This is why we can’t have nice things, New Yorkers might have muttered when they heard the news: Bill de Blasio, a shoo-in to be elected mayor next month, supports a plan to gut one of New York City’s most successful policy innovations of the past three decades.
That innovation is Central Park, the crown jewel of America’s urban parks. De Blasio made headlines when it was revealed that he supports a plan to redistribute money from Central Park’s operating budget to other, smaller parks throughout the city.
That may sound innocuous, but take a closer look. It would be one thing if de Blasio was proposing to move money around within the city’s $380 million parks and recreation budget. Instead, de Blasio has endorsed a plan to raid the assets of the private nonprofit group that runs Central Park.
The New York state senate bill proposed by Brooklyn senator Daniel Squadron would create a new “Neighborhood Parks Alliance” to redirect money to city parks considered neglected. The money would come from management conservancies like the Central Park Conservancy, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Alliance, the Battery Conservancy at Manhattan’s southern tip, and the High Line. According to the proposal, private conservancies with operating budgets over $5 million would be required to surrender 20 percent of their operating budgets to the Neighborhood Parks Alliance.
“I think we have to share the wealth a little bit here,” de Blasio said in an interview over the summer. Such a plan to raid the coffers of private, not-for-profit groups would likely not pass constitutional muster, but if it did, the result would be dreadful for all parks—and philanthropy—in New York City.
A Track Record of Success
Founded in 1980 by the odd-couple duo of conservative stockbroker Dick Gilder and left-wing hedge fund manager George Soros, the Central Park Conservancy took on the Augean task of reversing decades of physical neglect and social decay. Central Park in the 1970s was, like much in America’s urban cores, in decline. Its emerald lawns had been pounded to dirt, and changes in policing gave the homeless and gang members run of the park. The city’s fiscal crisis—remember “Ford to City: Drop Dead”?—left few funds for maintenance, and the unionized staff that remained was crippled by complex work rules.
The insight from Gilder and Soros was that all the money in Manhattan wouldn’t make a difference if the management didn’t change. In the words of Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the young landscape designer they hired to run the conservancy, “You don’t throw money at the problem. You throw management.”
The conservancy began slowly, building relationships with the New York parks department and funding targeted projects to demonstrate—to donors and to the public—its ability to get things done. As the conservancy moved bit by bit—rebuilding Belvedere Castle, re-sodding the Sheep Meadow, cleaning up Harlem Meer—the conservancy generated confidence in its ability to turn around problems.
The conservancy was awarded a long-term contract by the city to manage the park in 1998; it was renewed in 1996. The city pays a management fee to the conservancy and provides public safety, but it recoups much of this expense in concessions like ice cream sales and boat rentals. The conservancy raises the large majority of its $58.3 million budget and employs 90 percent of the park’s staff.
The result has been a largely transformed Central Park that serves as a playground for all kinds of New Yorkers and visitors—40 million per year, more than triple the number 30 years ago. The history shows that the Central Park Conservancy was a leading indicator of New York’s 1990s resurgence as a safe and vibrant city.
Model of Innovation
The Central Park Conservancy inspired park-lovers across New York and the country. There are today dozens of major urban parks that are under private conservancy management, including New York’s High Line and Prospect Park, St. Louis’ Forest Park, Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, Memphis’ Shelby Farms, and whole networks of parks in Louisville, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh.
The conservancy model works especially well for large, complex urban parks with multiple uses and extensive programming. A two-acre neighborhood park with a playground and picnic area, or a lightly used wilderness area on the edge of town, has relatively straightforward management needs. Big center-city parks with historic landmarks, complex landscaping, athletic facilities, water features, performance venues, zoos, food and beverage services, and other interactive features require specialized management and funding.
Across the country, cities have found that conservancies also work well for generating the funds and interest to build new parks from scratch and for turning around city-managed parks that have fallen into decay or neglect.
The conservancy model has supported a renaissance of creative urban green space, from a new park on decking over a Dallas freeway to filling in a drainage basin in Houston to reclaiming an abandoned railway in Manhattan. Economic development often follows--as Richard Florida has pointed out, parks are part of the “people climate” that attracts jobs and entrepreneurs.
Donors have responded enthusiastically to these creative ideas, and in New York, that philanthropic money has become a target for de Blasio.
Turning Off the Spigot
“So for anyone who wants to donate to Central Park, they’re still going to be helping Central Park; most of the money is still going to benefit Central Park,” de Blasio said in the aforementioned interview. “But some of that has to be moved to where the need is greatest, in neighborhood parks that, right now, are really suffering.”
Sadly for de Blasio (and New York), this plan isn’t likely to work. Central Park is uniquely positioned to attract donors because it serves so many people from so many walks of life. Many of the hedge-fund titans who donate to the conservancy played in the park as working-class kids. They want to give to a particular park.
The parks bill is a tacit 20 percent tax on all gifts to New York’s big park conservancies. Donors are wise enough to recognize the ploy for what it is and to direct their tax-exempt philanthropy to organizations that can use all of a gift. The parks bill is also an assault on the principle of philanthropic freedom—the liberty that all Americans have always enjoyed to choose the objects of their private giving. By endorsing this plan, de Blasio is substituting his policy preferences for the charitable choices of thousands.
Finally, the bill is likely to hurt parks across the five boroughs. If you’ve run a business or a nonprofit, ask yourself: could you manage with a 20 percent across-the-board cut to your budget? I’m not sure even the Central Park Conservancy could; certainly smaller conservancies over the threshold—such as the Battery Conservancy or the Prospect Park Alliance—could be in grave financial danger.
Moreover, the parks bill would likely cut off future conservancy efforts—after all, what donor will take a risk on a big project that could be vacuumed up by the New York City government? The Central Park Conservancy proved the success of the model, which continues to spread to smaller parks across the city. Why would de Blasio want to stymie the private wealth already spreading--voluntarily--to parks across his city?
New York is ground zero for a huge and successful policy experiment: vibrant parks run by conservancies. By commandeering donors’ funds and constricting existing conservancies, New York would walk away from one of its signature successes. That would hurt New Yorkers—and all Americans—who cherish parks.
Evan Sparks is a contributing editor at Philanthropy magazine.