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A walk in the park

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Kathryn Ott Lovell, Fairmount Park Conservancy’s newly hired Executive Director, poses for a photo in Pennypack Park on Monday, June 13, 2011.

Kevin Cook / for Times

Like many people who grew up in a Mayfair row home with a small back yard, Kathryn Ott Lovell looked elsewhere for recreation.

“Pennypack Park becomes your back yard,” she said.

Lovell, who grew up on the 2900 block of Disston St., walked the park perimeter and sledded down the hill near Austin Meehan Middle School.

Today, at 36, she has a job that allows her to make sure people of all ages are able to enjoy a park experience. She recently was named executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, a non-profit organization that raises money for projects and programs throughout the Fairmount Park system.

The organization has raised more than $20 million since its inception in 2001. That money is spread throughout the 9,200-acre system, which includes 64 parks.

“It’s one of the largest urban park systems in the world,” she said.

Lovell attended St. Matthew Elementary School and St. Hubert High School, graduating in 1992. She earned degrees in philosophy and communications at the University of Scranton.

In 1998, she returned to Torresdale and Cottman avenues, working as the director of institutional advancement at St. Hubert, handling admissions and fund-raising. She left that position in 2005, but she remains on the school’s board of directors.

Lovell had fulfilling times at the local Catholic schools.

“I credit so much of what I’ve become as a professional, a mom and a neighbor to my experience there,” she said.

In 2005, she went to work as chief advancement officer for the city’s Mural Arts Program. She loved the job because she was able to work for a non-profit group that could have an impact on city neighborhoods.

Her new job, which she started in March, is similar. She sees herself as an ambassador for the parks.

“The Conservancy exists to champion the park system,” she said. “We can be a really great partner.”

Lovell lives in Fishtown with her husband, Andrew, director of sales for Adventure Aquarium, and their 3–1/2-year-old daughter, Lucy. They enjoy Fishtown’s Penn Treaty Park.

Since taking on her new role, she has toured parks and worked closely with Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis and Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner for parks and facilities.

In that time, she’s gained a greater appreciation for the system.

“There’s great potential here. There’s so much more we can do,” she said. “The impact that neighborhood parks can have on the city is tremendously exciting to me.”

While folks in the Northeast are familiar with Pennypack Park, Lovell explained that there are similar jewels throughout the city. She cited FDR Park in South Philadelphia and Cobbs Creek Park in West Philadelphia.

There are parks representing every neighborhood, she said, describing them as a “gift we’ve been given.” Parks are anchors of neighborhoods, in her opinion, boosting civic pride and property values.

“A better park makes a better neighborhood,” she said.

Along with that blessing comes a responsibility, according to Lovell. Too often, she senses, citizens take parks for granted.

The residents of Philadelphia need to be stewards of the parks, in Lovell’s view, and she credits the Friends of Pennypack Park and other groups for providing “invaluable” care, helping maintain a suburban feel in a city setting.

At the Conservancy, Lovell and her team promote the park system’s role in the city’s overall quality of life.

“There’s a universal love for the park system,” she said. “We have to turn that love into support.”

Besides seeking donations, the Conservancy has opened the Horticulture Center for wedding receptions and corporate events, helping to build its coffers.

Still, the bulk of the money comes from direct pitches to potential supporters. As part of the effort, Lovell educates donors about park needs. She understands that she’s targeting many of the same philanthropists as other charities.

The park system’s needs are many, Lovell said. Some of the areas that need to be addressed are maintenance and signage. The park looks better with clear trails. Accessibility to picnic benches and restrooms is important. Among the vital capital improvements is dredging of lakes. And the Conservancy likes to fund environmental education programs.

The way Lovell sees it, a thriving park can help a neighborhood that is at a tipping point.

Thus, the Conservancy will help fund revitalization of the 87-acre Hunting Park in North Philadelphia. The Ryan Howard Foundation, operated by the Phillies first baseman, already has played a key role in the overhaul. The improvements will also result in a new field for Little Flower High School.

At the same time, the Conservancy seeks to complement good works already being done in flourishing areas.

For instance, Lovell has already met with Tom Branigan, the new executive director of the Delaware River City Corporation. She is overwhelmed by the beauty and serenity of Pennypack on the Delaware, located just north of Rhawn Street,

“It connects people to the waterfront,” she said.

Lovell believes the Conservancy can help replicate some of the amenities of Pennypack on the Delaware all along the North Delaware Avenue riverfront.

“We have a unique opportunity. The time is now to make the Northeast more of a destination,” she said. ••

For more information, visit www.myphillypark.org or go to the Fairmount Park Conservancy page on Facebook.

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com

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