When New York City decided 150 years ago to build Central Park, it launched a
project that became the model for city parks throughout the country. A major
undertaking for the city, as Morrison Heckscher of the Metropolitan Museum
of Art points out (“Birth
of the Park
Central Park was both a masterpiece of landscape art and a social experiment,
where people from all walks of life could come together to enjoy a respite
from the strains of urban life. After the park opened in the winter of 1858,
city in the country wanted its own version, and the American parks movement
Today Central Park is cherished by the many New Yorkers who come to the park
to escape from the rest of the city ("An
Escape from Reality" By Sarah P. Lustbader),
to appreciate nature, to form new communities (“Dancing
in the Park” by
Kendall Williams) or to make art (“Our
Project For The Park,” by
Christo and Jeanne-Claude). And Central Park remains a national
model. The park’s rebirth over the last two decades, accompanied by a
dramatic drop in crime within its boundaries ("Taking
Back the Park from Crime" by Julia
Vitullo-Martin) has shown other cities how they can
restore their public landscapes. The
Central Park Conservancy, begun by Betsy
Barlow Rogers in 1980, pioneered the concept of a non-profit community organization
raising funds and working with government to fix up
maintain a public park. Parks throughout the city and country -- even the national
parks -- have adopted this idea of public-private partnership.
The very success of the Central Park model, however, raises some concerns. The
reliance on private funding could weaken the government's traditional role in
maintaining public space and ultimately reduce the opportunity for all citizens
to enjoy it. Although Central Park has remained the quintessential public space,
in Bryant Park, for example, private events held in the park temporarily keep
much of the public out.
The reliance on private funding could leave the city with a two-tier park
system. Individuals and corporations are most likely to donate to a park they
favoring parks in affluent areas. Despite efforts to provide private funds
for the rest of the system, such as the non-profit City
parks in poor neighborhoods, particularly outside Manhattan, could be left to depend
on dwindling public dollars.
The activism of the Central Park Conservancy has fostered beautifully maintained
grounds and funded many public performances and educational programs, "setting
a standard to be achieved for the entire city park system," said Christian
DiPalermo, director of New Yorkers for Parks. This has raised New
Yorkers' expectations for all of the city’s parks. "You can't have
Central Park with a completely different set of policies as the rest of the
Ethan Carr, a visiting professor in the Bard Graduate Center's landscape history
program. But bringing the condition of all parks up to the level of Central
Park would require the city to greatly increase its funding for parks, something
did not do even when the economy was thriving.
It is not only in fund raising that Central Park serves as a model. The conservancy,
which operates the park under a contract from the city parks department, is
in the forefront of park management as well. The conservancy does not just
money â€“ it runs the park and hires most park employees. The city parks
department has ultimate oversight but does not manage Central Park as it does
most other city parks.
The restoration of the park has been guided by a master plan, something urban
park expert Peter Harnik says is key to a well-run park. And unlike the parks
department in New York and many other cities, the conservancy plans for the long-term
upkeep of areas that it has restored, protecting its capital investment and minimizing
costs in the long run.
The park has had great success with its innovative "zone management" system,
where one gardener is responsible for a specific section of the park. The gardener
has the authority to enforce rules â€“ such as prohibitions against trampling
newly seeded areas, littering or letting dogs run loose â€“ and is someone
to whom visitors can complain or report problems. Doug Blonsky, the administrator
of the park, said the zone system “works wonderfully in developing relationships
with the community."
Any controversy within Central Park’s boundaries â€“ be it crime, turning
a blind eye to wine drinkers in the park while ticketing beer drinkers at the
beach, or installing a work of art on its walkways -- immediately gains prominence
because this is, though not our biggest, our most beloved and most used park.
But a century and a half after it was first created, Central Park continues to
inspire. The question is whether the New York City park system as a whole can
benefit from its example. Ethan Carr said, "If we are going to call Central
Park the great success story of American parks in the last 20 years, we have
to find out how that can be extended throughout the New York City park system."
Anne Schwartz is the parks columnist for Gotham Gazette
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