Inside Track: Creating meaningful public spaces for everyone
As Grand Rapids’ new Parks & Rec director, David Marquardt wants to be thoughtful about where funds will be spent.
David Marquardt is new to Grand Rapids. He joined the community in February, relocating from Colorado where he’d been working for the past seven years leading the planning, design and construction division of the Denver Parks Department.
He came to Grand Rapids to lead the city of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department as its new director.
“One of the really important factors that drew us to Grand Rapids is a strong sense of the community here that really wants to make Grand Rapids bigger and better,” he said. “People want to shout from the rooftops, ‘Grand Rapids is great because’ — fill in the blank.”
Marquardt said at the same time the city doesn’t seem to need any accolades from the outside for its efforts.
“There is the desire to do that without feeling it necessary to pat ourselves on the back,’” he said. “People are interested in bettering the community for themselves and the people who live next to them.”
Though his family relocated from Denver, Marquardt is not new to the Midwest. He spent most of his life living in Wisconsin. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture, and then joined the private sector, working for several municipalities on landscape design projects.
He said that work was particularly fulfilling.
“It was through that work that I was finding the most and greatest reward,” he said. “The cities and municipalities I worked for really believed in and saw the value that good, public, open-space design brought to their community. For me that was really eye opening.”
He said one project that particularly stands out for him is the public park plaza he designed for Sun Prairie, Wis., which became the melding point for the community’s historic downtown and new development.
“They were looking at how do we introduce this new development into this old historic part of downtown thoughtfully and respectfully,” he said. “Part of that design was a one-acre public park plaza that really bridged the divide between the old historic part of town and this new development. That was really neat for me.”
He said the plaza provided a space for people of all ages to enjoy.
“That was a fun project — finding materials and landscape types and treatments that spoke to the history of the place, but also brought some modern flavor and twist to that space, as well.”
Eventually, Marquardt’s love of public space design led him to Denver’s parks department.
“My goals were really shaped around those goals and the vision that existed within the department. Many of those translate to the work I intend to set here in Grand Rapids, ensuring that we are looking at a system and providing sustainability in the designs we provide, the services we provide, and the economic aspects of the work we do.”
Marquardt comes to the department at an interesting time.
The Grand Rapids Parks & Recreation Department is emerging from a period of stagnation, following staff reductions, a merger and then a split with the Public Services Department, and lack of permanent leadership for a period of time.
Friends of Grand Rapids Parks stepped in and has helped the department get back on its feet. The nonprofit organization helped the city gain support for a successful seven-year millage that passed in 2013 and took effect in 2014.
The millage will bring in $4 million specifically for Grand Rapids parks. Additionally, the city of Grand Rapids is committed to providing approximately $4.5 million in funding annually for the duration of the millage.
“Friends of Grand Rapids Parks has placed parks and recreation in the city on very solid footing,” Marquardt said.
Already, eight parks are slated for improvements and upgrades as a result of the millage. In fact, Cherry Park just reopened earlier this month after receiving a makeover.
“There has been a bottleneck of work that has needed to be done and there has been a really strong community desire for that work to be done, so I think the city and community got out and really hit the ground hard and running fast to do a lot of work here,” Marquardt said.
He warns, however, that even with the added funds, the department has to be very careful about where it puts those dollars.
“I think that is an important message,” he said. “It’s not doom and gloom, but it is being strategic about where we invest and about those amenities we wish to improve in our parks. It can’t be everything — that is the key. The millage dollars certainly don’t fix all the issues we are facing.”
Marquardt said one important and necessary step that will help ensure money is being spent wisely is to take the time to develop a clear mission and vision for the parks.
The timing couldn’t be better. Marquardt noted the Parks and Recreation five-year master plan is due for an update this year, and come fall, his department will focus its efforts in that direction.
“It’s important for us, as a department and with the community, to take a step back and understand who we are, what services we are providing, and why we are doing what we are doing so we can have a strong mission and vision moving forward,” he said.
“I think that is going to set the tone for what we all want to see with our parks system, where we develop and grow new open spaces in the city and how we activate those spaces.”
A lot of great work already has been done in terms of what residents want to see happen with the city’s downtown parks as part of the GR Forward planning process. Marquardt said he intends to take those recommendations seriously.
“I really see plan recommendations like those coming out of GR Forward as visionary ideas and different scenarios that allow us, as a department, to react to and work with groups like DGRI to say, ‘How do we really implement something like this?’”
For instance, one of the ideas presented in the GR Forward draft plan calls for turning one of the downtown parks into a winter activity haven. Marquardt said a partnership with an organization like Cannonsburg Ski Area could really allow that vision to take off.
“I’ve already started to have conversations with them about such opportunities, and they are definitely interested,” he said. “I think the opportunity for them is that it is a chance to expose inner-city children to winter activities like skiing, snowboarding or tubing that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
While he said the GR Forward plan includes really great ideas, he will spend time making sure the ideas are the right fit for the community and overall parks system.
“I think it’s absolutely critical for us to stop and think about how we are activating these spaces that are meaningful to the entire community,” he said. “My reaction to the GR Forward plan recommendations — though I like them, I understand them, I think they are good, and they lay out a good vision — that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be hitting pause for a minute and saying, ‘All right, what does this really mean when it comes to putting funding behind some of these recommendations?’
“From my perspective there is still a very important conversation that needs to be had with individual neighborhoods as to how we bring pieces of those plans to make them special and usable to them and to make them connect.”
For Marquardt, the most important thing is creating meaningful public spaces for everyone to enjoy.
“The last thing I want is a dead park that people drive by and say, ‘Isn’t that pretty,’” he said.