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Parks are living rooms of our neighborhoods, hold communal memories

The memories we make and the people we meet when we frequent our city parks help our community understand the true value of a strong park system.
Family helps Friends of Grand Rapids Parks plant trees

Family helps Friends of Grand Rapids Parks plant trees /Courtesy of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

Underwriting support from:
Citizen foresters with Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

Citizen foresters with Friends of Grand Rapids Parks /Courtesy of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

Friends of GR Parks working in Fuller Park

Friends of GR Parks working in Fuller Park /Courtesy of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

At Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, it is easy to get caught up in the logistics of managing parks and green spaces. As a hyper-organized young professional, it is far easier to get lost in park and open space planning. I can easily spend a day developing spreadsheets, tracking data, requesting tools, and never once make it outside.  While logistics do matter, they are nothing compared to the memories and moments that parks inspire for Grand Rapidians and their families. This is something our volunteers and Friends remind me of every day and is at the heart of why parks matter.

When I moved to Grand Rapids two years ago, I prepared by memorizing a list of park names and addresses to ensure that I could hit the ground running as the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks Volunteer Coordinator.  I committed our mission statement “to protect, enhance, and expand our parks and public spaces” to memory so that I could explain the nonprofit to our volunteer groups. Fast forward by two years and the parks of my adopted City are more than memorized numbers and names. Each park is a collection of stories and memories told to me by volunteers, neighbors, City staff members and others. These parks are also a collection of my own memories as I have made Grand Rapids my home. Similarly, our mission statement is more than a memorized sheet of paper. I know our mission statement because I’ve watched my coworkers protect, enhance, and expand our parks and public spaces every day and our days are living examples of our mission statement.  

My first volunteer park cleanup was in September of 2014. At this first event, I had forty eager volunteers prepared to spruce up Fuller Park. Prior, I met with a local neighborhood leader to understand the neighborhood’s perception of the park’s needs. During our walk through the park he casually weaved discussion about painting picnic tables and weeding the playground, with his memories of the park. Not only did this playground require weeding, but it was the same spot his children played after school twenty years ago. The picnic tables that needed a fresh coat of paint were the same picnic tables where he had lunch with his grandchildren last weekend. Everything in the park held a memory and therefore everything in the park had incredible value. When my volunteers arrived the next day, the park had changed from a battlefield of logistics to a field of precious memories and I treated the park with more respect and kindness because of his stories. The neighborhood leader worked alongside my volunteers and shared his stories while they worked. With our combined efforts, I could tell that Fuller Park had become much more precious in everyone’s eyes by the end of the day.

The memory stands out because it was my first time seeing a park through the eyes of a neighbor, but at Friends of Grand Rapids Parks we hear these stories every day. We collect these stories and the people involved, and use them to frame our projects. When I receive a request from a group interested in volunteering, those park stories inform my decisions about which parks need volunteers and what those volunteers should do. When we plant trees, those stories help us understand how neighbors will be impacted and how our trees will impact their stories down the road.

Every park holds someone’s memories, and each time someone shares their story our community adds value and respect to our public spaces. From a logistics stand point, it may seem most effective to add the same play features and the same sports courts to every park. If you had asked me two years ago to pick a bench to add to Fuller Park, I would have picked at random. Now, I can’t imagine selecting a park feature without hearing a diverse range of perspectives because I know that a seemingly innocent park bench could hold a vast range of meaningful memories down the road. In fact, I know that benches hold some important memories because I’ve met many people who got engaged on a bench in Belknap Park. To them, that bench is the single most valuable thing in the park.

As the Grand Rapids embarks on a master planning process to envision the future of our parks, I cannot help but think of all the stories that shed a light on what our parks need and why. Those stories will help us, as a community, make the right decisions for our parks and build a system that encourages Grand Rapidians to use our public spaces to make  and cherish family memories.

A Friends of Grand Rapids Parks Board Member once said, “parks are the living rooms of our neighborhood” and that observation rings true. If you haven’t already, please consider sharing your park story by attending a summer City of Grand Rapids Parks Master Plan Open House (see the City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Facebook page) or by coming to a Friends of Grand Rapids Parks event and talking to me and my coworkers. You can check out our upcoming events by visiting our website at


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