This month’s Parks and Recreation magazine features an article on the challenges of public private partnerships. Acknowledging the benefits of a helping hand from the private sector, the article also points out problems with equity issues and the potential for a drop in public funding when private funding is successful.
Although New York and other east coast cities have over 20 years of experience with park conservancies and private partners, western cities, like Seattle, have been slower to embrace the partnership model. Seattle has one of the largest and best funded park systems in the nation and is known as a model for sustainable development. It spends over $250 per resident on its parks – above the median – and Trust for Public Land regularly ranks it as one of the top ten systems in the country. And yet, as Seattle Parks and Recreation faces its own budget challenges it has begun to explore where public-private partnerships can help – and how maybe they can take advantage of some of the lessons learned back east.
So how does the civic culture in Seattle view private partners? I recently talked with Acting Superintendent for Parks and Recreation in Seattle, Christopher Williams, and with Jon Scholes, Vice President for Advocacy and Economic Development for the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), a key partner to the city. (A separate blog entry on the work of DSA is forthcoming.) This blog and two more will offer up some insight to Seattle’s efforts to build public-private partnerships.
“We’re creating our own vision for how public-private partnerships can work in Seattle as the demand rises for creative solutions to our budget challenges,” says Williams. “Parks are sacred here and concern about commercialization and privatization has limited our willingness to pursue them.”
Seattle has always been able to count on levies (four new ones in the past two decades), special districts and bonds, but they also see that some partnerships will be needed too. How those work though, may be different than in other cities.
“Parks are always about access and inclusion. How do you ensure that you are protecting the public’s right to enjoy them?” says Williams. “In Seattle we have a deep commitment to public ownership and public control. If we enter into a partnership agreement with an organization to provide services – say recreation – we believe that they need to provide a solution for those who can’t pay.”
One way Seattle is different is that, “…we won’t do public private partnerships around our core work – like community centers.”
Another way Seattle is different is that they are structuring their partnerships with term limits. “Using an outside operator to provide a set of services for some amount of time might make sense but that agreement needs to be constantly re-evaluated,” says Williams.
The public is pushing to make sure the park department doesn’t give anything away. The partnerships that the city has chosen to enter into are focused and have measurable results – from a partnership with the Associated Recreation Council which provides programs and enrichment at community centers to a twenty-year contract with Forterra to restore the native forests in Seattle. The Partnership was formed in 2004 by memorandum of agreement between the City of Seattle and the Forterra (formerly Cascade Land Conservancy).
Seattle Parks and Recreation, Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment, and Seattle Public Utilities are the three key City departments serving in the Green Seattle Partnership. The partnership is governed by a 9-member Executive Council appointed by the Mayor. Twenty-five hundred acres of the city’s park system is made up of conifer forest. Williams says, “We have nearly half a million volunteer hours across the system and better than half of these volunteers work in the Green Seattle partnership.”
Another place where the city has embraced a partner is the downtown. Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) works with the city while representing the business, residential and economic interests of downtown Seattle. (Look for a separate blog entry on the work of DSA and the parks department). Williams says, “Without them we would not have secured a donation for a new playground in one of our downtown parks. They found the in-kind donation and paid for the play space.”
In some ways, Seattle understands that public-private partnerships provide a mechanism for allowing people and non-governmental organizations to invest in parks. Private partners’ emphasis on outreach, advocacy, marketing, promotion, programming and organizing volunteers tap into a constituency who cares about public places. And, these kinds of activities tend to convince people that somebody is doing something, and that the park has an advocate.
NEXT WEEK – A Vision for a Comprehensive Strategy
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 solutions.