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Private Funding of Parks

By Jerome Chou

07 Feb 00

Imagine yourself come spring, traipsing through Central Park. With a private nonprofit group raising millions each year to finance upkeep and restoration, the Park has never looked better. But will the City's other public spaces share the wealth, or will private funding create a two-tiered system of haves and have-nots?


As a symbol of New York's resurgence, you can't beat Central Park. Decimated by budget and staff cuts during the City's fiscal collapse in the 1970s, Manhattan's most famous public space was once a national embarrassment. Today, after a slew of restoration projects, the Park draws 20 million visitors a year and has become the envy of urban park managers across the country.

Part of that jealousy stems from money. The Central Park Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization, has raised about $200 million since it was founded in 1980 to improve the Park's condition. No mere charity, the Conservancy has gradually taken over the day-to-day operation of the Park, and now funds about 75% of its annual $16.7 million budget, and pays the salaries of 150 Central Park employees.

New York spends 0.44% of its total municipal budget on parks -- the lowest percentage among major American cities. Though to most people "parks" and "public" may seem synonymous, increasingly, private citizens are footing the bill. According to a study prepared by the City's Independent Budget Office, the appropriations for parks fell from $218 million in 1987 to $151 million in 1996, a 31 percent drop. During that period, private spending grew more than threefold from $5 million to $18 million.

Wealthy donors and businesses spend this money on "their" parks -- nearby locations where they can enjoy the fruits of their largesse every day. Although the City has launched efforts to develop community support and private funding for local parks in all the boroughs, privatization has primarily blessed a few high-profile parks in Manhattan, while budget cuts have fallen most heavily on the Bronx and Queens.

The City says efficient management has stretched current funding farther, and improved the overall condition of New York's parks, with Central Park in the lead. "A rising tide lifts all boats," says Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern, a statement that sums up the City's eager acceptance of park privatization. No one in government talks about increasing the budget for Parks anymore because privatization has undeniably succeeded beyond expectation -- for some of the City's parks.


Central Park Conservancy - Includes a brief history of CPC and the Park itself, as well as a timeline of the CPC's accomplishments.

New York City Department of Parks and Recreation - The Parks department created the City Parks Foundation in 1989 to raise private parks funds citywide, but their annual budget--for all the city's parks--falls well below that of the Conservancy's. Search for information on the Parks Foundation, as well as news and information on any park in the five boroughs. The site also highlights selected examples of city-funded parks improvements.

Riverside Park, Success Story - As described by the Urban Parks Institute, this park used public/private partnership to compensate for cuts in public funding. Judge for yourself.

CityLaw - One way the Parks Department has done more with less: ensuring quality construction work by carefully selecting contractors. In "How Parks Weeds Out the Problem Contractors," published by The Center for New York City Law at New York Law School, Thomas Rozinski argues Parks is a model of efficient management for all city agencies.


Trust For Public Land - An excellent overview of New York's shift towards privatizing parks management, detailing the city's spectacular successes in raising private funds while simultaneously cutting the city's Parks budget. Also at the TPL site, in the Toolbox section, reports on park privatization--with mostly happy endings--from around the country.

Neighborhood Open Space Coalition (NOSC) - Led by Executive Director Dave Lutz, NOSC has strongly criticized the city's parks funding policy. E-mail NOSC at [email protected] to receive a free monthly bulletin, and watch for updates on the Campaign for Parks, a coalition effort to force city officials to increase the parks budget

Independent Budget Office - Read the 1997 report on parks spending trends, commissioned by the Parks Council, another tough critic of parks privatization.

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