Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Private Money, Public Parks: Private Funding Is Seen as a Panacea for Public Parks, but a Closer Look Reveals Equity Issues and an Alarming Decline in Public Funding

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Private Money, Public Parks: Private Funding Is Seen as a Panacea for Public Parks, but a Closer Look Reveals Equity Issues and an Alarming Decline in Public Funding

Article excerpt

It was an extraordinary moment in the history of America's urban parks, as hedge-fund billionaire John A. Paulson stepped forward last October in New York and wrote a $ 100 million check for Central Park.

The leader of the Central Park Conservancy, the wealthy, largely private group that runs this glistening diamond of an 843-acre park, was left close to speechless.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," Doug Blonsky, the conservancy's president, told the hedge funder.

Paulson's generosity was noteworthy, as were the restrictions that he placed upon his gift. Not a dime of his money--his 20,000-square-foot townhouse sits just feet from that park--could go to New York City's dozens and dozens of other parks, many of which are bedraggled country cousins compared to Central Park.

There is perhaps a temptation to assume that Paulson's gift represents the high-water point in Gilded Age underwriting of America's urban parks. But that's likely not the case. In city after city, the long march away from public funding of urban parklands --and the turn toward corporate benefactors and money-making schemes--has turned into a gallop.

Early 20th-century progressives spoke eloquently of parks as the lungs of a city, and leaders took great pride in building up their park departments in hopes that working classes and the poor might gambol across glorious swathes of green. That moment is fading into history.

Nonprofit park conservancies more and more supplant traditional park and recreation departments. These conservancies control public funds, often supplemented with copious private dollars. And their leaders, many quite wealthy, move with alacrity, making decisions and transforming parks in a manner of a year or two.

Harsh economic storm winds have speeded this transition. A long recession and a stumbling recovery have left park officials from Seattle to Baltimore to San Diego scraping for pennies. In Milwaukee, the park budget declined for years, an audit identified $200 million worth of deferred maintenance and officials installed a beer garden in a park to raise revenue. In Atlanta, park officials have closed recreation centers and cut millions from their budget--and already far fewer Atlanta residents live within walking distance of a park than in most big cities.

The state of Ohio, having made cut after cut in park staff, confronts the realization that Cleveland's pride and joy, its 455 acres of woods and urban beaches along Lake Erie, is so cluttered with trash as to make stretches nearly unusable. The state has explored turning these parks back over to the city.

Setha Low, an anthropology professor at the City University of New York, directs the Public Space Research Group, which studies the health of the public commons across the United States. Again and again, she sees a confounding pattern. City dwellers love their parks and view green space as no less essential to the fabric of their lives than garbage pickup and good schools. Wealthy city residents, such as in Denver, Atlanta, Boston and New York, pay a hefty premium to live near a greensward.

Yet year after year, funding for all but the most prized parks tumbles downward. Parks in poor and working-class neighborhoods, where studies show residents are most passionate about their green space, have been particularly hard-hit.

"No organized constituency speaks for parks," Low notes. "So like schools and libraries, parks suffer from chronic underfunding."

In some cities, officials talk of parks as a commodity fit for the auction block. In Corpus Christi, a consultant recommended selling off 30 "underused" parks, as if its green inheritance was another page in a real-estate portfolio. In Orange County, California, leaders turned over the massive old El Toro Marine Base to Lennar, a housing developer, in hopes the developer would fashion a park in addition to an amusement facility and thousands of units of houses. …

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