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.