SETTING THE STAGE
Many of the nation’s largest cities lie along the east and west coasts; the midwest often evokes images of rural lifestyles and industrial farms and facilities. Yet cities like Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Kansas City, and St. Louis are examples of cities in the region that defy the agrarian stereotype of the mid-continent. St. Louis is home to nearly 3 million people. The metropolitan area features prominent historical relevance to the civil war, the outset of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the themes of Westward Expansion, and is a major regional center of Native American Mississippian culture.
St. Louis boasts attractions beyond those connected to western expansion or Native American culture as well. As host of the 1904 World’s Fair, St. Louis is credited with the introduction of the ice cream cone by a Syrian concessionaire. The last remaining site from the Fair—the St. Louis Art Museum—is one of many free major visitor attractions in the city. In fact, St. Louis promotes that, outside of Washington D.C., it offers the most free major visitor attractions in the U.S., helping to make cultural and natural resources more accessible to the urban population and the 26 million tourists that visit the city each year.
The major attraction in the city is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial which includes the Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse. The partnership park is full of complex history and also served as the home base for Urban Fellow Tara Rath during her time in the Urban Agenda pilot program.
Rath expressed some of the challenges and outcomes of the pilot in the partnership park. She also touched on her work building sustainable partnerships and institutionalizing the Urban Agenda principles among Jefferson National Expansion Memorial staff.
THE URBAN AGENDA IN ACTION
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is one of six partners that make up the CityArchRiver Alliance, which is a partnership between the city, non-profit organizations and the National Park Service. Together the Alliance is striving to connect the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial with downtown St. Louis— a massive undertaking requiring a $380 million investment. This was a vision that the park committed to in their 2009 General Management Plan. The CityArchRiver project is near completion, but the Alliance is gearing up for the future as functional areas have been created.
There are eight functional areas that are focused around maintenance and capital projects, visitor services, public safety, programming, special events, communications and marketing, community support and transportation. The functional areas meet regularly and allow partners to collaborate while staying true to their missions.
Urban Agenda is built around being relevant to all Americans and nurturing a culture of collaboration. Building upon these two principles Rath and NPS leaders utilized the Urban Agenda to bring relevancy, diversity, and inclusion training to the staff at Jefferson to improve staff capacity to program, plan, and interpret with a diverse audience in mind. Over 100 people participated in the training, including all levels of Park Service employees as well as partners. Bringing everyone together for this training allowed for the opportunity for participants to meaningfully discuss these topics and ultimately led to instilling the ideas of relevance and collaboration in the work of staff at Jefferson and its partners. This training was paired with community engagement meeting and phone interviews as a way for the park to learn more about what the community needs and wants.
The Urban Agenda is also focused on activating “One NPS” and one of the ways that the NPS sites in Missouri did this was through the creativity of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and one of their partners with the creation of the Missouri National Parks Passport. The passport connected the six Park Service units in Missouri, and challenged park-goers to visit every park in the state. Rath indicated that, “The passport helps people understand that all these sites are connected, that NPS has a broader presence. Many people don’t know that the Arch is a National Park, so programs like this really help the public understand the diversity of work NPS really does, and how large it is.”
Another powerful example of “One NPS” was demonstrated with the $450,000 Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) program grant that was recently awarded from the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) to build a 1.2 acre soccer field in the City of Wellston, MO. This successful collaboration between the park and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, City of Wellston and other partners will allow children to have a safe place to play outdoors in an area that is underserved by parks. This grant and collaboration allows NPS to show the impact that it can have on a community outside of “parks”.
Aligning Methods and Staying Consistent
“I was particularly successful during the pilot because NPS was able to align its mission with those of its partners. We also created and maintained a regular reporting schedule with each other and our partners,” Rath notes. Aligning not only the missions but the method made for more efficient collaboration; staying consistent with group communication—for example long term partnerships, such as the CityArchRiver Alliance partnership that was created in St. Louis. The functional area (subcommittees) allowed staff to stay updated on concurrent work and offer ideas to continue enhancing programs and operations. Ultimately this coordination allowed projects to come together more smoothly, in many cases, and led to strong partnership-building by reaffirming the Park Service’s strengths in its capacity and ability to effectively convene partners around a central vision.
Plan for Longevity
Sustainability is a key concern expressed by many of the Fellows. Rath affirms that beyond the goal of designing long-term partnerships and projects, even a single event, all programs should be designed “knowing that funding sources will change and there will be transitions in leadership.” To prepare for these inevitable pivots means building in sustainability from the outset of a project and allows for successful events to serve as scalable models for other programs and parks.
Know When to Use The Power of the Flat Hat
“There were times when I really wished I was wearing the uniform while gathering people together. It holds weight with staff and partners, and would’ve commanded more attention,” Rath admits, noting that the position was not uniformed. But as recognizable and powerful as the uniform is, Rath also noted that many St. Louis residents are not familiar with the uniform, that it resembles the uniforms of law enforcement agencies. This can and does alienate visitors who don’t know that the Park Service is the management entity and is present at the Arch, or other NPS sites in urban areas. “While familiarizing the public with the true scope of the Park Service, it’s important to remember the negative and positive power in the Park Service logo—for the times that I wished I was in uniform, there were times I was more effective in finding support without the flat hat and arrowhead. I hope that NPS uniformed employees who reside in urban parks can embrace their communities by being in uniform outside of park borders, this exposure will bring awareness to urban NPS sites and hopefully dispel any negativity about the uniform.”
Rath’s fellowship extends to the end of 2017, unlike many of the other fellowships that wrapped up in July of the same year. Excited to continue implementing the Urban Agenda, Rath noted a continued commitment to building programs and partnerships that are sustainable, but offered some broader recommendations for how to expand the principles as the pilot fulfills its mandate. Through the sharing of information across digital platforms, NPS could continue to reach a broad cohort of employees to institutionalize the lessons learned by the fellows and their partners. By illustrating models of Urban Agenda projects through digitally accessible platforms, NPS can offer staff the chance to better engage with the Agenda, and continue to enhance these models for their own parks and partners. In tandem, Rath notes that NPS would only benefit from more regular communication with itself. By not only informing, but giving a voice to staff at all levels while promoting communication across park units and program offices, NPS has an opportunity to build on its strengths, enhance its capacity and visibility as a more unified agency, and provide a diverse pool of voices and ideas to better design new programs.
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Last updated: September 12, 2017