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California City Solutions: Volunteers Help Beautify Public Places in South San Francisco

August 21, 2015
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
The 2014 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. South San Francisco’s Improving Public Places was submitted in 2014 for the Enhancing Public Trust, Ethics, and Community Involvement award category.

The city of South San Francisco is a growing community, home to innovative biotechnology and technology corporations, industry and trade. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department maintains 200 acres of parks and open space areas, with more than 8,000 trees. When the recession forced the city to cut staff and funding for parks, Mayor Karyl Matsumoto created a volunteer force to ensure these community resources remained well-maintained.
South San Francisco’s park land and maintenance needs increased in recent years as budget constraints limited the city’s ability to add more parks staff. Due to budget cuts, the department’s staff shrunk from 25 to 19 employees and funding for many needed capital improvements and equipment replacement was put on hold.
Department staff was directed to focus on routine maintenance and emergency repairs, rather than targeted cleanups and beautification projects. Parks remained safe and useable, but often hit by vandals. Areas with potential for vibrant and welcoming landscapes were left barren. The city struggled with how to keep park areas maintained, including a 16-acre, three mile long trail from the town of Colma to the city of Brisbane, which cuts through South San Francisco. While the city received grants for construction, the estimated $100,000 in annual maintenance costs had to be absorbed.
At the same time, South San Francisco experienced an increase in violent gang activity, graffiti, and vandalism. Areas hit by graffiti, such as restrooms, picnic areas, and recreation buildings were susceptible to vandalism and gang activity. A greater sense of community and investment was needed to help clean up after and deter this behavior.
In 2006, Mayor Karyl Matsumoto founded the Improving Public Places group (IPP) with the public works director's support. The city called upon volunteers to help perform civic beautification projects, hoping to increase community involvement and civic pride.
The mayor and public works director collaborated and planned the group’s first cleanups that included weeding, plant trimming and trash cleanup. After recruiting more volunteers, the group began organizing quarterly planting projects. Mayor Matsumoto, IPP volunteers, and city staff launched monthly meetings to discuss and budget projects, strategize priorities for future community plantings, develop partnerships, and craft long term goals.
IPP volunteers, along with the mayor, host regular volunteer planting events to perform tasks such as picking up trash, grubbing weeds, clearing pathways and trails, removing graffiti, planting native and low maintenance trees and plants, and funding installation of park furnishings, interpretive signage, and outdoor art. IPP partners with the department’s grant funding initiatives, including supporting two KaBOOM!, volunteer-driven playground installations and tree planting grants. KaBOOM! is a nonprofit organization that partners with companies creating and catalyzing great places to play. 
IPP landscaped the award-winning Sculpture Garden, planting 50 trees along the Centennial Way Trail and renovating the landscaping at the South San Francisco Conference Center.
IPP utilizes several outreach tools to target all generations and abilities, including the city’s website, distributing printed flyers, and social media to distribute. IPP’s quarterly newsletter features updates on current and future programs, volunteer recruitment, park adoption, and articles on landscaping or affirming the importance of their volunteers’ work. Also, given the dynamics of the community, word of mouth is an integral part of the committee’s outreach and recruitment efforts.
Committee members partner with other groups as well including the South San Francisco School Unified District, high school and middle school service clubs, and other community service organizations. They promote hands on community service so that volunteers become more familiar with their community, the city’s needs, and network with neighbors, and become advocates for parks and recreation programs.
IPP volunteers were the incentive for the city’s first ever Adopt-a-Park program. As part of the program, individuals or groups can adopt identified sites where they maintain and improve park areas throughout the city. At least 24 sites have been adopted. While volunteers cannot replace full-time qualified crews, they have allowed maintenance workers to focus their attention on skilled maintenance tasks and repairs. This allows the city to do more work with fewer resources, and keep parks safe and clean.
Most importantly, Mayor Matsumoto and IPP volunteers create a sense of civic pride with their dedication to their community. During the past eight years, IPP has grown from two volunteers to nine committee members and more than 250 volunteers. More than 25 targeted park cleanup events have been completed including planting 4,000 native plants and trees and installing numerous park furnishings. Volunteers donated more than 15,000 hours, equivalent to one full-time maintenance person per year.
Mayor Matsumoto has made an effort to draw in skilled professionals to help lead volunteers and to provide professional designs. She has carefully advocated for attractive yet low maintenance and hardy native plants so not to add more burden to maintenance personnel or city resources.
South San Francisco was recognized in 2009 as a model of volunteer service and designated as a “City of Service” under the Kennedy Serve America Act. This national designation is for cities that harness power of volunteers in solving community challenges.
A 2012 study of service calls for graffiti showed a decline in vandalism and graffiti by 50 percent — credited in large part to this greater investment in the community. In making many enhancements and creating more inviting public spaces, the committee has improved public assets, and created greater commitment and investment in parks and recreation services.

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