Land Matters: The Best Parks We Can Sell

“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

2 thoughts on “Land Matters: The Best Parks We Can Sell

  1. Caroline Phillipuk 08/17/2009 / 5:18 pm

    I would like to cite the interesting case of Salt Lake City which, some time ago, entered into a land swap with the Church of Latter Day Saints. The city ceded Salt Lake’s Main Street Plaza, formerly known as a Free Speech Zone, to the organization. It exists today in a state of public access to private property. This summer, two gay men were detained and ticketed for sharing a kiss on the plaza, prompting a large response from SLC’s gay community and supporters.

  2. Robert Watrous 08/18/2009 / 10:06 am

    I don’t think it’s a slippery slope. I think it’s a manageable slope. There are two parts to it. One is the privatization of whole parks; the other is privatization of parts of our public parks by concessions which our public parks often do, sometimes well, sometimes not. The private management of whole parks usually puts a local and vested interest in charge. This is usually a good thing. If management is too onerous in their rules, the public response will be vocal and the rules can be changed, just as if it was publicly managed. It should be remembered that kissing was not allowed in many public parks during the Victorian era. The rules change with our culture whether it’s public or private ownership or management. Having the prospect of numerous public parks closed here in New Jersey due to the financial crisis, the public was quite vocal.

    With partial privatization, one can cite numerous examples where our public parks have ceded over too much to private interests. The huge temporary yet seemingly permanent concession tent at the base of the Statue of Liberty comes to mind. We are not alone in this debate. France has restaurants and concessions scattered through many of its parks, and having lived there I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many examples where it was done well there. Unlike the base of our Statue of Liberty, I’ve never seen a concession tent in front of the Louvre. A restaurant in the park or a concession stand with chairs and tables under a bosque of trees is a nice retreat. A major advantage to private concessions in a park can be watchful eyes which have a vested interest in protecting the security of the park. I’ve enjoyed a few times the concession stand at the Boat Basin in New York’s Central Park. I’ve stayed in cabins and tents run by concessions in Curry Village Yosemite, and Sequoia National Parks. I couldn’t afford to stay at the Ahwahnee hotel concession in Yosemite, but I was glad to see it restored and doing well. Is that exclusionary because of cost? Yes, but it was balanced within the park so that all classes could afford to visit Yosemite. The slope may have some boulders strewn about as obstacles, but it’s negotiable.

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