Sixty years and still counting

Parks and Recreation Department celebrated 60th anniversary in 2006

If we were to go back 60 years for a visit to San Diego, we'd notice two things: there were a lot fewer people here in 1946 (about a tenth of the current population), and most of them lived within the city limits. But we'd also notice that San Diego had parks- dozens of them. We'd find a little one-acre beach park in Encinitas, one- or two-acre picnic parks scattered from Cardiff to La Cresta, a historic monument or two. Compared to the parks we have today, most of the parks were very small, but San Diegans loved them anyway.

Yes, San Diegans were serious about their parks. So serious, in fact, that when the Board of Supervisors recommended that a Parks and Recreation Department be established in 1946, it was only the third county in the entire nation to do so. The new county department inherited "parks" that had been under the jurisdiction of the County Property Department (which later became the Department of Public Works). Some of these facilities hardly qualified as parks, at least as we know them today. Among them were a parking plaza with a sculpture fountain, a roadside rest stop, and three libraries surrounded by lawns. One of the most popular parks was Felicita Park, which had a small zoo that featured two tame deer, a javelina, and some doves, pigeons, and peacocks.

Yet the nucleus of a parks and recreation system was there, as well as a desire to create a world-class park and recreation department. By the early 1970s, the face of Parks and Recreation was beginning to change considerably. Local parks were augmented by larger regional parks, most of which offered visitors the option of extending their stay in the outdoors. The first true campground, owned and managed outright by the department, was added in 1967 when William Heise County Park was acquired. Other camping parks followed: Potrero, Dos Picos, Lake Morena, Guajome, and Sweetwater Summit greatly expanded the number of campsites available.

Over the next few decades, the department also significantly added to its acquisition of open-space holdings. Since the department?s humble beginnings in 1946, tens of thousands of acres of open space preserves were acquired, providing exciting recreational and environmental education opportunities for thousands of San Diegans today and in the future.

While the department has expanded its total acreage, it has, more significantly, expanded its vision of what a parks and recreation department should do. The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) still provides wonderful outdoor recreation opportunities for residents and visitors to San Diego. At the same time, DPR has affirmed its role in preserving our natural and cultural resources. As a manager of significant portions of San Diego's sensitive habitats, the department recognized that it has a responsibility to garner knowledge about these resources. The result of that commitment is dozens of scientific research projects. Archaeological excavation and research has preserved many of the region's historic treasures and contributed to the knowledge of 7000 years of San Diego history. And in its widest-ranging preservation effort, the department played a key role in the creation and operation of the Multiple Species Conservation Program. This nationally recognized plan will permanently protect 172,000 acres that are home to nearly 100 sensitive or endangered plant and animal species.

Perhaps the most significant expression of the department's role in the community in recent years is the growth of the community and teen centers. The three community centers offer a wide variety of programs and services for the youth, adults, and seniors of these communities, offering lifelong learning skills for all ages. Two new teen centers demonstrate how the department can make a positive difference in the lives of youth. Programs at the centers range from physical fitness classes to counseling services to community service projects.

Just think, in its first sixty years, County Parks and Recreation has grown from a few miscellaneous parcels inherited from Public Works, to a nationally recognized and awarded parks system boasting more than 90 facilities, 700 campsites, 40,000 acres, hundreds of miles of trails, and thousands of recreation programs. The department has received numerous awards, including the National Park and Recreation Gold Medal Award, National Association of Counties awards for its volunteer program and on-line camping reservation system, and California Park and Recreation Society awards for its Health and Wellness programs and the Trails Program.

Truly, the County's Department of Parks and Recreation is a park and recreation system that's the pride of San Diego.