Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Private Funding of Parks

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 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.


In The News:

New York State recently acquired a spectacular site on Staten Island's south shore, protecting 194 acres of rolling plains sweeping up to cliffs along Raritan Bay. The land was part of the Mount Loretto property, owned by the Archdiocese of New York. It will now be open to the public for the first time.

The south shore of Staten Island has most of the last undeveloped green space in the City, but subdivisions are encroaching. Staten Islanders have long advocated the preservation of the Mt. Loretto property. "The site was recognized as one of the most beautiful -- if not the most beautiful -- in all of Staten Island," said Ellen Pratt of the Protectors of Pine Oaks Park, a group that has been a driving force in Staten Island parks protection.

By all accounts, the purchase was worked out amicably by the state, the Archdiocese, and the Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation group. TPL negotiated the $25 million purchase for the state. Because the state could not allocate the entire amount at one time, the conservation organization took title to two-thirds of the land, allowing the state to buy the land in three yearly installments. According to those involved, Cardinal O'Connor had a personal interest in having the land preserved. "The Archdiocese was willing to come to a price that was affordable by the state," said Eric Kulleseid, New York State Director of the Trust for Public Land.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation will manage the site, an ecologically rich area of meadows, woodlands, wetlands, and shore that provide habitats for many bird and fish species. Initially, the land will be open for passive recreation like hiking, fishing and birdwatching. Hearings will be held later in the year to develop a management plan for the property, which might include the creation of hiking trails and an environmental education center.

Anne Sounds Off:

Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden and Community Board 14 have stopped the city from building a temporary Mets minor league ball field in Brooklyn's Parade Grounds. They also nixed what many believed was our best chance to have the park's disgraceful playing fields restored. The community group ACORN, which had also sued to block the Mets, agreed to drop its opposition when the city modified the plan to address neighborhood concerns -- and promised to spend $12 million to fix up all the Parade Ground playing fields. Community members as well as the leaders of the youth sports leagues that play in the Parade Grounds were deeply disappointed that the plan fell through. Chris Bockelmann, president of the Caton Park Association, said, "We would have gotten two good things -- the fun of having the Mets and the renovation of the Parade Grounds -- and now we're getting neither." Sure, we shouldn't have to rely on a deal like this fix up the Parade Grounds. If the city can spend more than $100 million to buy the Yankees and the Mets minor league stadiums, it can come up with money to provide adequate ball fields for youth and amateur sports. Golden was right, in principle, that the City should have involved the community from the beginning and conducted the proper reviews. But the political reality was that before the proposed Mets deal, attempts to find enough money for renovating the Parade Grounds had not succeeded. The citizens of Brooklyn are now counting on Golden to find another way to get the Parade Grounds back in shape.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

In The News:

Two lawsuits continue to postpone construction of a temporary baseball field in Brooklyn's Parade Grounds for a Mets minor league team. The City's Economic Development Corporation is offering a number of compromises if the plaintiffs -- Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden and community activism group ACORN -- agree to abandon the lawsuits. Changes include reducing the size of the facility from 4,500 to 2,500 seats and making an arrangement for parking that doesn't use playing fields, a provision that soccer officials had strenuously opposed. The Mets have also agreed to leave after two years, whether or not a permanent stadium is ready. Most significant, perhaps, is EDC's offer to finance the renovation of the entire Parade Grounds. The organizers of the youth baseball and soccer leagues, who were at odds with each other over the original plan, have worked out their differences. Seeing this as a prime opportunity to remedy terrible drainage problems and restore barely playable fields, the leaders of baseball, football, and soccer leagues now strongly favor the Mets plan, provided the EDC's offer is put in writing.

On December 13, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice James Hutcherson let the lawsuits stand, and scheduled the next hearing for January 10, while urging City lawyers to sit down with both plaintiffs and work out a deal. As of mid-December, ACORN was in negotiations with EDC and optimistic that an agreement could be reached. A spokesman at the borough president's office said there were plans to meet with the City. Meanwhile, the Mets were reported to be looking at alternative sites in Queens. Construction of the field must begin soon in order to be ready for the June opening of the Class A New York-Penn League games.

Anne Sounds Off:

A November article in the New York Times discussed the wonders the Central Park Conservancy has bestowed upon Central Park through its fundraising, largely from the elite who live in proximity to the park. It also addressed the issue of what happens when we depend on private funds to maintain our parks, and how parks in poorer neighborhoods miss out. There are a few exceptions, like Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project, which as been cleaning up parks in northern Manhattan, and the Trust for Public Land, which helped fund the purchase of the threatened community gardens. But most of the big money goes to places affluent donors know and frequent. Privatizing parks maintenance is another way to widen the already shocking gap between rich and poor in our city. What happened to the idea that parks are public spaces and should be supported by the government, for the benefits they provide to all members of society?

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

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