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Summer Time and the Livin’ in Parks Ain’t Easy: The P3 Debate

Summer has officially arrived and as the temperatures rise and people head out to their parks, the conversation is once again heating up about the limited budgets of public park systems.  Where are the funds for cutting the grass? Will the swimming pools close before they are even opened?  What is the track record and value of private partners working with cities to try and avert the loss in access and programs?

In the last month we have seen headlines in news stories that read, “Reducing Some City Parks to the Status of Beggars,” “The Murky Ethics and Uncertain Longevity of Privately Financed Public Parks,” “Our Parks Are Not For Sale…,” “Washington Park has Gone Square – the Parks Department has Secretly Formed a Private Conservancy.”

Some claim that, “…the shortchanging of public funding for parks is part of a plan to allow parks to deteriorate in order to rationalize the private confiscation of “the commons.” Really?

Or, in the same article, a quote from New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, “I’m not supportive of conservancies in general for parks because I think that the design, operations and management of public parks should remain transparent and accountable to the local communities they serve. The conservancy model has a tendency to undermine these goals.”

In spite of the fevered rhetoric there is a real and important discussion emerging out of these emotional calls to action.  As a starting place, let’s remember that as Murray notes (citation below), “…private partners in public parks have been around since the first group of neighbors traveled into their local park to pick up litter, prune plants, and build structures.” It’s the institutionalization of these relationships that is giving us a headache.

Why the Furor?

P3s for parks, given the breadth of practice out there, is a vague term used loosely these days. But simply, it means three things. First, it is about money – closing a government gap in funding the restoration, maintenance and management of public parks.  Second, it is about a huge change in efficiency and accountability.  And third, it is a philosophy about how decisions will be made – and who the decision-makers are.  And it is on this point that the detractors of P3 focus.

Many concerned about P3s believe that the management decisions with which they disagree stem from a perceived lack of accountability of private management to public interest.   But really, in spite of the comments above, have public agencies ever been great at being transparent and accountable?  Few of them even produce an annual report let alone have the ability to track and control their part of a larger city budget.

So for many, the transition from public agency control over parks to one where that control is shared with nonprofit conservancies feels like we’re losing something.  Theorist David Harvey argues that we have to work on, “…reestablishing democratic control over city resources…” and, presumably in our case, park management decisions.  But what does that look like?  And did we have better control over city resources without park conservancies?

What’s the debate about?

Michael Murray’s excellent 2010 Harvard Environmental Law Review article summarizes the debate as this:

First, some observers criticize the privatization of the parks in itself, perhaps because of the control perceived to be asserted by donors.  Second other observers note that giving certain individuals some control in the park creates class conflict, especially when gentrification occurs.  Third, some criticize what they view as excessive commercialization of the parks, stemming from advertising or revenue-producing enterprises.  Finally, and perhaps most commonly, the success of some parks groups is criticized on the grounds that it distracts public officials’ attention from the problems in other parks, leading to the creation of a “two-tiered” park system of wealthy and poor parks.

The privatization debates stems from the concern that as conservancies have been given more responsibility to raise funds to meet the gap in park budgets they will need to commercialize to pay the bills and support the rising maintenance costs – potentially with more events that are private, closing off a park temporarily for public use.  And related is the concern that only those with money will get better parks and that the inequities of quality of life will be most prominent in the quality of our public spaces.

By the way, this same debate is going on with regard to public libraries as these public spaces, too, are increasingly being managed by private operators.  Library System and Services Inc., the only library privatization company in the United States, now runs at least 15 library systems in California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas. This means it is, effectively, the fifth largest library system in the country.

The American Library Association (which is on record against privatization) has developed guidelines for what kind of questions a library should ask when considering whether to outsource their services including questions related to maintaining or increasing levels of cost-effective service; intellectual freedom (“will the company adhere to local policies such as the protection of user privacy?”) and loss of community involvement.

But the question that resonates — not just for libraries, but for so many cities grappling with using private partners to help run public spaces— is one of community control. When a city lets a private organization have a role in the management of public space, who controls the resource, and how much say do they get?

Are Nonprofits Better Managers?

First, the argument is not that private managers are “better” managers than governmental managers. That may or may not be true.  Rather, the argument is that the private manager is theoretically the more responsible manager, and that this responsibility reduces the cost of monitoring and creates positive outcomes with respect to funding and maintenance.

Governance Graph

Dr. Paul F. J. Eagles is a Professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada whose research over the years has focused on the planning and management of parks and protected areas.  I’ve borrowed heavily in this section from his writing to make the case for the value of private nonprofit partners.  He and others argue that there is much to be gained in a partnership between on private nonprofit organization and a public agency working together.

Three issues are at stake in the management of parks, according to Eagles:  (1) the ownership of the resources; (2) the sources of income for management and (3) the management body.

To be more attractive than governmental organizations working alone, private nonprofit conservancies must take and manage responsibility better than governmental organizations. Private managers of public parks should be more responsible for two reasons: (1) private managers and their nongovernmental character makes it easier to trace responsibility to them, and (2) private managers are motivated to obtain revenue through donations or user fees, which incentivizes them to provide services that are successful; obtain stable government funding levels without reverse “crowd out”; and to provide information that indicates success to future donors and park users.

No one is suggesting that parks be given up entirely to private ownership or management – especially with regard to policy decisions.  But the conservancies currently in operation seem to be demonstrating that a management partnership of government with nonprofit public involvement is closer to the ideals of good governance than one of just government or just for-profit private investment.

Nonprofit conservancies have also created more community engagement and higher degrees of public participation, since their success depends on creating a park that people like, feel safe in and will visit.  Accountability and transparency are also improved since donors won’t donate and visitors won’t visit – and cities won’t contract with – conservancies that aren’t accountable.

The area that nearly all involved agree the most important issue in this debate – and the one that needs the most work – is that of equity.

Spreading the Wealth

Maybe the discussion regarding P3s isn’t as much about privatization as it is about equitable distribution of both private and public funds across a city’s park system.  If someone wrote a check to keep the pools open in New York City this summer, would anyone turn them down?  Private funds have done Herculean work in restoring, creating and maintaining our parks in ways that the public sector could never have accomplished on its own – keeping in mind that demand exists and grows for services every year beyond what government can provide.

Nonprofit conservancies have developed to meet that need and demonstrated the willingness of park users and donors to contribute to make improvements.  If this model works, how do we extend it beyond a city’s signature parks? If it’s true that conservancy-led fundraising is ‘crowding out’ public dollars, where are those public dollars going when they are moved from Central Park or the High Line?

Earlier this month, New York State Senator Daniel Squadron – whose district covers parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn – and parks advocates called for large, well-funded park conservancies to join Squadron’s proposed Neighborhood Parks Alliance to ensure more equity across the city’s 1,700 parks, and they urged an increase in parks funding – at least enough to forestall the closure of many of the city’s pools.  Under Squadron’s proposal, city park conservancies with an operating budget of over five million dollars would be required to become contributing conservancies, depositing twenty percent of their total operating budgets into a Neighborhood Parks Alliance Fund that would be administered by the board.

Central Park Conservancy is already in discussion with the city about how it can play a larger role in assisting other parks.  Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has expanded its focus to more parks across the city; the Atlanta Beltline is poised to change how parks work together in that city when they become connected by the proposed loop around the city.  At some point one can imagine that citywide conservancies will become strong partners to city park agencies in all facets of their work and across all neighborhoods.

The Discussions Need to Continue

It’s not clear how we got to this point or who’s to blame.  Did park agencies let us down with poor management?  Did park users fail to make the best case they could for holding onto city budget dollars?  Isn’t a private effort backed by a strong constituency of park lovers one key to making parks work better – a constituency that can force park agencies to be more accountable to users and their budget share?

What’s clear is that governmental and non-profit conservancies are trying to work together to make public parks better; even if we disagree about the track record of this collaboration, their motives and values are more than worthy.  Most of us understand that this kind of convergence will not be easy.  But partnerships and new fundraising mechanisms must be developed that recognize the limits of our available resources.

The shining light in the rise of private conservancies has been their ability – planned and unplanned – to raise public engagement and conversation about our public parks and this can only bode well in the budget wars. As well as the efforts of conservancies in New York, the Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta, the San Francisco Parks Alliance, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy – and thousands more around the country – all have large and thriving citizen advisory councils who provide yet another level of oversight to the work being done by both conservancies and public agencies.  These councils in general work far better than the traditional but ham-strung publicly appointed park commissions.

“People are very possessive and passionate about public space,” said Ms. Sadik-Khan, the New York City transportation commissioner, in a recent article for the New York Times. “When it’s taken away [as in the recent protests in Istanbul regarding the proposed development of Gezi Park], I’m not surprised that there’s a strong reaction. If you took away Central Park …”

The point, the commissioner said, is that “there are not enough green spaces, open spaces, in cities; what we’re seeing is cities looking to expand the number of places where people can gather.”

Public spaces like parks are a battleground since they – possibly along with streets and libraries – remain the last democratic spaces in cities. But if public management of these precious places in the last twenty years has led to their decline, can we afford not to take a leap in developing a more collaborative and more accountable model of management?  Can one be developed that will balance the public role with private support without sacrificing public values?

I believe that what park leaders – public and private – today are working on is a way to make parks better.  Now that summer is once again here and people are heading to the parks in ever greater numbers, let’s embrace the discussion and opportunity to redesign the governance of parks in ways that give us more access to a better and more equitable public park system.

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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