Native Baltimorean Lisa Millspaugh Schroeder spent the majority of her career leading a charge to revitalize a 13-mile swath of waterfront in Pittsburgh, transforming it from a largely abandoned wasteland to a prosperous center of commercial and recreational activity that connects various focal points in the city. Now, she’s taking on a similar task in Baltimore.
As the recently appointed CEO of the Parks & People Foundation, Schroeder has big plans for the 32-year-old organization, which over three decades has made deep inroads in the lives of urban residents. Among its many initiatives, the foundation is credited with bringing the first urban Outward Bound program to Baltimore, developing recreational programs in which over 30,000 city youth have participated, and forming a literacy-based free summer camp that to date has served more than 17,000 Baltimore City students.
While Schroeder claims that the similarities between her career trajectory and that of her father, Martin Millspaugh—one of the most influential figures in transforming Baltimore city’s downtown waterfront—are strictly “accidental,” one has to wonder if the creative vision it takes to lead urban renewal isn’t embedded in DNA. Whether or not that’s the case, one thing is clear: Baltimore is lucky to have lured this accomplished woman back to her native city to serve as head of Parks & People Foundation, where her primary goal is to connect every Baltimore City resident to a functioning park.
BaltimoreFishbowl caught up with Schroeder on a picture-perfect fall day at the foundation’s new headquarters—a brand-new, two-story LEED Platinum ‘green’ building, focal point of a $13 million, nine-acre park restoration property across from Druid Hill Park that evokes nothing short of a “wow” upon entering its light, airy space. Incidentally, the new headquarters is located near the epicenter of the Baltimore riots of April 2015, a fact that has not been lost on Schroeder.
I understand that you grew up in Baltimore and only recently moved back here. When did you leave Baltimore, and did you ever think you’d find yourself back here?
After college, I lived and worked in New York City, Maine and Pittsburgh. I didn’t think I would come back. But I have four generations of family living here now: My first granddaughter was born two months ago here. My daughter, who grew up in Pittsburgh, fell in love with Baltimore. Through her eyes, I saw a whole new dimension of Baltimore which was fun to see. When the opportunity at Parks & People came up, the position was forwarded to me by several friends. It felt very compelling, as I have a background in transformative urban landscape planning.
Your father, Martin Millspaugh, led the group responsible for Baltimore’s Charles Center-Inner Harbor Redevelopment Program, involving 260 acres of downtown land, new construction, and rehabilitation. Talk a little about that as a precursor to what you later did in Pittsburgh.
My father was the founding CEO and president of what was then Charles Center – Inner Harbor Management, one of the first nonprofit development corporations in the country. It was a vehicle for a very large coalition of private and public sector leaders coming together to, as he would say, save Baltimore City from collapsing property values and suburban flight. They started with the Charles Center plan and expanded to waterfront planning in the Inner Harbor, which was really a bellwether plan. Most urban waterfronts were industrial, and thinking about the waterfront as a centerpiece of a city was radical. There are a lot of similarities between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Both are strong neighborhood towns with character and very unique and, in some ways, idiosyncratic cultures.
You went on to become CEO of Riverlife, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing a neglected 13-mile swath of riverfront in Pittsburgh. Was it more than a coincidence that your father spearheaded the development of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor waterfront, and here you were doing something similar in Pittsburgh?
That was completely accidental. I had been working in downtown revitalization for a decade. I was lucky to move to Pittsburgh just as a citizen task force was being formed by the mayor to create a vision for the riverfronts by working with the citizens of the region with the express intention of turning the history’s city inside out—from riverfronts as toxic highways to natural treasures accessible to the public. I served as the project manager for the planning and design team. My job was to manage the work of the team and create the vision plan that was then released to the public
How did your education and formative career experience prepare you for that?
I went to William Smith College, where my senior honors project was a downtown plan for Geneva, New York and then to Columbia University for a master’s degree in Urban Planning and Preservation. From there, I worked for New York City in landmark preservation, and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, so I have roots in the government side of urban redevelopment.
When you returned to Baltimore, what changes about the city were most noticeable to you?
The first thing I love that has surprised me about Baltimore is the creativity and sense of humor here. I think this is one of the most creative American cities, particularly the way people take their creativity to the streets, during festivals in particular. And the sense of humor is important. It makes us a unique and funky place.
I’m encouraged that Baltimore has attracted an incredible millennial influx. It’s so good for the city. I’m touched by the way this generation loves Baltimore and is rolling up its sleeves, jumping in, and getting involved. I see that through the eyes of my daughter and son-in-law, who weren’t raised in Baltimore, and our staff at Parks & People—some of whom have come here from all over the place because they want to be here.
I also have become immersed in the challenges facing East and West Baltimore in terms of dis-investment. I did not understand the depth and urgency of this crisis.
Elaborate on this last point—the ‘disinvestment’ you refer to.
When we moved here to our new campus, the unrest of April 2015 started right here. Riot police were here on our property. So many of our program participants, particularly youth employees, are neighborhood residents. Their distress and anger were a wake-up call and a watershed moment for me regarding issues the city is facing, and the potential and responsibility we have at Parks & People to address them.
Describe, in a nutshell, the vision and mission of Parks & People.
We have just declared our new mission: To unite Baltimore through parks. We believe parks are the ultimate democratic space, places that can provide a healthy recreational release and attract economic investments. Statistics show across the board what parks can do for neighborhoods to stem crime. We’re also finding more and more that parks and community health are synonymous.
Our vision is to connect every resident of Baltimore within walking distance to a healthy, safe, beautiful park. We’re also dedicated to helping the city and the Department of Parks & Rec develop more resources. Most city governments do not have adequate resources to maintain public parks.
Where does the additional support come from, then?
We are beginning, with support from a White House roundtable, to launch a conversation about this and to gather the many “Friends Groups” [nonprofit organizations established primarily to support a specific park area or a group of parks] that are working hard out there. We’re looking to cities like Atlanta, where parks advocates come together annually, and we’re hosting a similar, local summit here in March that we hope will become an annual event. Patterson Park is a great example of a Friends’ Group working with the city to achieve a whole new quality of park. We think that’s possible in a lot of other communities.
Many of the city’s youth rarely if ever spend time in parks. What are your thoughts on that; is it part of the mission of Parks & People to change that?
It’s true; there are whole neighborhoods that do not have adequate park space, or any park space. If you look at some of Baltimore’s most disinvested neighborhoods, you’ll see blocks and blocks of nothing but asphalt. Derelict spaces. Our goal is to achieve a standard that’s become national: to have a park within 10 minutes’ walking distance of every child.
Can you share some specific initiatives aimed at boosting park availability to Baltimore residents?
We are working on several new projects targeted to meet this goal. At the Western District Police Station, we’re working with War Horse Foundation to completely revitalize the outdoor landscape as a public “reflective garden.” In Ambrose Kennedy Park in East Baltimore, we have a plan to completely revitalize what is now a sea of broken asphalt with a broken down basketball court. With a generous grant from the National Recreation & Parks Association and support from the city and the state, we’ve secured $755,000 for a new playing field, a splash area for kids, a basketball area oriented for younger kids, a garden space and pool facilities. The goal is to create an asset for the surrounding family-oriented neighborhood. In West Baltimore, the Matthew Henson Development Corporation is reclaiming as park space a block of vacant buildings after demolition. With help from the state, the vision is to build an outdoor amphitheater, a community market space, a playground and a community garden. Through projects like these, our goal is to prove that all neighborhoods deserve the best in parks.
In addition to adding new neighborhood parks and addressing neglected ones, is the foundation working on broader-based projects?
We consider projects on lots of scales, depending on the needs of a particular neighborhood. On a larger scale, we’re working with the city and lots of other partners to “bring home” a plan for the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, which many have long declared the next recreational waterfront destination for Baltimore. We’re working with the City to launch an implementation plan.
What are your top priorities for Parks & People, and what will it take to make them happen?
To have mapped all of the neighborhoods that are “under-parked,” and to have a priority list and a schedule for park projects so that, ultimately, we have a fully fleshed-out plan to meet our goal of having every child be able to walk to a park.
We’re also intent on improving access to existing major park resources. Druid Hill Park, for example, is a magnificent park, but it’s separated from the surrounding neighborhoods by a road that, for all intents and purposes, is a highway. We believe a series of pedestrian-friendly intersections would completely change the picture, here, and near other park entrances.
What are the biggest challenges to seeing the priorities of Parks & People Foundation come to fruition?
Resources; it is the case, no matter where you live. I learned this in Pittsburgh. Cities are struggling for resources. We need to be able to look with imagination at how we can cross-leverage public and private investment—whether by raising money philanthropically or working with developers who are already making positive investments in the city—to help the city reach its goals.
Where do you envision finding the support for this investment?
I think we’re going to have to go far and wide to bring unexpected resources to Baltimore. The good news, ironic as it is, is that a lot of people are paying attention to Baltimore. I’m optimistic that we can command the attention of outside resources. If we can do that, we can change the momentum.
Closer to home, the good thing is that so many people in Baltimore are poised to make a difference. For very different reasons, I experienced the same climate in Pittsburgh. A sense of urgency mobilizes people. I find that fierce love of Baltimore is really a motivating factor. It feels like people are working hard to come together to make our city a better place.
What’s your favorite park in Baltimore, and why?
From a sentimental viewpoint, it has to be the Inner Harbor. Because I was raised by dreamers and saw the dream come true. I also love seeing what’s happening in Patterson Park, surrounded by a wide range of neighborhoods and demographics. Everybody is out enjoying themselves at any time of the day. And I think Druid Hill Park is a classically gorgeous park.
What about your job keeps you up at night?
Making sure that we have a culture and the resources here at Parks & People to sustain the efforts of one of the most committed staffs and boards I’ve ever seen. We have transitioned: The foundation’s founder of 30 years, and the board director of 20 years, have moved on. I’m new, and our board president Tony Rodgers is new. I want to make sure we maintain that legacy of giving.
What makes you most excited to come to work in the morning?
The opportunity to make a difference, as corny as that sounds. I get to see the faces of the kids who come here. I get to see the team leaders who are always talking about the character and plights of the kids we work with. I also am super-excited that in a short amount of time, we already have several signature projects on our plate. I guess I’m a transformational landscape junkie.
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