Ben Page’s Parks Playbook

At Cohen Park’s bouldering wall and elsewhere, Ben Page is taking Des Moines Parks and Recreation to new heights. Photo: Duane Tinkey

Writer: Kelly Roberson

It’s worth noting that Des Moines Parks and Recreation Director Ben Page lists his cellphone number on the city’s website, and he takes calls at all hours.

“I want people to get the service they expect,” he said.

Here then, is the public employee, who oversees a $14 million budget, a $48 million capital improvement program and 76 parks. Two years ago, the city’s park system ranked 21st in the nation in the Trust for Public Lands Park Score index, which compares park acreage, investment, amenities, access and equity per thousand residents. As Page put it, “We’re definitely outpunching our weight class.”

Page took over the parks’ top job in 2007. A year later, the Great Recession forced him to cut his staff by more than half, from 147 to 70, and those numbers have never fully recovered. But he never trimmed parks or amenities. “We had a choice to watch them get chipped away or rebuild and rebrand through innovative collaborations,” he said.

Page and his team leveraged private dollars and volunteer hours to boost community support for the city’s parks. That meant, for example, turning wading pools into spray grounds, which don’t require staffing and can stay open 180 days each year instead of 60. Page also forged partnerships with the fire department, for instance, to install playgrounds instead of paying contractors. “It blows me away how people just show up for what we need,” Page said.

The parks department’s current comprehensive plan, created in 2018 with input from every neighborhood in the city, prioritizes reinvestments in neighborhood parks. The project kicked into overdrive in 2020 when the pandemic hit and federal funds enabled the department to reinvigorate three or four parks each year, instead of just one or two.

The results: 2.6 million trail trips. More than 4,400 volunteers. More than 2,600 participants in youth rec scholarship programs. The statistics go on, but Page is still punching up, with plenty of ideas he’s borrowed from places like Austin and Minneapolis. “We have places where we can get creative,” he said.

Go Play Outside!

We asked Ben Page to share a few of his favorite spots in the local parks.

Cohen Park, 1000 Scott Ave.
It has the parks’ first-of-its-kind bouldering wall and an interactive ball wall for a game called Sutu. “No one else has this,” Page said.

Fairmont Park, 2520 Hull Ave.
Built into a hillside left over from a 1970s development, the park was “not anything cool,” Page said. So in 2015, the department dug a 40-foot, Instagram-perfect slide and a sprayground.

MacRae Park, 1021 Davis Ave.
Long neglected, MacRae holds a special spot in Page’s heart. “It has the most beautiful views of downtown,” he said. Its playground got a recent upgrade, along with a new enclosed shelter and pedestrian lane. Work crews also narrowed the old road and added a median to discourage speeders.

Riverview Park, 710 Corning Ave.
The fully inclusive playground is located on the site of a former amusement park and incorporates several nods to that history.

Woodland Cemetery, 2019 Woodland Ave.
Look for QR codes posted near about 70 graves that link to short videos about some of the movers and shakers from the city’s past.

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