A Q&A with Theresa Park
Theresa Park of Lowell took over as executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission in February. I sat down with her in June, via video chat, to discuss her thoughts on her new position — covering everything from river cleanup plans, to COVID-19, to foraging for mushrooms around the Valley.
1. Let’s get started with a little on your background. What’s your relationship with the Merrimack Valley?
Well, I’ve been happy to call this place home for a very long time, and I feel that my journey here has come full circle in a lot of ways. My family is originally from South Korea, but migrated to Lawrence, and later Andover, when I was young.
I moved around quite a bit after high school for college and work. … But eventually I was drawn back to the Valley. I’m now a Lowell resident of 15-plus years.
2. You have been working in the public sector for over two decades. What led you to pursue a career in municipal planning? Why did you stay in the field?
It’s been an interesting and unexpected path for me. A friend of a friend first drew my attention to the world of municipal planning a few years after college. When I began to look into it, I had what I’d best describe as an epiphany, where all my dreams kind of coalesced. I realized what I wanted more than anything was to improve the world around me. I thought about all the things we take for granted — roadways, sidewalks, landscaping, housing — and how much has to go into thinking these important features through. I decided I wanted to make people’s lives better. … That’s what drives me to this day. Once I got started with the work, there was honestly no turning back.
3. What are some of the main focus areas for the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission?
We have four core competencies that we focus on: transportation, environment, GIS [geographic information systems] and information technology, and community and economic development. Our overall goal is to provide Merrimack Valley communities with support on municipal planning efforts. Essentially, we add capacity to local municipal planning initiatives for the four areas described.
4. Now that you have been appointed to the position of executive director, what projects are you most excited about?
One of the things that’s been really interesting to me is the establishment of the Merrimack River District Commission, which we worked to create with funding from the state. There’s long been an interest in figuring out how to safeguard the amazing resource that is the Merrimack River and how to guarantee better oversight of the water’s quality. This commission will work to do just that. We recently hired a commission consultant to develop a water quality alert notification system, which is just a small piece of some of the great ongoing work.
I’m excited for the projects that will get people thinking more about what the future of our river, and our environment, might look like.
5. In the era of COVID, how have you and the planning commission had to adjust? What types of challenges do you expect going forward?
We’re somewhat fortunate in the sense that so much of our work involves developing forward-thinking practices. For the most part, the adjustment to remote work was fluid for the team. I think COVID has actually allowed us to think more proactively about how individuals are impacted by different types of crisis situations, and how we can better accommodate specific needs. Moreover, it’s allowed us to think more deeply about the ways in which we contribute to climate change by working in person versus remotely.
6. Outside of work, what are some activities that you enjoy?
I would say my favorite activity is traveling! There are few things that bring me more joy than experiencing new cultures and perspectives, and sharing what I’ve learned with others.
I also picked up the hobby of mushroom foraging a few years ago. It might seem a little strange, but, to me, something about the experience of finding a whimsical mushroom is like completing a treasure hunt. You’ll be meandering through the woods, and all of a sudden your eyes land on something beautiful and rich and unexpected — and it just happens to be a fungus.
7. What do you love about the Merrimack Valley region?
I love that it feels like a microcosm of the world in so many ways. Within easy reach you have many different landscapes — seaside towns, farmland, large urban centers. … Even within a small geographical area, the diversity is so rich, whether you’re talking about the land, the people, or the offerings and singularities of each community within it.
8. Anything you’d like to add?
I’d just like to emphasize that the commission is only relevant to the extent that we know how to best serve the community.
I encourage anyone interested in our work to check out some of our great projects and resources online.
Merrimack Valley Planning Commission
Lowell, Mass. l (978) 374-0519 l MVPC.org