We had the privilege of connecting with Kathleen Conner, who recently retired as Seattle Parks and Recreation Planning Manager. Here’s what she had to say about her 20-year tenure.
Tell us about your start with Seattle Parks?
In early 2001, Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) was hiring a Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Planner. In my past jobs I had worked on capital project plans and long-range plans that included park and recreation elements, so I thought the job looked interesting.
What positions and types of responsibilities did you have over the years?
I was the CIP Planner for many years, and prepared studies and the Asset Management Plan, and developed the capital budgets for major maintenance projects. As a Senior Planner, I led many long-range planning efforts, including several Parks and Open Space Plans, led the effort to procure SPR’s asset management and work order software system, and became the liaison for historic preservation. In the past six years, I have been a Strategic Advisor and the Planning Manager managing SPR’s Planning Team. In 2018/19 I was on special assignment to the Superintendent’s Office to lead the preparation of the Strategic Plan.
Of course, there’s an Olmsted connection! When/how did you first learn about Olmsted parks/principles?
In the mid-80s, my first job out of graduate school was for the city of Portland, Maine. The Olmsted Brothers had prepared plans for the Eastern Promenade, Western Promenade, and Deering Oaks Park in Portland, so it was something that the Planners and many community members knew about and valued them as extra special parks. At the same time, my in-laws lived right outside of Boston, so I spent a lot of time in Boston and Cambridge enjoying the parks on my visits there.
How did you first learn about and become involved with Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks (FSOP)?
Beginning in 2001, I learned about FSOP because I brought several project plans in Olmsted parks to FSOP for design input. In 2003, around the time of the centennial celebration of the Olmsted legacy in Seattle, I was assigned to become the liaison to FSOP and on other historic preservation and city Landmark’s efforts. Luckily, Donald Harris (current FSOP board member) passed the torch to me, and I learned a lot from him along the way.
You’ve also been involved with the National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP), how did come together what was your role?
There were several Seattle members of NAOP who thought it would be good to have a member of the Advisory Council who worked on parks planning, budgeting, and capital projects, and could provide a “boots on the ground” perspective on proposals and issues.
What do public parks mean to you?
Parks are places of respite and enjoyment for everyone. They are a key component of Seattle’s livability and provide not only social benefits, but also health and environmental ones. SPR is committed to ensuring that we have an equitable parks and recreation system and is working daily to increase access to quality parks and recreation services.
Any favorite moments or memories?
The Olmsted Centennial was an amazing place to kick off my more official role with FSOP. The park tours led by FSOP Board members have been really interesting and fun. I was very happy that Seattle’s Olmsted system was placed on the National Register (multiple-part documentation) due in large part to the significant contributions of FSOP members. Over the 18 years I was connected with FSOP, I have enjoyed meeting and working with many dedicated volunteers on the Board. Their deep knowledge about Olmsted principles and advocacy helped to improve many projects.
Your last year was interesting, what has been like working the last year during the pandemic?
I was able to work at home, and once I learned all the new communication software tools, it worked out well. Plus, having an amazing Planning team and other SPR colleagues was really helpful. I definitely missed in-person connections and meetings, though.
There have been some pretty big challenges working on Parks & Recreation’s Strategic Plan; updating and planning for the next increment of Park District funding, what does that involve?
The 2020-2032 Strategic Plan for Seattle Parks and Recreation took about two years to develop working with SPR and city staff, the Park District Oversight Committee, and the Board of Park Commissioners, and the public. As you know, we had several task forces do deeper dives on key issues, including the Olmsted Park and Boulevard System. We appreciated FSOP’s efforts on the Olmsted one.
A lot has changed in Seattle/the world since early 2020, and staff is working out the details to check in with community later in 2021 on the Strategic Plan priorities to best serve the public. I hope that you will continue to be involved in the planning for the next Park District funding.
Are you willing to tell us what your favorite public park is, and why?
It is hard to choose my favorite one, but Discovery Park is at the top of my favorites. I love that there is an Olmsted Brothers’ plan for Fort Lawton (now Discovery), and the variety of elements that were envisioned for the Park. It is almost like a miniature city with beautiful views of Puget Sound and was based on a cohesive design for a natural and built environment. I really enjoy seeing the water views, getting to the beach, walking through the forest, seeing birds and wildlife, and viewing the historic buildings on my frequent park visits. The new play area, tennis and pickleball courts, and the Environmental Learning Center are also important assets for the Park, as well. A fun fact related to my personal history is that my Dad spent a couple of weeks at Fort Lawton awaiting a ship to take him to Japan for his military service.
What do post retirement look like for you?
I hope to travel as soon as possible. New Zealand, Australia, and South America are high on my list. I plan to audit some classes at UW starting in the fall. I also will be involved in community service in some capacity, to be determined.