Reclaim It To Maintain It

By Robert Jennings

Like many maintenance departments, Durham’s Park Maintenance Unit in North Carolina is a route-driven organization with mowing, cleanup, landscaping, and facility maintenance teams all visiting parks on a specific schedule.

While crews regularly visit all of the parks, maintenance disciplines have different frequencies, so it never happens that all crews are at the same park at the same time. However, on June 15, all teams “converged” on Burton Park for a day-long maintenance exercise designed to dramatically improve the appearance of the park; this exercise was called the “Park Convergence.” Burton Park is a 10-acre park in a high-density residential area. For a variety of reasons, including high use, size, and location, the condition of many of the park’s amenities had been declining over the last several years.

In 2015, the parks department received new resources through a half-cent increase in the property tax dedicated to park maintenance. Since that time, the department has been exploring ways to improve performance measures and to overcome some of the long-term maintenance issues that have gone unresolved due to lack of resources. The rationale for the Park Convergence was that, while individual crews are effective at maintaining the appearance of the park, many crews working together are able to significantly improve the park’s appearance. For example, a cleanup crew might go to a shelter and blow out the debris, remove the trash, and maybe even make minor repairs. But the synergistic effect of multiple crews working at Burton Park resulted in a shelter that looks much better, leaving it in a condition that will be easier to maintain by individual crews moving forward.  

Significant silting of some of the pedestrian infrastructure had occurred over the years because the grade of the park slopes towards a creek running the length of the property. Removing the silt from the paths was more than any one crew could accomplish during a normal maintenance visit, so over time the silt had built up. By having several crews working together, significant improvements were made in just one day. The sequence of pictures below shows a ramp next to the shelter that had silted over. Several staff members who have been with the department for a long time didn’t even think there was asphalt under the 6 inches of silt. Once this major cleaning was completed, it can now be maintained with a blower and occasionally a flat shovel after heavy rains.


Trimming And Pruning
These next pictures show an additional silted area. Also, note the trees in the background that were “limbed up” to increase sight lines into the park, as well as the handrails that were painted.

One of the areas of concern was underbrush that had grown into developed park areas.  The presence of brush creates places for undesirable activity to take place, and also gives an overall sense that the space is not safe. Crews cleared a substantial amount of undergrowth and pruned additional trees throughout the park to create site lines. When reclaiming land that has been overgrown, the department tries to observe the axiom that if “we reclaim it, we must maintain it.”  

The combined crews did extensive edging and mowing, going beyond what “normal” crews had been able to accomplish. Residents can now use a planter that was cleaned out. Several trees that had fallen had to be removed. Staff members also cleared invasive vines that had grown into the park from the creek, while maintaining the required stream-bank buffer.

The team worked together to repair the drinking fountain, paint the shelter, and pressure-wash all hard surfaces. Several minor fence and playground repairs were done. The park has a network of metal handrails that had been installed for accessibility, and all of these were painted as well.


Erosion Issues
Another benefit of having so many “eyes” on the park at once was that staff members were able to identify long-standing erosion issues, including stream-bank erosion, which was starting to encroach on one of the park’s basketball courts. This discovery ultimately led to funding being prioritized to shift the basketball court over 10 feet, saving one of the highly used amenities from permanent damage.

Staff members also met with representatives of the Public Works Storm Water (PW) department on-site so issues such as stream-bank stabilization could be added to the catalogue of storm-water and erosion issues that the park department and PW manage jointly. Ultimately, these issues will be included in the upcoming storm-water assessment of park and trails being undertaken by the Water Management Department.

Conclusion And Outcomes
The Park Convergence proved to be an effective way of utilizing maintenance resources to make improvements to a park’s appearance and to increase employee engagement. The following outcomes are highlighted:

1.       There is a synergistic effect created when crews work together. Crews seem to be able to accomplish more together than working individually for the same amount of time. Capitalizing on this synergy is critical when the best efforts of individual crews are not able to keep up with the forces of nature, which are constantly trying to take the park back. 

2.       There is comradery and improved morale when staff members work side by side and see how hard their colleagues are working.  

3.       Having many eyes on the park is beneficial because one staff member may notice something, thus raising the bar for other staff to follow. Ultimately, having each member look at all aspects of the park encourages other staff to take ownership.

4.       While many of the issues were previously known, others like the eminent loss of the basketball court due to erosion were discovered through the Park Convergence, which led to contractual support and collaboration with other city departments. 

5.       The Park Convergence was originally planned as an all-day event. While staining the shelter required more than one day, all the other work was completed in less than a day. Most crews were back on their regular routes after lunch. Because each park is different, a half day or whole day may be the right time frame, but it was surprising how much work was able to be done. 

Robert Jennings, CPRP, CPSI, is the Parks Superintendent for the city of Durham’s Parks and Recreation Department in Durham, N.C. Reach him at