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Originally published Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 4:41 PM

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Guest: Which candidate for mayor will step up and fund city parks?

The next mayor needs to invest in greatness for Seattle’s parks, writes guest columnist Brad Kahn.

Special to The Times

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SEATTLE has a strong economy, innovative institutions and natural assets that can’t be bought or built. Over the years, Seattleites have made wise investments in our parks because we know they make our city a wonderful place to live. Our parks also make Seattle a globally attractive place to do business.

Cities around the country look with envy at Seattle’s 6,200 acres of parkland, 26 community centers, five specialty gardens, 48 miles of public shoreline, extensive urban forests and Olmsted-inspired system of boulevards and trails. Our parks make Seattle a city on the verge of greatness.

Many decisions facing us in the coming years are worthy of civic debate, but none is as important as this: Will we invest in greatness or choose a lesser path?

In the current mayoral campaign it is critical for candidates to weigh in on this question.

Incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn faced tough choices to balance the city’s budget in a down economy. And he deserves big credit for balancing the budget. Nonetheless, parks took a disproportionate share of the cuts. Going forward, we need additional, sustainable investment in our parks system.

For example, the current estimate for unfunded major maintenance in Seattle parks is more than $270 million. Each year the parks department chips away at projects but the list grows longer as facilities age.

Failure to support our existing parks system will diminish our city’s livability and competitiveness. We need to articulate and embrace a vision for parks that will enhance our world-class status.

Next week, a citizens committee will begin meeting to map out a path forward, and people throughout our community are already finding creative new ways to enhance our parks system. The following examples highlight strategies we can use to build a parks system worthy of Seattle.

In Rainier Beach a new urban farm and environmental-education center is under development. One day soon, this repurposed public land will provide organic food to the neighborhood, income to people in need and opportunities for students at nearby schools to make science come alive. All of this is possible because of a combination of public and private funding and an excellent working relationship between the city, neighborhood residents and community organizations.

Construction of a creative and unique Bell Street Park will transform five city blocks into a park corridor that will safely accommodate cars, bikes and pedestrians. The redesign will change a harsh urban environment into an energized public gathering space that will vastly increase the livability of the neighborhood.

In South Park, community leaders are embracing an ambitious plan for a series of parks connected by green trails for biking and walking along the Duwamish River. Over the next decade a partnership of public and private funders will help realize this vision.

Across the city, a greenways movement, creating safe and green routes connecting neighborhoods, parks and schools, has engaged volunteer groups to raise private dollars and advocate for public support for these bike- and pedestrian-friendly corridors.

These are just a few examples. Guerrilla farming, micro-parks in streets, roof parks and gardens, Summer Streets and many more examples are also bubbling up. As we green the city, people reconnect with nature, public health improves, our kids have safe places to play and property values go up.

It is exciting to be in a city where so many new ideas are being tested.

Now we need to tie these experiments together into a broadly supported and well-funded vision, driven by leaders who embrace imaginative thinking and are willing to take a stand. This innovation is what will cement Seattle as a world-class city.

We have the tools and the building blocks, and we have an active, engaged populace. Now let’s hear from the candidates.

Brad Kahn is the board chairman of the Seattle Parks Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own.

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