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Innovative Governance

“There should be more than one way to run a park.”  
                                                                –Adrian Benepe

So went the thinking behind the creation of Central Park Conservancy as recounted by Adrian Benepe, former New York City Parks Commissioner and now Director of Urban Parks for the Trust for Public Land.  Adrian was here in Miami this week, touring the city, talking with park advocates, and looking for ways that the national organization and its cadre of urban park experts could add value to Miami and Miami-Dade County parks.

Miami1Adrian talked about the challenges cities face in continuing to be the sole steward for their parks in the face of huge budget challenges, and a list of pressing needs longer than your arm.  Why not, he argued, find new models that not only bring more resources into the equation but also add more value?

His words ring true for cities across the country who increasingly see parks as part of their strategy for economic development while struggling to find new models for developing and operating them – or, as editor and columnist for Fortune magazine, Geoff Colvin sees it, “…developing the most crucial competency for every company today, innovating the business model.”  Substitute the word ‘parks’ for ‘company’ and all his ideas are relevant to our work.

In a recent interview with Urban Land magazine, Colvin extrapolates his ideas about business model innovation for real estate:

It’s a big story in commercial real estate, as the buildings tend to last a long time. But the buildings may last longer than the business model. In an awful lot of businesses, the model lasted for decades, if not a century. It just doesn’t anymore. The ability to envision different business models for a given property is going to be extremely valuable.

And, a source of competitive advantage.  The most important element of business model innovation for parks right now is around governance.   How can cities and their bureaucracies give way to more decentralized, resourceful decision-making?  Park visitors want so much more from their experience than one public agency can manage, even if they had all the financial resources to do so.  A better way is to find a structure that gives all the stakeholders the freedom to express their ideas – through social media to formal advisory roles to a full-fledged partnership stake.

The stakes here are high – as in the case of the High Line development, which has helped to trigger the construction of 40 new buildings, 12,000 new jobs and $200 million of new tax revenue (predicted to hit $900 million by 2020), not to mention the tourism dollars generated from nearly 5 million annual visitors.  Millennium Park, the subject of my next post, has generated $2.4 billion in new real estate construction in the last ten years according to a Texas A&M study.  If, as Adrian says, parks are becoming the linchpin for economic development strategies for cities, then we need to rethink our motivation for P3s as being about much more than a default option for governments due to a lack of money.

HighLine2The value of a conservancy as a private partner to park agencies is about constituency and constancy.  According to Adrian, in addition to Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance, there are 200 ‘friends of the parks’ groups in New York City, as well as a set of city-wide park advocates – all working together to bolster parks.

It may be that we have to start thinking about the business model for parks as a system of interconnected activities and stakeholders; a system that demands flexibility and creativity in determining how a park does business in order to stay vibrant and relevant to its users.  Public agencies can’t have a monopoly on how they runs parks and continue to do it competitively and successfully; they will need to tap into partnerships, external resources and new programs to keep parks vital.

Colvin, in his interview with Urban Land magazine goes on to say,

The problem in doing [business model innovation] is primarily a cultural problem—people just having personal difficulty changing their view of what they do, what the company does. Anytime you change things, you threaten existing interests. Conceptually, making these changes is easy. Even technologically, it’s easy. It’s the human element that makes it difficult.

In Miami, we are challenged with bridging the gap between the city’s now well-established donors and advocates for arts and culture with a small but increasingly vocal group who care about the city’s parks.  Our parks, together with our extensive waterfront are our outdoor living room and another element of our urban culture.  Many of us see a need for a whole new way of thinking about our parks as the city and region experiences another real estate boom – before it becomes too expensive to do so.

Why not?  The weather here is fine, people are outside more than in most cities, and downtown Miami as well as Miami Beach are dense enough now to make bicycling an easy and convenient way to travel.  Why not green our paths and waterfronts and make it easier and more pleasant for residents and visitors to get around this beautiful place – and do it in a way that builds on our economic engine and strengthens peoples’ connection to the city?

Adrian reminded us that with Mayors Bloomberg (New York City) and Nutter (Philadelphia) leaving their jobs as two of the most high profile green mayors in recent history, there is a void in a national mayoral voice making the case for the value of investing in city parks. Who might step in and continue to lead us with innovative governance and business models for running our parks and enlivening our city life?

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.

Bike with the Commish: Touring the Hudson River Greenway with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation holds sway over 5,000 different properties encompassing 29,000 acres of land — nearly 15 percent of America’s largest city. The person who just passed the 10-year mark as NYC Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, still lives with his wife and sons in the Upper West Side Manhattan neighborhood where he grew up in the 1960s. So the man knows his home turf.

That being the case, there may not be a better way to combine leisure with learning then the Hudson River Greenway Bike Tour that the Commissioner will lead, and which promises to be a highlight for a lucky few early registrants for the International Urban Parks Conference, Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, being held from July 14 to 17 in New York City.

The three-hour tour on the afternoon of Sunday July 15 will traverse the longest continuous car-free bicycle and pedestrian path in New York City: the Hudson River Greenway, an uninterrupted 11-mile route between Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, and north beyond the George Washington Bridge. The trail passes through Hudson River Park, Riverside Park South, Riverside Park and Fort Washington Park.

New York City’s historical legacy as a pioneer of urban park innovation in America will be both on visual display — and on display in the accompanying ruminations of the Commissioner. Bicycles and helmets will be provided and the stunningly scenic and informative ride will be at a relaxed pace with, Benepe promises, about a half dozen or so stops. “Hopefully the weather will cooperate, and there’s usually a breeze along the river and many places to stop, talk, get water and get a bite along the way.”

Sunblock and cool clothing are good ideas. Perhaps only an excessive fear of helmet hair should be a deterrence.

“I haven’t figured out the exact route yet that we’ll take,” the Commissioner says, “but we’ll see Battery Park and Battery Park City,  Hudson River Park and the new park that connects Hudson River Park and Riverside.  We’ll see some new parks on the Upper West Side and Harlem…we’ll pass by the state park on top of the sewage treatment plant in West Harlem, and [maybe] will see some of the improvements [underway] to Fort Washington Park.  If we have the energy, we can go as far north as the Little Red Lighthouse — the iconic structure underneath the great bridge, the George Washington Bridge. You know, the story as told in the children’s book is more or less true. The river didn’t come to life and we don’t know if it was exactly called back into action on one dark and stormy night — but we do know it was saved from demolition and restored.”

Hudson River Greenway, New York

Benepe points out that the necklace of parks and the continuous bike paths that now adjoin them, “the opening up of the formerly industrial waterfront for recreational use,” is felt by many to be one of the city’s two or three greatest urban planning accomplishments of recent decades. “I’m a recreational cyclist. I get out and ride on weekends,” he says, “and you can now do a continuous ride without ever having to cross a street, from the Battery [on the south end of the island] all the way up to Dyckman Street [in the Inwood neighborhood of most northern Manhattan] because all the missing links have now been filled in. That’s a distance of almost the entire length of Manhattan.”

This has all occurred during the biggest period of park investment, construction and expansion for New York City since the 1930s. “The waterfront parks and re-purposing the post-industrial and post-maritime landscape for public recreation has been a major focus in particular,” Benepe explains. “This is being done around the world and has been a particular emphasis here in New York.” As a signature program of the Bloomberg mayoralty, Benepe estimates the city has invested in excess of $1 billion dollars on waterfront parks alone, $3 billion on parks in total over the last 10 years. “Just look at Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park — those alone are half a billion. Plus [the development] along the Bronx River, the Harlem River, the East River waterfront park south of South Street Seaport…so I think a billion is probably accurate. Certainly no one else in the United States is doing this much.

“New York City has become both a lab and a bellwether for urban park design, development, construction and management [with] all permutations of creative public-private partnerships,” he explains. Conference attendees will be able to see first hand “many examples of terrific landscape design by talented architects, and more varied models of park management in one place then you can find in 10 other cities.”

Presented by City Parks Alliance, Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities will feature over 100 tours and workshops.  Space for the Commissioner’s bike tour is very limited, so be sure to sign up soon.

Please visit www.urbanparks2012.org for full program and registration details.