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Parks, Philanthropy, and Equity: New York’s Temporary Truce

A few months ago, Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council passed a budget that adds $15.5 million to the Parks Department budget.  The money, for the most part, is targeted to small neighborhood parks for maintenance and capital projects.

Photo courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks

Photo courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks

The budget includes $5 million for hiring 75 additional parks enforcement patrol officers; $8.75 million for gardeners and maintenance workers; and $750,000 toward a new parks equity fund for neighborhood parks.  In addition to increased funding levels, the FY15 budget creates flexibility by allocating $80 million in discretionary capital funding for “neighborhood parks.”

“Addressing park inequities begins with the public budget,” said Tupper Thomas, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group, who called the increase “a great start.”  “The Council has delivered on its commitment to neighborhood parks.”

Photo courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks

Photo courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks

If you Google the words ‘parks’ and ‘equity’ as I did recently you’d think that the city of New York was the only one in the country struggling with this issue.  A plethora of links pop up from every parks and equity advocate and pundit in the city.  The issue, which grew and took hold during the city’s mayoral elections, stemmed from discussions on the role of conservancies and philanthropy in supporting city parks – and whether that private support has “dampened” political will for championing public funding.  Others in the city see parks philanthropy driving more inequity in the provision and maintenance of the city’s parks. And yet others say that there are other factors involved including the decisions of individual council members.

Photo courtesy of New York City Parks & Recreation

Photo courtesy of New York City Parks & Recreation

This spring’s budget discussions became a touchstone for the debate on equity in parks – and more accurately on the funding needs of operating and maintaining the city’s parks.  The “uneasy relationship” between philanthropy and inequality with regard to parks was described by Bernard Soskis in The New Yorker last winter, as a debate that made the seemingly well-heeled conservancies the whipping dog for the city’s park inadequacies.

By the time Mayor de Blasio took office the conversation began to shift toward the city’s responsibility and most agreed that a more robust city budget was the best answer to the problem of inequitable parks funding.  In his opening comments at a recent public hearing on park equity, Mark D. Levine, who is chairman of the Council Committee on Parks and Recreation, noted that in the 1960s, 1.5 percent of the city’s budget went to parks. That dropped to 0.86 percent in the 1980s, and then to 0.52 percent by 2000.

And, Tupper Thomas speaking at that same hearing pointed out, “Government has to take the first step. Government created the equity issue by not funding the parks…it’s not really the private sector’s responsibility to manage the parks of New York; it’s the taxpayer’s.”

This year’s budget increase is not the last word on this topic.  And many other cities around the country, even if the discussion has not bubbled up to national news, are facing a similar challenge when encouraging private support for parks that replaces diminishing public funding.

All this discussion – in New York and in other cities around the country – seems to herald a new era of focus on parks, funding and governance strategy.  For years advocates have beat the drum regarding an increase in city parks funding; in many cities the private sector has stepped up.  Maybe now with a more engaged constituency – who put their own funds on the line – we’ll see more increases in public sector funding.  But the reality is that we are not likely to see public funding ever reach the levels of the 1960s and 1970s.

NYblog4

Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Parks Foundation

While New York debates the role of conservancies and governance in shaping the distribution of parks funding, Minneapolis is also debating the equity question – but not so much who’s to blame as how to solve the problem.  The city is considering a ‘racial’ equity filter for allocating public funding.  In that city park user counts show large gaps in usage for some communities of color. The Met Council has a role in distributing about $30 million a year for parks.  How a racial equity plan would work is unclear.  The context for the discussions is the council’s emerging Thrive 2040 long-range plan, which stresses demographic change not only in race and ethnicity but in other forms, notably aging. The plan addresses not only parks but other issues such as land use, transportation and housing.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Greenways

Photo courtesy of Seattle Greenways

Seattleites – facing a $270 million maintenance backlog – are addressing the funding equity issue with Seattle Proposition 1 (Seattle Parks for All), which passed in early August.  Seattle will establish a separate taxing district, with its own dedicated funding, that will be spent on supporting the maintenance, upkeep and operations of the city’s more than 6,000 acres of parkland.  The District replaces an expiring parks levy.

Balancing the public-private funding stream in an equitable – and community-engaging – way is the new challenge for city park departments and their advocates.  What exactly is the role of private partners and how do we define this in goal-setting, agreements, and day-to-day working relationships?  And, what are better ways of engaging park users and the broader community in framing this new governance strategy?  Maybe if the rules of the game become clearer then it will be easier to focus on maintaining public commitment as the primary driver for park funding strategies.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund Turns 50

By Julie Waterman

Today the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) celebrates its 50th anniversary.  Not all Americans are familiar with LWCF, but they are probably familiar with parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, urban wildlife refuges, trails and open space that have been protected or built with the support of this effective federal program.

As one of the most successful pieces of legislation in the nation, LWCF has supported more than 42,000 projects in 98% of the nation’s counties. And since its creation in 1964, LWCF has had strong bipartisan support.  Over the past half century, more than $4.1 billion has been appropriated to states not through tax payer dollars, but through revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties.  This funding has been matched by state and local contributions, for a total LWCF grant investment of $8.2 billion–doubling the return on investment.

But in September 2015, LWCF will expire unless Congress decides to reauthorize it.

That is why the City Parks Alliance launched the bipartisan Mayors for Parks coalition. Mayors around the country recognize the importance of LWCF and are taking action to ensure it continues to serve their communities.  The coalition is urging full funding at $900 million annually and reauthorization of LWCF before its expiration date next year. Co-chairs of the coalition are Mayor Michael B. Hancock (D) of Denver, CO and Mayor Betsy Price (R) of Fort Worth, TX.  The Mayors for Parks coalition now has 28 mayors on board, representing cities of all sizes across the United States.   Continue reading

A Centennial Celebration

Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. In recognition of its innovative practices in community engagement and fundraising, Hermann Park has been named a Frontline Park.

“Broad community support has been vital to the renaissance of Hermann Park.  Volunteers have been vital to every aspect — from guiding the planning and construction process to devoting over 20,000 hours each year to caring for the Park,” said Doreen Stoller, Executive Director of Hermann Park Conservancy.  “We are grateful to the City parks Alliance for recognizing the value of community engagement in the public-private partnerships that have created magic in so many urban parks.”

Continue reading

Denver Parks on Parade

Earlier this month, more than 30 park professionals from the US and Canada were hosted by Denver Parks and Recreation Department in collaboration with City Parks Alliance for a tour of their park system. Eighteen cities were represented, including teams from Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

Photo courtesy of Hope Gibson

Photo courtesy of Hope Gibson

The Denver team put on a first class demonstration of their expertise in planning, design, construction and programming – from the smallest neighborhood park to Red Rocks Amphitheater, a part of Denver’s mountain parks system – and in every case showing us how a twenty-first century city parks department operates: seamlessly.

From the neighborhood partnerships to the collaboration with their own city departments to alliances with social service providers, arts and music organizations, and other parks programmers, Denver’s parks department uses and leverages all the value that parks offer and its mission can muster. Citywide partners like the Trust for Public Land – perfectly exemplifying its urban mission – and the Colorado Health Foundation are working closely with the department on many of its projects; as are local developers, transit, and bicycling partners. On some of our park visits it was hard to tell who worked for whom; in fact, most simply said they worked for the parks.

Continue reading

Designing Tattnall Square Park’s Rain Gardens

By Andrew Silver, Friends of Tattnall Square Park

RG1I’d never have imagined that people would love our park’s new rain gardens as much as they have, and I wouldn’t have imagined that they’d have looked so good after so little time. Still, when Friends of Tattnall Square Park first teamed with Mercer engineering students to design a rain garden, we had no idea that the road to success would take months of planning, changes, revisions, and tweaking. All we knew is that we had an oversized 60-plus car parking lot, a tiny inlet into the park, and lots of erosion and storm water eventually heading down the sewer at the low end of our park, sweeping sediment and pollutants along with it. The rain gardens have become some of the most popular sites in the park, but in order to spare you some of our steep learning curve, here are some rain garden tips that I wish would have been emphasized more in the sources we consulted. Continue reading

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