“Public spaces paid for by public dollars are becoming an endangered species in the United States,” said George Hargreaves, FASLA, in a forum at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
In no place is Hargreaves’s statement truer than in New York City. The extraordinary boom in park construction there in the past decade would have been impossible if everything had been left up to the public sector. Ever since the city ran short of money for parks around the 1970s, it has relied on business improvement districts (BIDs), park conservancies, and even private developers to take up the slack. These groups fund the upkeep (and sometimes the construction) of city parks through various means—including commercial events within the parks. Parks advocates worry about what gets lost when private entities manage a park and decide what people can and can’t do there. Do you worry about that, reader? Just how much of a “slippery slope” is privatization?
Take New York’s recently completed High Line as an example. The former railway-turned-aerial-esplanade will be managed by the Friends of the High Line, a private entity that needs to raise $4.5 million a year to maintain it. Commercial interests are part of the solution: Recently the city awarded a no-bid contract to Friends to run all concession stands on and below the park for the next 10 years. Some New Yorkers worry about the trend toward turning parks over to nongovernmental entities. “What’s happening on a basic level is that the city does not feel that parks are its responsibility anymore,” says Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates.
Not that New York is the only city rushing to privatize parks. In Houston, Hargreaves’s own Discovery Green, which just opened, is completely privately owned. In California there’s a park named for a shoe company. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
I tend to flinch from the idea of “selling” public parks, but then I live in Washington, D.C., a city where most parks are managed by the National Park Service, so I don’t have to resort to privatized spaces for my daily park “fix.” I do travel to other cities, however, among them New York, where I venture into parks that are managed by BIDs, conservancies, and other nongovernmental entities. Some of them, I must admit, are absolutely great—Bryant Park, for example. In the 1970s I lived in Manhattan and recall Bryant Park as a publicly managed but grungy space where drug pushers hung out. Then the Bryant Park Corporation (BPC), a private management company, took over the park and gave it a new lease on life. It hired Hanna/Olin Ltd. to reconfigure the park and has since managed it to such a high standard that midtown office workers have made it a favorite gathering place. The BPC gets part of its operating funds from commercial events such as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Weeks, which plunk a huge tent right in the middle of the park. I admit I was shocked the time I visited Bryant Park while a commercial event (a Pokemon festival) was in progress. Still, if such events are infrequent, are they really so objectionable if New Yorkers get a better managed park in return?
I am certain that, at some point, a privatized park would cease to “feel” public. What is that point, reader? Are you personally aware of a privatized park that doesn’t seem public anymore?
J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine