Facing budget cutbacks, many public spaces look to volunteer gardeners

Melissa Kossler Dutton,  Wednesday, October 26, 2011 2:18 PM


When city officials in San Jose, Calif., cut back on tending the Municipal Rose Garden because of budget troubles, area residents watched as the flowers struggled and the weeds flourished.

After several seasons of neglect, local rose enthusiasts Beverly Rose Hopper and Terry Reilly stepped in to save the garden, which dates to 1932.

“It was a disgrace,” Hopper recalled. “It was time to either fix it or bulldoze it.”

They rallied volunteers and assigned them work days. In 2007, they created the Friends of the San Jose Rose Garden, dedicated to maintaining and improving the garden.

Budget cuts in recent years have led a growing number of volunteers to pitch in and help cities, counties and states maintain public parks, green spaces and gardens, said Bill Beckner, a research manager with the National Recreation and Park Association in Ashburn, Va.

He cautioned that local governments and others who enlist volunteers must address liability issues, develop job descriptions and training programs, and determine whether using volunteers violates any union contracts. “You really should have this thought out before the people show up at your door,” he said.

Some volunteers have gardening and landscaping skills to share. Others simply see value in green spaces and want to help maintain them, he said.

“In some of the cases, the people are associated with civic groups that keep an eye out for things they can do for the community,” he said.

Civic groups and businesses were eager to assist when officials in Cobb County, Ga., asked for help maintaining landscaped gateways along the county borders, said Jonathan Jenkins, director of the county’s solid waste department. Volunteers plant flowers and pick up trash.

“Their efforts make Cobb County look good without county money going out of our pocket,” he said.

The Virginia Department of Transportation last year asked residents for help mowing the grass along state roadways after its mowing budget was slashed from $32,000 to $18,000. Twenty-three volunteers signed up, said department spokeswoman Shannon Marshall.

And when the Seattle Public Library asked for help this summer with outdoor maintenance, many answered the call. Liz Morris was one; she spent about six hours raking and weeding at two library branches. Morris, who lives in an apartment, said she enjoyed being outside doing yard work. She also liked that she was helping the library, which has cut nearly $5 million from its operating budget since 2009.

“Any way I can support them in delivering services that I value as relevant to our community seems like a great opportunity to me,” she said.

Volunteers have made all the difference at New Orleans’ City Park, which was seriously damaged by hurricane Katrina. The 526-hectare park now operates with 85 employees, down from 115 before the storm, and holds monthly work sessions for volunteers. They have planted trees, created flower beds and are even constructing a miniature golf course.

“Volunteers are the lifeblood of the park,” said Steve Ryman, City Park’s volunteer manager.

The Friends of the San Jose Rose Garden also have done great work, said Mollie Tobias, the city’s volunteer co-ordinator. The garden was named “America’s Best Rose Garden” after the organization started tending the bushes.

The group’s efforts convinced the city to expand its volunteer opportunities, Tobias said. San Jose began organizing regular work days for volunteers to spruce up playgrounds, pick up trash and plant flowers. The number of work days has grown from 40 in 2008 to 81 in 2010.

“People know the parks just can’t do it on their own,” Tobias said. “Their contributions are priceless.”

Read it on Global News: Global Toronto | Facing budget cutbacks, many public spaces look to volunteer gardeners