Read departing Montgomery Parks Director Mike Riley’s interview with the Washington Post’s John Kelly.
Montgomery’s retiring parks chief looks back on 38 years of play
Perspective by John Kelly
November 21, 2023 at 10:00 a.m. EST
Mike Riley had never designed a park or a playground when, straight out of college in 1985, he took an entry-level engineering job with the Montgomery County parks department. And so when he was thrown into his first assignment — working with a landscape architect to create a park in Bethesda — he had a question.
“I had to ask what a pergola was,” Riley said.
He knows now. At the end of the year, Riley will retire as the director of Montgomery Parks, the only place he’s ever worked in the last 38 years.
I met him last week at Hillandale Local Park on New Hampshire Avenue, the freshest of the county’s 421 parks. A $7 million renovation was recently completed there. Squealing kids were brachiating on the new playground. A soccer ball clanged against a chain-link fence on the new soccer field.
Riley said that of the four job offers he had all those years ago, the Montgomery Parks job paid the least and was the only one in the public sector. He took it because the parks people told him that rather than start out narrow — focusing on a single storm drain or retaining wall — he’d get to do a little bit of everything.
“They said you will design and build parks, soup to nuts,” said Riley, 62. “You’ll do all the drawings for fields, playgrounds and trails. And when it goes to construction, you’ll get to go out in the field and oversee it.”
Riley’s hometown of Utica, N.Y., has nice parks — some designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. — but he didn’t spend much time in them.
“I grew up doing most of my playing in the street: Wiffle-ball, street hockey, touch football,” he said. “My elementary school playground was steel pipes over asphalt. You fell, you hurt yourself and you learned not to fall.”
That’s a long way from today’s modern playgrounds, with their smooth, plastic edges and forgiving surfaces.
“We’ve tried to phase out the wooden playgrounds,” Riley said.
And for good reason. When Riley was at Hillandale’s ribbon-cutting earlier this month, someone from the neighborhood mentioned that they used to call the old playground the “splinter playground.”
“They literally named it that,” Riley said.
Riley has seen other changes over the years. He remembers a time before dog parks, a time before skate parks, a time before pickleball.
“We’ve gone from zero pickleball courts to 90 in the last five years,” Riley said.
Five years ago, the county unveiled its first purpose-built cricket field, in South Germantown.
“We’re adding another next to it,” he said.
Hillandale has the park system’s first gender-neutral restrooms. Parks have to change with the times.
“We really made it a priority to emphasize investment in equity focus areas,” he said. “We mapped areas with lower income, a prevalence of people of color, ESOL, free and reduced meals. We mapped them and said, ‘We’re going to invest in these areas.’ It just makes a huge difference when a community sees investment in their park.”
It’s important that people be able to walk to parks, too, which is why the county has been building parks in more urban areas.
“We want people in our parks,” Riley said. “I just think people getting together in public spaces to have a common interest is something that can help solve the ills of society. I don’t want to be too dramatic.”
That’s someone else’s job now: Miti Figueredo, who was named last week as the new director of Montgomery Parks, the first Latina to hold the job.
The Hillandale Local Park still has a few punch-list items. The afternoon I was there, workers were spreading mulch around trees. A walking trail that loops around the park will get signs set at 10th-of-a-mile intervals.
“I find that when you put mile markers on loop trails you see a lot of people doing it,” Riley said. “People like to tell their doctor or their friends how far they went.”
It was a warm fall afternoon, a weekday, so the park wasn’t too crowded. But an older couple was walking along the trail.
Riley surveyed the scene, the last park he’ll have worked on, 38 years after the first.
“Who has a job like this, where at the end of what we do people tell you how much they love it?” he said.