Safeguarding Private Value in Public Spaces: The Neoliberalization of Public Service Work in New York City's Parks

By Krinsky, John; Simonet, Maud | Social Justice, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Safeguarding Private Value in Public Spaces: The Neoliberalization of Public Service Work in New York City's Parks


Krinsky, John, Simonet, Maud, Social Justice


Introduction (1)

INCREASINGLY, PARK DEVELOPMENT AND MAINTENANCE IN THE UNITED STATES is justified on the basis of the value parks add to neighboring real estate. To be sure, it is not the only justification that municipal leaders and parks and open-space advocates use. But parks advocates widely believe that the presence of a park in a neighborhood hikes real estate values, making them cost-effective in comparison with competing priorities (Appleseed, Inc., 2009; Crompton, 2001; Friends of Hudson River Park, 2008; New Yorkers for Parks, 2009). The main exception has to do with the maintenance and operations of parks. A poorly maintained park, or one that is frequented by drug dealers or has a reputation for violent crime, will, unsurprisingly, have a depressive effect on real estate value.

This article links discussions of the role of parks in generating private value, the work involved in their maintenance, and the management of this work. Privatization of the value of parks is often understood as compatible with their public benefits, and this has increasingly become an important aspect of park development and operations. Despite a thorough reorganization of park maintenance and operations in a neoliberal direction, this work and the conditions of work in parks maintenance has been less discussed. Thus, we see a combination of "the commodification of public goods and the rise of underpaid, precarious work" (Wacquant, 2009: 5) in parks maintenance. Policymakers in the public and private sectors have increasingly shifted the labor contracts covering maintenance work. Once a fairly stable civil service job, maintenance work has migrated to a variety of different sorts of arrangements. Though there are still permanent workers, they are outnumbered by welfare-to-work trainees (Job Training Program participants), several different types of volunteers, people sentenced to community service for petty crimes, and employees of private park "conservancies" with contracts granting them various levels of responsibility over specific parks. The coherence of the neoliberal project of undermining permanent public commitments to workers contrasts with, and is complemented by, the incoherence of the new crop of workers it creates. Regulated under vastly different systems--the civil service, welfare, corrections, volunteerism, Business Improvement Districts, etc.--these workers are unlikely to act collectively.

The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) played an important historical role in the origins of public-sector unionism and in its eclipse (e.g., Bellush and Bellush, 1984). DPR laborers signed the first collectively bargained contract with the City of New York in 1960; subsequently, it was a principal user of "workfare" workers in the 1990s, as recipients of welfare were forced to work as a condition of receiving their welfare benefits (Krinsky, 2007). The DPR is also an agency at the forefront of what might be called "networked governance": since 1995, it has had a nonprofit arm, the City Parks Foundation, and a public-private partnership, the Partnership for Parks, which is tasked with organizing and supporting 1,800 community-based parks advocacy and volunteer groups (Partnership for Parks, 2011). By 2007, Partnership for Parks estimated that 1.7 million hours of volunteer work--or roughly the full-time equivalent of 850 parks workers (on a base of roughly 3,000 permanent workers)--had been done in the city's parks during the previous year. Moreover, the DPR has a wide range of contracting arrangements with private companies and agencies, both nonprofit and for-profit, to perform tasks as diverse as regular parks and green-space maintenance, vehicle repair, and planting. Further, the DPR extensively uses summer youth employment program workers and people sentenced to community service to perform routine maintenance tasks and, in the case of summer youth workers, to staff recreational activities.

New York City's parks have appeared in several important accounts of urban neoliberalism (e. …

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