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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.


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.

Community-Led Park Partnerships: It’s Not Just the Money

The Cully neighborhood is considered the most “parks-deficient” neighborhood in Portland. Citywide, 40 percent of residents live within a quarter-mile of a park. In Cully, only 24 percent do, with almost 23 percent of neighborhood children living in poverty.

Cully 1For over twenty years, Cully residents set their sights on the conversion of a 25-acre grassy field in the neighborhood, well-located and large enough for a range of community activities – even if it happened to be the site of a former landfill.

Tony DeFalco, Coordinator for Let Us Build Cully Park! (LUBCP!) recalls, “The community wanted it badly enough to figure out a way to build it. You had 25 acres, active methane collection and multiple partners involved in managing the site. We knew we needed to raise capital to organize a working coalition.”

Verde, a non-profit dedicated to building wealth in low-income communities, has been working with residents of Cully Park but as early as 1996, residents and the Cully Association of Neighbors negotiated with the mayor for a parks master plan. In 2010, Verde spearheaded development of LUBCP!, which was formed with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Northwest Health Foundation. Their coalition included 16 other organizations to maintain the community’s presence with municipal, environmental, and public health agencies through the redevelopment process for the site. Continue reading

Size Matters, Except When It Doesn’t: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About America’s City Parks Can Be Found In A New Report

By Adrian Benepe

Arlington, VA is going to the dogs and to the seniors who like to stay in shape. Chula Vista, CA is “sick” when it comes to skate parks. And the most heavily visited park in America is an old freight rail line.

In a more serious vein, spending on city parks tends to be highest in coastal cities and “blue states,” and as a result, those cities may have better park systems than ”red state” cities.

These and other facts—both surprising data and complex analyses—can be mined from the 2014 City Park Facts (CPF), just published by The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence (CCPE).

City Park Facts is a compendium of facts and analysis of the nation’s 100 largest cities compiled by the CCPE, which also uses the data to put together ParkScore—a ranking of the 50 largest cities (to expand to 60 this year) in terms of how well they provide parks for their residents.

Among the factors CPF examines is the size of the park systems, what percent of the city is dedicated to parks, the amount of parkland and number of playgrounds per capita, spending on parks, and how many residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. In fact, it’s all about numbers, according to Peter Harnik, Director of the CCPE: “If you don’t count, you don’t count. We think city parks really do count towards urban excellence, and we’re committed to documenting all their attributes and variety.” Harnik compares the process of creating CPF to human gestation: about nine months of work, including detailed contact with 240 separate municipal, county, state, and federal park agencies to gather the facts.

The first category, an alphabetical listing of cities with total parkland acreage, shows that many of the largest park systems are in the South and Southwest (though by far the largest city park system is in Anchorage, Alaska, with more than 500,000 acres, most of which is a state park within the city limits). Among the 20 cities with more than 20,000 acres of park land, five are in Texas, five more are elsewhere in the Southwest, and eight more are south of the Mason-Dixon line. Several of those cities have very large, mostly undeveloped natural areas.

Youth disc golf class in Charlotte, NC. A sample of the chart "Parkland By City and Agency" from 2014 City Park Facts.

A sample of the chart “Parkland By City and Agency” from 2014 City Park Facts.

“The idiosyncrasies of municipal boundaries can pull in large preserves and wetlands,” says Abby Martin, CCPE Research Coordinator, “as in Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Chesapeake’s Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), or New Orleans’s Bayou Sauvage NWR. Scottsdale is an interesting story, as they recently expanded the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, giving them 1,000 acres of ‘typical’ designed parkland and another 28,000 of municipal mountain parkland.”

Following that line of thought, the CPF also shows the balance between developed parkland and natural areas in all the cities. Hialeah, Fla. and Newark, N.J. are cities whose park systems are 100 percent “designed,” and managed for active use by people. Most cities have a mix, such as Arlington, Texas, which has an almost exact 50-50 blend of manicured and natural parks. On the other end, Anchorage’s park system is almost all natural.

But when it comes to how many people live within walking distance of a park or playground, and spending on parks in cities, those trends reverse quite dramatically. Among the 20 cities with the largest park systems, only New York City and Albuquerque are also in the top 20 cities for the percent of the population who have easy walking access to a park (NYC is number 3, with 96.4 percent of its population living within a 10-minute walk of a park or playground, and Albuquerque is 12th, with 81 percent).

As for spending on parks, again, size doesn’t really matter. Washington DC, with just over 8,000 acres of parkland, spends a whopping $287 per resident, though those figures are augmented by the amount of money the National Park Service spends on the tourist-heavy destinations, including the Mall and all the monuments. The list of top 20 cities for per capita spending includes only two with the largest park systems: NYC at no. 11, spending $189 per resident, and Scottsdale at no. 17, spending $147 per resident. (The CPF report does not track private, philanthropic spending on parks—if it did, NYC would probably come in much higher on spending, given the $165 million or so that private non-profit organizations raise and spend annually on city parks).

The new edition of CPF also contains a novel way of interpreting how cities allocate funding for parks: in addition to tracking the dollars spent per resident, it also looks at those same figures adjusted for the price of living. With that more nuanced look, Arlington, Va., second on the first list, drops to 6th when its spending is adjusted for the cost of living, and Cincinnati moves up from 12th to 5th.

The report also has a wealth of interesting detail on trends and recreational interests. For example, Arlington, Va., dominates the 10 “Snapshots,” and is featured in 7 of them, coming out on top in such categories as most off-leash dog parks (7.2 per 100,000 residents), most recreation and senior centers, (3.1 per 20,000 residents), most tennis courts (8.1 per 10,000 residents) and most nature centers (2.3 per 100,000 residents). In fact, Arlington performs well across all of the standard measures of park excellence. “Great parks and community spaces are an integral part of what makes Arlington a dynamic place to live, work, and visit,” says Jane Rudolph, director of the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation. “Our elected officials and County leadership ‘get’ that well maintained parks and access to an array of amenities help to build a healthy, livable community.”

James Hunter Dog Park in Arlington, VA. Image Courtesy of Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation.

James Hunter Dog Park in Arlington, VA. Image Courtesy of Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Other cities also found space to shine in the snapshots. If you love baseball and softball, forget Cooperstown, N.Y. and go to the Twin Cities. St. Paul and Minneapolis go 1-2 in Most Ball Diamonds per 10,000 residents. When it comes to beaches per 100,000 residents, the Midwestern cities of Madison, Wis. and Minneapolis take the lead. Another new trend? Disc Golf courses, where Charlotte, N.C. has the highest total at 10, and another N.C. city, Durham, has the most per capita.

Youth disc golf class in Charlotte, NC. Image courtesy of Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation.

Youth disc golf class in Charlotte, NC. Image courtesy of Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation.

Not surprisingly, densely populated and tourist-heavy New York City owns the “Most Visited City Parks per Acre” category, taking five of the top 10 spots, including the top two spots. With more than 650,000 annual visitors per acre, The High Line, formerly an abandoned elevated freight train line, is the most visited park in the nation, followed by midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park, once a forbidding drug den and now a bustling hub of activity, thanks to the then-novel use of a business improvement district to restore and manage the park.

American history enthusiasts will enjoy perusing City Parks Facts’ list of the 50 oldest parks. While it reads like an account of colonial and industrial revolution development patterns, there are even some surprises. Predictably, the 10 oldest parks are found mainly in cities in the original 13 colonies, whose small village greens emulated models in England. But 3 of the 10 oldest parks can be found in New Orleans, San Antonio, and Albuquerque—evidence of other colonial influences. So whether you are a parks aficionado or a trivia buff, a deep diver into geography or statistics, a municipal official or an open space advocate, 2014 City Parks Facts is a fun and interesting read as well as an important resource.

Not Buying It: Phoenix’s Save Our Parks Committee Helps Drive Transparent Parks Policy

By Gail LaGrander and Jon Ford

How does a community lose 2+ acres of prized urban parkland without learning about it beforehand? How does a city government follow open meeting laws but fail to connect with affected residents? Easy. The letter of the law gets followed, but not the spirit. Or worse, when you look more closely, maybe the letter of the law wasn’t followed in all aspects either.

Today Phoenicians are in a much better position to help protect, defend and determine the future of urban flatland parks. But not before crucial park acreage was lost, neighbors and stakeholders were organized, and some heavy lifting was accomplished that ultimately helped reshape municipal policy.

In May 2011, Phoenix lost 2.015 acres of critical municipal parkland from Little Canyon Park, impacting a neighborhood with minimal public park and open space amenities. Those key acres that linked a unique trail, the park and the neighborhood were sold to the private, for-profit Grand Canyon University, to realize a $200 million campus expansion plan. A year passed before residents learned about the actual sale, when the university expressed interest in buying the park’s remaining 13.8 acres in April 2012.

News that the entire park could be sold alarmed many residents and stakeholders, triggering a public records search and two key discoveries:

  1. The 2011 sale followed a seemingly “reasonable” process governed by open meeting law: Parks and Recreation Board meeting > Seniors, Families, and Parks City Council Subcommittee meeting > City Council meeting. Still, those affected by the sale knew nothing of it.
  2. The park was established in 1971 with federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) monies, requiring any sale or “conversion” to be filed and approved by the National Parks Service (NPS) via Arizona State Parks.

In other words, there were two problems that required two paths:

  1. Development and Adoption of a “Public Notification for Sales or Disposition of Parkland” policy. Given that no such process currently existed, residents and stakeholders formed the Save Our Parks committee that invested eight months in extensive research, deliberation and negotiation with city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation staff. It was no easy task. The committee drafted, deliberated, re-crafted, shepherded, provided “life-support” and finally gained adoption for the new policy on April 25, 2013.
  2. Analysis of the LWCF Conversion. Here, the Save Our Parks committee mustered legal and policy resources at the municipal, state and federal levels. Ultimately, the legal opinion was reached that the conversion does not comply with LWCF guidelines or requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.  Specific resolutions related to this finding are pending.

Of primary importance in getting to a better solution, the Save Our Parks committee focused on the following key elements:

  • Securing a transparent process.
  • Prioritizing public notification.
  • Affording impacted residents and park users with numerous opportunities (in different locations, formats, and venues) to make their opinions count.

In the end, answers came from within the city itself as much as they did from elsewhere. The committee identified a pre-existing city of Phoenix process with the most thorough and established review mechanisms for land use changes, and applied many of the same elements in the parkland sale policy. The team also turned to the Handbook on the Alienation and Conversion of Municipal Parkland in New York for development of two important checklists, and to many individuals in Arizona and across the nation who provided advice, encouragement, resources, and expressions of solidarity.

As important as anything accomplished, a strong network now connects Phoenix urban park advocates with local and national assets. Urban parks will continue to face challenges as a city like Phoenix evolves, but there now exists a layer of protection provided both by the policy and the network. Should it be activated by a potential buyer or other change, those who value our public parks for their myriad physical, mental, economic, environmental, and social benefits will be ready to act.

For those who believe that they are in a position to benefit from our experience, we welcome any opportunity to reciprocate and offer our support. For more on the Save Our Parks Committee of Phoenix, contact Gail LaGrander at gail.lagrander@slhi.org or 602.385.6509.

Gail LaGrander  is a member of the Save Our Parks committee and the project coordinator for Maryvale on the Move, an initiative to engage community residents in securing policy changes and modifications to the built environment that support access to healthy food and opportunities for active living for all  children and their families.

A Park for the Ages

Mil1According to Wikipedia, Anish Kapoor’s contract to create the popular sculpture, Cloud Gate (more commonly known as the “Bean”) for Millennium Park, stated that the constructed piece should be expected to survive for 1,000 years.  Even the name for the park reflects a longevity that is visionary – and forever – as it approaches its tenth anniversary.

I recently caught up with Ed Uhlir, Executive Director for Millennium Park, Inc. (MP, Inc.), to talk with him about lessons learned at the Park and what has surprised him about its success.  “The biggest thing is that it turned out to be such a huge economic engine for the city,” he said. Uhlir recognized the importance of high quality design in creating real estate value but he’s not sure anyone would have predicted the size of the impact that Millennium Park has had.  A 2011 Texas A&M report on the impact of the park tells us,

…it is clear that Millennium Park has generated the following economic impact on the City of Chicago: $490M in total park construction; $ 2.45 Billion in new construction near the park; 70,070 direct, indirect and induced jobs created by new construction in the area; a 57% increase in new residential units near the park (3,587 units since 2005); 29% premium on park units sold with views of the park; five million annual visitors which generate $1.29B in tourism dollars; $5.9M in annual operations costs that feed the local economy; 2,126 new underground parking spaces at Millennium Park; an 11% increase in hotel rooms (751 rooms) near the park; $173.5M donated by 115 founders to specific projects within the park; and 11 fortune 500 companies that donated to the park.

How did that happen?  Ed says, “It’s the world-class art and design.  It has branded the park and added value to the image of Chicago.”  And, I would add, it represents the kind of success that results from effective leadership and a strong public/private partnership. “The private partnership enabled us with flexibility and the ability to be more selective in getting great design.”

One of the things that the Millennium Park planners did so well was to incorporate great art and design that gives the park a sense of beauty beyond its landscaping and gardens.  The challenge now is to continually position the park as cutting edge, with more creative contributors.  “We do have new ‘beans’ every couple of years,” said Ed.  The formal Boeing Galleries in the Park – two outdoor galleries designed for public exhibitions – are a home for changing shows of contemporary art.  Every two years a new show is staged, generally from an artist outside the United States.

And Millennium Park continues to expand its brand by making connections to the properties around it.  The elegant Nichols Bridgeway leads south to the new addition of the Art Institute.  East of the Park, and across Frank Gehry’s BP Bridge over Columbus Drive, there are plans for transforming Daley Bicentennial Park into Maggie Daley Park, a thirty-acre park and children’s play space, with a better connection to the city’s lakefront.

The increase in surrounding property values and the creation of new jobs is one important gauge of the park’s success, but just as important has been the impact the park has had on tourism.  One interesting measure for this, says Ed, is Trip Advisor.  There are over 2,600 reviews for the Park on Trip Advisor, with almost all of them calling their visit “excellent” or “very good.”  Ninety-eight reviewers called their Millennium Park experience “average.”  Out of curiosity, I checked out Trip Advisor reviews for a few other signature parks around the country: New York attractions take the cake with the High Line receiving 5,300 positive reviews, and Central Park has over 12,000 reviews; Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle has 152 reviews; and Discovery Green in Houston has 60 reviews.

With park visitation up to 5 million annually, the City of Chicago is focusing on its “brand” across the country and world and is opening tourism offices with one of their pitches being, “Come visit Millennium Park.”  Foreign visitors are the fastest growing group of visitors and – though still a small number in comparison to local and regional visitors – they spend more money.

Ed believes that in addition to great art and design, great programming is what brings people to the park, which hosts over 600 free events annually.  “There are lots of opportunities in this small space and everything is free thanks to donors who sponsor many of the programs,” he says.  But there is a potential conflict between donors who made gifts and wanted everything to be free for park users, and the city which needs to balance its budget to keep the programs running.  Endowments, not just for the art but for programs, are now a key part of fundraising.

MP, Inc. currently has $25 million in restricted and unrestricted endowments (not including a $10 million pledge for the outdoor concert pavilion).  Their goal is to double that.  “The private-public partnership is important to making the park work and endowment money helps assure that the partnership continues into the future.”

Half of the board of MP, Inc. is original to when work on the park began in 1996.  Some of them feel like they have accomplished what they set out to do and are ready to move on.  Now, younger family members of original donors are joining the board as membership diversifies from those who built it to those who are committed to enhancing it.  Program endowments – such as the one from McDonalds to manage the Cycle Center and present free morning exercise programs, or Boeing’s endowment of the outdoor art gallery – are increasingly important to keeping the park successful through high quality programs.

When the park opened, The Financial Times described Millennium Park as “…a genuinely 21st-century interactive park [that] could trigger a new way of thinking about public outdoor spaces.”  These days Millennium Park is as much a venue for driving economic impact in the city as it is a respite from the tall, dark skyscrapers that surround it.  Keeping the park vibrant will require the same kind of focus on excellence that made it a success.  Like a museum, the Park will have to manage its art and attractions to keep them fresh – and cutting edge – in order to keep people coming and driving its economic impact.  And that will take new and committed public-private partnerships for managing the park for the next 1,000 years that Cloud Gate shines.

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.


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