ALAMEDA -- Go to many of the 20 Alameda parks on a sunny weekend afternoon, and you'll see a hive of activity.
Take Lincoln Park, the city's second-oldest, which opened to the public in 1909, for example. Enter at High Street, where the park's canopy of 100-plus-year-old trees shade the grass, and you may see a multigenerational family playing volleyball on a homemade court. Walk a little further, past moms with strollers and a man walking his yellow Labrador, and you'll see a children's play area swarmed with the kindergarten set. A pair of men play handball near a handful of boys bouncing a basketball against a wall. A young mother and father dote on their 2-year-old as she navigates the stairs and slides in the toddler play area.
The parks are one of the reasons why Scott Morgan chose to live in Alameda. His house is just two blocks from Lincoln Park, and he comes twice a week with his 2-year-old daughter, Julia, who, during nice weather, spends nearly every day at the park with her mom or a sitter.
"This park has provided hours of entertainment for our family," he said as Julia tugged on the leg of his pants for a little more attention. "We think the parks are fabulous."
And Alameda residents aren't the only ones who enjoy the outdoors and play equipment in the city's parks. People from Oakland, San Leandro and Emeryville drive into Alameda to play because the parks are so clean, accessible and safe.
"There are people here doing what the park is intended for," said Michelle Anderson, of Oakland, as she supervised her three kids ages 12, 5 and 2 in Franklin Park while her husband practiced slacklining, a balancing sport related to rock climbing, nearby. "There are a lot of families here, and it's clean, safe and fun."
Alameda's park system is a source of pride for residents and city staff. Alameda was the third city in California, after San Francisco and Los Angeles, to establish a playground system overseen by a citizens commission when a Park and Playground Commission was organized in 1908.
Alameda's oldest park, Jackson Park, running along Park Avenue a block from Park Street, opened to the public in 1895, and residents and city officials are working hard to develop plans for a new 22-acre park, which will be Alameda's second largest next to Shoreline Park on Bay Farm Island, on the city's west side known as the Beltline property or the Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve. Many residents say this future park could be Alameda's version of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Talk to anyone invested in the parks system, like Alameda's Friends of the Parks Foundation board member and parks Commissioner Bill Delaney, and they'll tell you that anyone who lives in Alameda is no more than a 10-minute walk from a city park.
"That means that you're close to activity, you're close to something good," Delaney said.
While maintenance of the parks comes from city funding -- and the Sweeney Park development will likely come from grants -- some of the splendor of Alameda parks comes courtesy of the Friends of the Parks Foundation. The 30-year-old foundation, which works closely with Alameda Recreation and Park Director Amy Wooldridge, helps bring that extra "oomph" to park and recreation offerings by raising money through corporate and private donations, the sale of the "Alameda At Play" book and fundraising activities and events. The foundation can also go after grants to improve parks for which a municipality may not be eligible.
"The Friends of the Parks exists because we help support a lot of the things Alameda Recreation and Parks manages," Delaney said. "It's an amazing array of programs that support people physically and socially."
You can see the foundation's work in the recently installed exercise equipment seen in Washington and Lincoln parks, which it paid for and maintains. It sponsors the free Starlight Movies in the Park over the summer and is responsible for the carved wooden signs that add a bit of dignity to each park. It also sponsors activities such as the Spring Coloring Event and special events at the Underground Teen Center. And a van rolling around Alameda that transfers kids around park programs is paid for courtesy of the foundation.
As commissioner and foundation board member, Delaney and his fellow board members hear from many city residents who want different uses in their parks.
"If you're standing around parks with baseball fields in them, you'll hear that people want more space for baseball," he said. "If you're talking to senior citizens, they will tell you they want quiet, passive space."
And Alameda has all that in its 116 acres of parks. Major League Baseball Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh Pirates legend Willie Stargell cut his home run-winning chops in Alameda parks. While the parks are notable, the city's recreation program is also known for its top-notch offerings to residents of all ages, from circuit training for adults to "Mommy and Me Ballet."
"I think we have one of the best senior programs around," said Lola Brown, another Recreation and Park Department commissioner, as she talked about programs at Mastick Senior Center, which serves hundreds of older adults with free activities every year. "But that's only a part of the Recreation and Park Department. There are the children's programs, the teens' programs, the baseball programs and the softball programs."
The city also boasts facilities such as the Meyers House and Garden, the Chuck Corica Golf Complex and two boat ramps, all of which see thousands of visitors and users each year. In fact, Wooldridge, the Recreation and Park Department's director since last year, is working on the city's annual report on the parks, which will be presented to City Council later this year. In it she estimates that the department served more than 14,000 people with its programs last year.
Lincoln Park is a city favorite, one that Wooldridge said is Alameda's crown jewel. She loves its rose garden and trees, which she said university botany students often study for their variety and age.
"Lincoln Park has the wide range of programs that we offer in this department," she said.
While park maintenance is always an expense for the city and Wooldridge has been challenged to create a better cost-recovery system for recreation programs like she did in her former role in Pinole, the future looks bright for Alameda parks with the addition of the new Sweeney Preserve.
The land, which Alameda resident Jean Sweeney fought for years for the city to acquire from railroad interests before her death in 2011, will be the biggest park on the main island once it is developed. Wooldridge has hosted two community meetings to gather input from residents about what they want to park to look like when it is developed, which will take several years. If the results of public opinion culled at the meetings are any indication of what the future of that park will be, it will likely be a passive space for walking and maybe public gardens.
In the meantime, the city and Friends of the Parks Foundation will continue to provide spaces and activities for residents and visitors to recreate, grow and play.
"For many of us in Alameda, the parks are really near and dear to us because they helped shape us into who we are today, " said Tony Corica, also a Friends of the Parks board member. "The kind of cool thing about being in Alameda is you kind of grow up in the parks. The parks really help shape your friendships and your life."