Last week I had the pleasure of being in Boston for an afternoon discussion among park advocates talking about public-private partnerships (P3s). The meeting took place during a two day visit of the City Parks Alliance board, of which I am a member, and on a couple of spring days with the parks so full of blooming tulips and blossom-laden cherry trees that even the tourism office couldn’t have done a better job of producing.
The discussion was arranged as two panels – one of public sector park agency representatives, and the other of private sector park partner organizations. The goal of the discussion was to hear a bit from both panels about the benefits and challenges of partnerships between the two. It turned out to be a revealing and meaningful discussion about the murky territory in which park partnerships now find themselves.
On the public side sat Ed Lambert, Jr., Massachusetts Commissioner for the Department of Conservation and Recreation; Toni Pollak, Boston’s Park Commissioner, and Liam Kavanagh, First Deputy Commissioner for New York City Parks.
On the private side sat Doreen Stoller, Executive Director for Houston’s Hermann Park; Tom Powers, Executive Director for the Boston Harbor Island Alliance; and Yvette Bowden, President of the Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta. Both Doreen and Yvette sit on CPA’s board of directors. Jeff Cook, from the Trustees Collaborative for Boston Parks, moderated the panel.
Other than Tom’s relationship to the Massachusetts agencies, no other speakers had ties to each other, so the discussion flowed with the ease that distance from a home base provides. This allowed the roomful of Boston park advocates and CPA board members a chance to hear, maybe a little more candidly, about the ongoing development of P3 relationships in parks – which for some is that often-recalled process of sausage-making.
Nobody disagreed about the value of private partners in advancing accountability and responsibility – and maybe most importantly, a better management protocol – for parks. “In 1975, when Daniel Moynihan proposed giving Central Park to the National Park Service to manage there were more city staff working in the park than the Central Park Conservancy has today,” said Liam, “and yet it was considered a failing park.”
Much credit was given by the public agency representatives for the efficiency, flexibility, and enhanced design standards and funding brought by private partners to public parks in the last three decades. On the flip side they noted that these benefits hadn’t come without challenges – privatization concerns, equity concerns, the added maintenance costs of new capital investments and the need for more guidance in inviting private partners and their demands into public parks.
“There is a continuing role for public agencies to broker a conversation about the role of P3s in parks management,” said Ed. And from Liam, “There is a need for better ground rules.”
From the private partners on the panel we learned about the demands they face as the public agency budget gaps in their cities grow, along with the expectation that the private sector should fill it – and increasingly not just with capital investment dollars, but with funding for operations and maintenance.
Their challenge is that park donors want recognition, accountability, and a commitment from the city about their role and their investment, a commitment – at least for ongoing maintenance – that is getting harder to negotiate. After all, it’s supposed to be a partnership.
The shift in thinking about funding for public parks in the last few decades has been monumental. There is an increasing expectation that the private sector will share in the responsibility of taking care of public parks. All of this change is occurring without the benefit of a playbook, and rapidly enough that the question was asked, “Have we given up on a strategy to raise more money from the public sector? Are we now leaving it to the private sector to innovate around funding?”
Thank goodness there is an amazing amount of experimentation; for the moment, minimal guidance (intended or not) and the ambiguity that goes with it is allowing a period of learning in this important transition. Some of the brightest moments in the discussion came in the form of war stories from both sides about how they managed to find solutions to funding challenges, donor demands, contracting and permitting snafus, and misguided policies.
“With complexity comes opportunity,” said Tom Powers.
In fact, in spite of the challenges, P3s continue to grow. Toni Pollak cited the fact that Boston has 176 park partners and they are actively soliciting more. And not just private partners, but partnerships with other government entities like public works, water departments, state agencies and the Corps of Engineers – many of which are now working with the city on a massive daylighting and restoration project for the Muddy River.
Not surprisingly, success breeds success: good parks are highly used and operational demands are increasing. Houston’s Hermann Park saw 6 million visitors last year, supported thankfully with 20,000 volunteer hours. Visitation at the Boston Harbor Islands is up 160% since 2004. Piedmont Park, once considered a park only for Midtown Atlanta residents, now serves visitors from 80 different zip codes across the city with a budget that is over 40% earned income.
This netherworld of parks transitioning from being publicly supported to being supported by a mix of public and private funding is, on the one hand, challenging both sides to distraction; but on the other hand, if you can live with a little ambiguity it is an amazingly creative moment in time.
The discussion touched on key questions for advocates and agencies as the parks movement grows. How can private partners help to move donors from only making sexy capital investments (and the ribbon-cutting and naming rights that go with them) to a more sophisticated understanding of the value of different kinds of investments that will pay returns? The value and opportunity, for example, in linking operations to programming or the leveraging of earned income from projects that can spin off funding to pay for more equity in parks and programs.
Can the private sector get more sophisticated in leveraging its gifts and investments to require more from the public sector? How can the public sector get smarter about leveraging funds from outside the parks budget by making a stronger case for parks’ role in aiding transportation, housing, stormwater, and public health solutions? How can both partners work harder on solutions to move money and other resources from the neighborhoods that have money to those that don’t? And best of all, how can the growing number of P3s operating around the country get smarter and more competitive through networks like the one that City Parks Alliance offers?
Both sides shared their beliefs in the value of communication, constant dialogue, and a shared sense of mission, strategies and master plans, all with the end goal of building trust. Without a playbook you have to trust that your partner is going to support you.
“Our work with the city every day is about establishing a new business model,” said Yvette. “We are listening, talking and working to understand what the city wants – how can we leverage, create and get the resources we need to keep our parks successful. And most importantly, we are working to assure that Piedmont Park is part of the city’s vision for what it wants to be.”
All the public agency representatives commented on their great appreciation for private partners and their often powerful board members.
“We have a robust committee structure to help our members direct their energies and help us keep moving projects along,” said Doreen. And from Liam, “These guys have great access, great stories and a good understanding of the need to help push the conversation in a political discussion.”
In some ways the overflowing room was a testimony to the strength of belief in public-private partnerships for parks; when you added up the money, volunteer time, professional in-kind service, professional expertise, new park acreage and countless program schedules just for the parks represented in the room, it was a value of hundreds of millions of dollars.
For all the recognition of the value of ‘private’ partnerships, all of the panel members agreed on the need to continue to affirm that public parks are public, and “…that no nonprofit controls the space.”
“We are stewards for the public,” said Ed. “Our goal is to protect public access to public parks while acknowledging that our parks need private partner contributions.”
In spite of the ambiguity that results from adding more stakeholders to the park planning and management process, private partnerships are resulting not only in more dollars for parks but a keener sense of management for parks – and the people who use them – turning all that energy and stirring of the pot into real outcomes around design, programs and the user experience. These kinds of discussions and workshops hosted by the City Parks Alliance are a pleasure for those of us who care about public parks. It’s a wonderful opportunity to have the chance to hear a bit of inside wisdom from leaders in the field, even as the field sorts itself out and morphs into something new.
Kathy 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 solution