine months of the program have been focused on learning core concepts of creative placemaking, undertaking cultural asset mapping activities, and beginning to plan projects with local communities.

We asked each participating organization to reflect on three things they’ve learned at the recent ArtPlace Summit and technical assistance visits, three challenges and opportunities they are currently facing, and three things they’re looking forward to in the future. 

For more information about Fairmount Park Conservancy, visit their homepage on our website!


With the arrival of summer, the Fairmount Park Conservancy is really humming. This year’s Oval, a pop-up destination on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway opens on July 15th, offering free movies, arts and crafts, performances, playscapes and a beer garden.

We’ve launched a mobile beer garden in partnership with the city, and are advancing two capital projects, one for groundbreaking in September. Already, planning is underway for fall volunteer service days and tree plantings. And the Community Development Investment program’s impacts are already palpable, permeating our approach to neighborhood-level engagement and investment.

And as we near the one-year milestone of this ArtPlace grant, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the insights we’ve gained and the shifts underway in our approach to engagement.  Here are three lessons we’ve taken from our inquiry to date:

  • Do ask, don’t tell. As a small parks not-for-profit organization, we were surprised to realize we have power. Or the perception of power. In our fervor to improve parks, we’ve had to reset the way we engage with communities. We’re learning to practice cultural humility and "having a meal, not a meeting," in pursuit of shared perspectives, as our friends at the Jackson Medical Mall have advised.
  • It’s more important to have the right questions, than the answers at the outset of a community project. We are shifting our mindset to understand the fuller picture and agenda of communities and understand how parks connect with their priorities. 
  • “Small experiments should have radical intent.” Rick Evans, President of Emcee Arts, articulated this powerful idea in a great ArtPlace webinar last March. We are thinking about this mantra and how it applies to all the strands of work we do in our mission delivery.

On June 1st, the Conservancy had an all-day technical assistance visit from ArtPlace with two special advisors, Willy Wong, an independent designer and artist, and Jose Serrano-McClain of the Queens Museum.  We spent most of the day at the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center and talked opportunities, challenges and methodologies. For Conservancy staff, the conversation really broke open standard ways of thinking about supporting public parks. For us, three major themes continue to resonate and are helping to shape our major CDI projects:

  • Park experiences begin with the user’s journey to the park. We must understand the decision-making that starts in the neighborhood, at work, or at school to address systemic challenges with community parks. This has operational implications for us as we look for additional capacity and staff with strong community organizing skills
  • We need to adapt as an organization that can not only communicate our impact, but evaluate it througout the lifespan of projects and pivot as needed.  We are now growing our capacity so that this programmatic assessment is second nature, not grafted on at the end of initiatives. 
  • With the whole city of Philadelphia as a potential canvas, we at the Conservancy need to be strategic about our investments and plan for modeling engagement that can be adapted elsewhere and will provide inspiration going forward to other communities.

Finally, there are some exciting milestones ahead for the Conservancy in the coming weeks. Here are some highlights:

  • The arrival of of Rick Magder, the Conservancy’s new Executive Director in September.  Rick comes to us with considerable community development is the founding Executive Director of Groundwork Hudson Valley and the Executive Director of Groundwork USA.  Fairmount Park Conservancy Board President John Gattuso said that “Rick's prior work, most notably at Groundwork Hudson Valley, NY and Groundwork USA, is evidence of a life-long passion for parks and open space, a commitment to thoughtful environmental stewardship, and a track record of working with diverse, often underserved communities, to achieve transformative results in both people and places.”
  • The release of “50 Unique Experiences Map” for Fairmount Park.  Working with designer Andee Mazzocco, principal of Whole-Brained Design, the Conservancy is issuing this map as an invitation to East and West Fairmount Park and giving out the map at the Oval this summer along with guided bike tours and “park office hours” to demystify our signature 2,050-acre park.
  • The kick off of a longer term engagement project with the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood adjacent to East Fairmount Park in partnership with Amber Art and Design, a Philadelphia-based artist collective.This project will begin with cultural asset mapping and solidify a partnership among neighborhood leaders and the Conservancy to advance improvements in the park and the community.

We look forward to sharing more as our planning stages shift to implementation.