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BIDs Serving Parks: A Philadelphia Story

In May of 2012, the Center City District in Philadelphia cut the ribbon on a renovated Sister Cities Park, located along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The $5 million renovation project is leased by Center City District (CCD) for $1 per year over 30 years from the City of Philadelphia’s Parks & Recreation Department, with the CCD having full maintenance and management responsibilities.

Sister Cities Park

Sister Cities Park

There are now nearly 1,000 Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in the United States. New York City has 67 BIDs, the most of any city, but BIDs exist in almost every one of the top 50 largest cities in the United States. BIDs – mostly financed by taxes on property owners in a given district – are increasingly including public spaces and parks in their mission. Park Conservancies, on the other hand, are financed largely by donations. Both types of organizations usually take the nonprofit form (or a quasi-public form), but the former has a broader mission of which parks are a part and thus their efforts take shape differently.

I talked recently with Paul Levy, Executive Director for the CCD, about why his district is taking on parks as part of its mission. Paul believes that parks are essential to the creation of an attractive environment. Parks are a relatively new investment for them. Starting in the early 2000s, they began working in Collins Park and at Three Parkway Plaza. Sister Cities is their third park and Dilworth, expected to be completed next summer, will be their next one.

The mission of the Center City District is to improve life in Center City – and that, for them, includes parks. “Parks were dismal. So even though this park existed and had a nice history, no one knew where it was and even if they did it wasn’t safe to go to,” says Levy.

But they didn’t try to go from zero to sixty. CCD has operated for 22 years. They started, like other BIDs, with a focus on clean and safe spaces, then slowly ramped up by taking on capital improvements. Their first big park project was the café at Three Parkway Plaza – where there was a lot of skepticism but the track record has since proven that the strategy worked. There is increasing trust that CCD can manage these parks and generate revenue while doing so. To stem concern by district business owners about large capital outlays, all of the capital for the park was raised through non-BID sources so BID owners only had to pay operating costs.

“A lot of change comes from gradual improvements,” Levy explains.

Visitor Center

Visitor Center

The public park includes a pavilion that houses a café and visitor center, an outdoor children’s discovery garden and play area, a boat pond and an interactive fountain that pays tribute to Philadelphia’s ten global sister cities. The pavilion incorporates contemporary green building systems, including geothermal technologies and a green roof. New trees, water features, walkways and lighting will improve the park’s landscape, providing attractive amenities for all users. The award-winning design team includes DIGSAU Architects, Pennoni Engineers, Inc. and Studio Bryan Hanes.

Following the model successfully established by Café Cret at Three Parkway Plaza, the CCD engages vendors to animate the parks and provide a revenue source. The Milk and Honey Café in Sister Cities Park is a key part of the business plan that makes the park work.

Levy says that the operations budget for the park comes from a few different sources. CCD carries certain functions through its primary operating budget, including cleaning and security, at about $150,000 annually. The café generates $50,000 in rent that is pledged to maintenance of the space. They are currently in the process of outsourcing to another company for managing events – e.g., working with conventions, events and sponsorships. The revenue goal for these activities is $275,000, for a total of $470,000 annually.

The Center City neighborhood includes the central business district and its central neighborhoods. As of 2010, its population of over 57,000 residents made it the third most populous downtown in the United States, after New York City’s and Chicago’s. Sister Cities Park is situated along the Benjamin Franklin parkway – a scenic boulevard that runs through the Center City – and is the cultural heart of Philadelphia and its museum district, including being the new home of the Barnes Foundation.

The success of the BID’s work with parks is based on their broader mission and a collective – and collaborative – look at the whole parkway. Since 2000 the BID has worked with all the cultural institutions along the parkway to re-conceive and animate the corridor. Levy says, “Too dominated by the auto, the landscaped parkway was too much of a highway and not enough of a park space. It felt like an unfinished space with no place for pedestrians.”

Olin created a master plan with a focus on making the corridor pedestrian-friendly and a goal of having something along the corridor every minute for strolling pedestrians – hence the value of renovating and programming the parks.



The work of BIDs is similar to that of park conservancies in that both raise money for park renovations, improvements and operations. But the BIDs have the security of improvement district revenues standing behind them. It won’t fund all the costs of the park, but it does carry them through the ups and downs of revenue cycles.

City Parks Department leadership is key. Each park agreement with the city has been uniquely negotiated. Café Cret’s revenue goes to the Parks Department and they manage the site. At Sister Cities, the CCD manages all of the landscaping but the city still manages snow plowing. The base level of service provided by the city is different in each park. They agree in advance with regard to events and programs in the parks. CCD partners with the Parks Department on summer programs for kids. All of this is outlined in each agreement with the city.

Michael DiBerardinis is Commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, and Levy stated that he is “eager to be in partnership with other organizations.” Having city leadership behind the idea of partnerships makes a big difference and DiBerardinis, wh

o served as Philadelphia’s recreation commissioner once before from 1992 – 1999, has won accolades for enhancing programs, reviving rec centers and playgrounds, and engaging partners to help.

BIDs can be a resource for parks, but the most likely candidates are those BIDs in bigger cities who have bigger budgets and more resources to go beyond their traditional clean and safe mandate. City Parks Alliance’s Frontline Parks feature many partnerships with BIDs. But BID leadership has to see parks as critical to its mission. Central City District’s goal is to create activity and attract people to this part of the Parkway. The park is the vehicle for doing that. “We’re putting uses in there that draw people into the park,” says Levy.

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.

P3s and Parks: Different than the Rest?

A recent New York Times story on BP, the London-based oil and gas company, used the problems facing BP and its origins as a public company to argue that in some cases public control can outperform private – citing in particular the challenge of balancing the goals of public interest and private profit. There is a lot of talk these days about the challenges of P3s, including public agencies like the city of Chicago losing money on its privatization of parking or challenges in making the transit partnership work in Denver.  These projects raise the question of whether the inclusion of private partners and funding results in more efficient or innovative projects…or not.

Most P3 projects in the news these days are projects that include the designing, building, financing and operation of infrastructure projects.  Across the country, public private partnerships are being used to build bridges, roads, transit systems, and water systems. The use of private finance – or the prospect of cost-savings – is the linchpin of these P3 arrangements.

In these cases, P3s represent a fundamentally different way for governments to deliver infrastructure projects and related services. They require heavy involvement and reliance on the private sector, and the new relationship presents new challenges to public agencies that aren’t always up for the job – from negotiating the contract to long-term financial management.  Are P3s for parks different?

The central question for park department leaders and locally elected officials when contemplating a P3 is will it ultimately serve the public interest?  And secondly, what’s the best model for designing and managing the partnership?

I think park P3s are different and so far have shown greater success.  Let’s review the basics:

1.    Parks are publicly owned and key decisions remain public.

Government has two roles as a decision maker and a doer.  Most agree that the policy and decision-making role should stay with government, but once decisions have been made about service delivery, capital projects or park programs, there are a variety of ways to deliver it, including via private partners.  The goal and responsibility of government is to fairly and competently manage private sector involvement – and to ensure the active engagement of the public.  The key here is that the public has entrusted the city to make decisions about the use of the land in a way that benefits all city residents.

Park conservancies are given the responsibility of managing public spaces but they do not have the power to unilaterally alter the policies governing these spaces.

2.    Park conservancies and city park departments have a shared mission, shared responsibilities and flexibility.

In a park partnership the partners share in making all of the critical decisions involved in running the park – as defined by their operating agreement; the tasks are clear-cut and it’s possible to define clear roles. Both partners share a common vision and mission.  They are also in a relationship that allows both to adapt to changing circumstances.

3.    Park conservancies asked to steward a park are mostly nonprofit organizations.  Park projects are about cash infusions not profit-making.

Let’s face it, park conservancies are not in the job because they’re going to make money.  The cash raised through events, concessions, sponsorships and donations goes to the park – and fundraising for operations and capital is not easy, mostly philanthropic and hard to sustain.

Parks and park systems must constantly evolve to stay vital, relevant and well-used, all while balancing a bottom-line, which gets harder every year.  In order to do this we are seeing various forms of quasi-public and quasi-private partnerships emerging, the goal of which is to keep the public’s interest as a priority.

John Crompton in writing about park partnerships says that the best way to secure the future of park and recreation services is to broaden the base of people who invest effort, energy and resources into their well-being – in other words empowering citizens through involvement with park managers.  Nonprofit conservancies or special districts have the singular focus that makes them eager for community investment; and, they have a built-in accountability in that if they don’t do their job right, philanthropic and event support will go away.

In an article last year in Parks and Recreation magazine, R.J. Cardin, director of Maricopa County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, sees the upside of trying new things in his county, where private partners contribute about 20 percent to Maricopa’s overall park system.

We do many public-private partnerships at Maricopa County.  Much like a good stock portfolio, we have tried to diversify our service delivery system. We look to the private provider to not only come in and provide service but also to invest in the parks by putting capital development into the parks.  In return, our residents benefit through additional amenities and we generate revenue that can be used for other services and programs. We look to our residents and visitors to express their facility and program needs and we find the most efficient and effective manner to provide for that need when feasible.

Having private partners of course doesn’t mean that public agencies give up on enterprise ventures, ways to attract new revenue or ways to run a more efficient department.  But the job is getting harder as park users have greater expectations about their parks and demand more kinds of services – which leads to a rise in capital costs for developing and maintaining infrastructure.  The goal out there seems to be that when it makes sense, engage partners and plan for learning – there are still lessons to be learned out there in an effort to find out what’s the best way of getting the job done.

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.

January’s Frontline Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Canal Park

Canal Park

In 1815, the Washington City Canal opened and connected the Anacostia and Potomac rivers via the National Mall.  In the early 1900s, the canal was paved over to create Canal Street and has served many different purposes over the years, including as a holding area for idling buses.  The site’s newest function as a park began back in 2000, when a developer formed the nonprofit Canal Park Development Association, which secured the site and was tasked with overseeing development of the park.  Funding came from many different sources, including some not traditionally associated with funding for local parks; the District and Federal governments, the DC Housing Authority, and private developers contributed funds in addition to neighborhood stakeholders.  The design competition opened in 2004, and in 2010, the project finally broke ground.  The park is owned by the District of Columbia, but Canal Park Development Association and the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District will be responsible for programming and management.

Canal Park isn’t a typical neighborhood park, and not just because of its history and public-private partnership management structure.  The park serves as a pilot project for the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) and is a candidate for LEED Gold certification, thanks to some innovative features:

  • Underground cisterns collect water from the park and neighboring city blocks.
  • Water is treated and reused, satisfying the park’s water needs for fountains, irrigation, toilets, and the ice skating path.  It is estimated that the system will generate 1.5 million gallons of reused water annually.
  • Heating and cooling for park amenities will be generated by 28 geothermal wells, reducing the park’s energy consumption by 40%.
Skating in DC

Skating in DC

Canal Park was designed to be the leader in urban environmental strategies: stormwater management, energy efficiency in its programming and structures, and soil remediation, but was imagined to be a great space in a city full of iconic spaces that would give an individual identity to a newly revitalized community.

To learn more about Canal Park, click here: www.canalparkdc.org

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

Lessons from the Masters: The City of New York and Central Park Conservancy’s Park Partnership

A blog dedicated to talking about public-private partnerships created for parks has to begin with one of the oldest and most successful examples: the City of New York and the Central Park Conservancy.  When the Central Park Conservancy was formed in 1980, the idea of a public-private partnership for parks that went beyond just fundraising was a radical notion; the idea, driven partly by New York City’s devastated financial condition and the park’s dramatic deterioration in the 1960s and 1970s, came at a ripe moment.

The strength behind the idea of a new kind of partnership was the constituency that was created that brought its resources and influence to not only change the way the city managed the park, but to provide a valuable role in supporting the city with park operations.

Image courtesy of Central Park Conservancy

Image courtesy of Central Park Conservancy

The Central Park Task Force and the Central Park Community Fund, two of the leading advocacy groups that led the charge to restore the park, called for the establishment of a single position within the Parks Department to oversee the planning and management of Central Park, and for a board of guardians to provide citizen oversight in order to create a more effective business structure with more accountability and control over what happened in the park.

Much like most business partnerships, public-private partnerships created for parks are based on the partners’ complementary strengths with each partner bringing both assets and liabilities to the partnership – ideally the assets of one partner offsetting the liabilities of the other.  Chris Walker, in his 1999 report “Lessons from the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Urban Parks Program,” suggests a framework for understanding park partnerships and what drives them:

Structure (or governance): How is the partnership organized and responsive to the park’s constituency? What’s the balance of ‘altruism’ and self-interest?
Control (and partnership roles): Who makes the decisions?
Assets and Liabilities: How are assets and liabilities shared?
Risks (and investments):  What are the strategies for mitigating risk?  Who’s stepping up to bring new resources to a park?

I’ve added my thoughts in italics, expanding on Chris’s observations and I’d probably add monitoring and performance evaluation as another element of that structure.

Image courtesy of Central Park Conservancy

Image courtesy of Central Park Conservancy

Public-private partnerships were occurring in local government in the 1980s, but they were rare. While there are examples of public-private arrangements over the course of U.S. history, more were created across the spectrum of public projects starting in the late 1970s with the Reagan administration’s “devolution” of the federal role in providing services, spurred by the recession and some say, the first seeds of some new thinking about governance – the idea that the normal powers and strength of the public sector would not be sufficient to deal with the new economy.  Most applications of P3s in those days centered on solving fiscal crises – and in the case of Central Park this was certainly true.

When, in 1979, the office of Central Park Administrator was created – a recommendation of the Central Park Community Fund’s study of the park’s management – the city appointed the executive director of the Central Park Task Force, Betsy Barlow Rogers, to be its first administrator; in 1980 the Conservancy was created to support the office and initiatives of the Administrator and to provide consistent leadership for the park and thus, the private-public partnership began.

Partnerships usually start by a friends group offering support to a park.  Pretty soon the two groups are working together and making decisions together and a level of trust is built – and thus, a partnership is built.  Until 1993, there was no agreement between the City of New York and the Central Park Conservancy.  In 1993, the City and the Conservancy signed a Memorandum of Understanding that defined the partnerships and their general roles.

In 1998, the MOU was superseded by a contract that officially recognized the Conservancy as the organization responsible for the management of Central Park.  The contract was unique in that roles for the two partners had been established over years of experience, and thus the provisions in the contract came together naturally.

Central Park’s transformation under the partnership of the Conservancy and the City began with modest but significant first steps toward reclaiming the park by addressing needs that could not be met within the existing structure and resources of the Parks Department. The Conservancy focused on hiring interns and establishing a small restoration staff to reconstruct and repair unique rustic structures, undertaking horticultural projects, and removing graffiti. Eventually the Conservancy’s role grew to include planning and restoration, and transforming the Park’s management. Continue reading

Public-Private Partnerships for Parks: Tapping the Wisdom of Their Success

Beginning this month, City Parks Alliance and the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land will feature Kathy Blaha’s weekly comments on parks and public-private partnerships. 

At the end of 2012, the Brookings Institution released the first of a series of policy proposals for reviving metropolitan economies.  One of them calls for the federal government to establish a national unit supporting public-private partnerships:

In a time of constrained public budgets, leveraging private-sector financial resources and expertise to deliver a range of infrastructure projects has growing appeal. However, these public/private partnerships (PPPs) often entail complicated contracts that differ significantly from project to project and from place to place. To address this problem, countries, states, and provinces around the world have created specialized institutional entities—called PPP units—to fulfill different functions such as quality control, policy formulation, and technical advice. The federal government should establish a dedicated PPP unit to tackle bottlenecks in the PPP process, protect the public interest, and provide technical assistance to states and other public entities that cannot develop the internal capacity necessary to deal with the projects themselves.

What a great idea, eh?  Many of us in the city parks world have long lamented the lack of standard approaches to measuring the validity and benefits of a particular PPP or P3 – what a terrific advantage it would be to have a framework or a set of standard measures to assist in the creation of new conservancies and to support ongoing innovation in existing organizations.  Start-up park conservancies would benefit enormously from a database of experience, toolboxes and lessons learned.  Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution goes on to say that,

The challenges to moving infrastructure projects forward are becoming much more complex… leaders in states, cities, and metropolitan areas are ill-equipped to consider the complicated contractual arrangements involved in establishing PPPs. A federal PPP unit would provide quality control, technical advice, and sustained support to state and local actors.

In Puentes’ idea paper statistics are cited about infrastructure projects in America that have mostly to do with transportation, but neither Puentes nor other advocates of P3s talk much about parks in their forward thinking – an investment with far lower costs and with potentially as much leverage as a new highway or transit station for a neighborhood or a whole city.

It seems to me that too little has been written about P3s for parks and my goal with this new weekly blog entry is to try to help us all better understand what’s going on in the parks world regarding partnerships.  How do they get started?  What is their governance structure?  What funding was needed to launch the partnership?  What lessons do the older conservancies have to share?

The average American city works with private partners to perform 23 of 65 basic municipal services, says Rick Norment, executive director of the National Council on Public Private Partnerships.  If P3s are changing the way cities work, we in the parks field need to know how it’s going and how we can position parks to succeed in the midst of changing governance roles.  And so far mostly what we know about conservancies is anecdotal.  Though their success in places like New York, Chicago and Houston is clear, the nuances of why they’re working and how they’re different – or what problems they face – might lead us to better understand how to create better ones.  Partnerships are playing a central role in how we manage parks these days and are likely to be central to their future. But this work is complicated and practitioners rarely have an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned.

My hope is to bring you some of their insights and experiences and to open up a broader audience who can help us with their lessons and recommendations for moving forward. Happy New Year and stay tuned.

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.