In an age of ample private wealth and an increasingly constrained public sector, a number of American cities have become dependent on privately funded conservancies to maintain and refurbish their public parks. A new report by Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, and Abby Martin from The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence explores the rise of such city park conservancies — private organizations that use donations to rebuild, renovate, and, in some cases, maintain some of the most iconic parks in the country. Interspersed with examples from 41 conservancy organizations that have a collective experience record of nearly 750 years, the study serves as a how-to guide for building successful relationships between city governments and urban park conservancies.
While many park-support organizations exist throughout the country, including friends-of-parks groups and business improvement districts, the study defines a conservancy as a “private, nonprofit park-benefit organization that raises money independent of the city and spends it under a plan of action mutually agreed upon by the government.” Throughout the study, Harnik and Martin maintain that the key to this relationship is that the land remains the city’s and the city retains ultimate authority over everything that happens there.
New York’s Central Park Conservancy, which was founded in 1980, is generally considered the catalyst for the conservancy movement. Following a nationwide recession in the 1970s which severely damaged NYC’s already declining parks department, NYC Mayor Ed Koch and parks commissioner Gordon Davis appointed Betsy Barlow Rogers as Central Park Administrator. Rogers created a revolutionary public-private partnership that would bring private money and expertise together with the City of New York to restore Central Park. The study contends that to this day, New York has used conservancies more so than any other city and continues to provide lessons for other public-private partnerships.
Since the formation of the Central Park Conservancy, urban park conservancies have become a favored tool for revitalizing many parks across the country (about 50 percent of major cities have at least one). However, the strength of the study is that is does not gloss over the inevitable conflicts that arise when trying to build a successful public-private relationship, nor does it consider conservancy support as the panacea for urban park management. As was the case with the Central Park Conservancy, most conservancies are founded to restore dilapidated historic parks and address shortcomings in governmental funding. Yet, this can often create an ideological conflict.
For every person that is skeptical of government, there is another who is skeptical of increasing private control over public space. While many city governments often lose the capacity to maintain a park’s programs and amenities without private support, putting too much responsibility in the hands of a conservancy can lead community members to suspect a park is becoming completely privatized. For example, civil right attorney Larry Krasner, who defended a group of Occupy Wall Street protestors, states, “I think there is a trend of analogizing public space to shopping malls. I think a lot of people view that as a sad state of affairs. It seems to indicate that government is insufficiently funded or not able to provide services we used to take for granted.” The study is upfront and honest about the challenges these conflicting mentalities can create for restoring, maintaining, and improving urban parks.
Among these challenges, there are two that conservancy-supported parks appear to face time and again: Maintenance and safety. According to the study, finding the money to cover basic maintenance costs can be a challenge – often the challenge – for conservancies and city governments alike. While big capital projects are more flashy and attract private donations, maintenance is less sexy. For this, Harnik and Martin offer one thoughtful solution inspired by the Central Park Conservancy: Have conservancies build in “a long-term maintenance fee to the initial budget of each capital project – an upfront gift that becomes a permanent trust fund.” Such a solution ensures that the maintenance of donor-attracting capital projects does not fall solely on the city government’s shoulders.
The issue of maintaining public safety is slightly more complicated. The study provides several examples, including Piedmont Park in Atlanta and Civic Center Park in Denver, where public-private arrangements have gone awry in the wake of public safety concerns that discourage donors and visitors. While the Civic Center Conservancy stepped up programming and the Mayor of Denver allocated more money for policing and security after a 2013 shooting, specific suggestions for dealing with urban crime and public safety generally fall outside the scope of the study.
Though the conservancy-based approach to urban park management is still emerging, the study could have benefited from more examples of conservancies that were formed hand-in-hand with brand new green spaces. Of course, private organizations that are formed in response to governmental shortcomings will face unique challenges and conflicts, but what if these relationships were established at a park’s inception? The study cites this approach as a growing trend but gives few examples to support or deny its success.
Ultimately, the report serves as a comprehensive guide for philanthropists and mayors, as well as bureaucrats and board members, who wish to create and maintain successful partnerships that benefit our urban green spaces. For the rest of us, the study provides a reminder that the free parks we often take for granted are hardly free.