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Benches Can Pay Their Way

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the third and final installment in a series on park benches. Read the previous two posts here and here.

Benches are some of the cheapest park furnishings or landscaping items (even cheaper than trees), but the cost of purchase, installation and maintenance still adds up. Steve Schuckman, superintendent of planning, design, and facilities with the Cincinnati Park Board, says that buying and installing a practical, aesthetically pleasing, and durable bench costs between $1,500 and $2,000. In Kansas City the standard design comes to about $900. The 2002 master plan for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Commons put the cost of modest benches at $1,200 each.

One way to cover expenses is through an adopt-a-bench program. Flourishing in many cities across the U.S., sponsorships take the shape of a small memorial plaque in return for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of a bench. (Many park agencies or conservancies stipulate that the memorial lasts for either the lifetime of the bench or for a certain number of years, whichever ends first). The cost varies by city and by park, but is generally around $2,000. In Austin, eleven of the city’s parks have already reached their bench donation limit. In New York’s Central Park, the Central Park Conservancy’s program (at $10,000 per bench) has yielded benefactors for over 4,200 of the park’s more than 9,000 benches. Kate O’Brien, development associate for the Broadway Mall Association, calls the Mall’s bench sponsorship program “a really good source of revenue.” Of the 340 benches from 70th Street to 168th Street, 39 are adopted.


A plaque on a bench in Central Park. Photo credit: Flickr user gigi_nyc

Because of the popularity, some programs have had to institute rules. The Pittsburgh Park Conservancy gives wording guidelines, has a character count, and does not allow logos. “This program is a nice way to honor loved ones,” says the conservancy’s Susan Rademacher, “but if we have too many memorial benches, it may detract from the feeling that the park is a common space meant for everyone.”

For O’Brien, seeking bench sponsorships is a joy of her job. She says, “Donors always have a great story about their connection to the park. Something like, ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years and always drink my coffee on this bench.’” Benches often have an association with an important moment or a special person. There are plaques commemorating births, deaths, marriages, and everything in between, including pets. Beyond helping to fund conservancies or park maintenance, bench sponsorship programs allow people to interact with and form a special, and tangible, connection to a certain park.

As this series of posts has illustrated, benches can be both a joy and a bane for park-goers and parks departments. But it does seem to be clear that when a bench is removed, its park loses more than just a piece of furniture. Maybe Adrian Benepe, senior vice president of The Trust for Public Land and former commissioner of parks for New York City, is correct when he says, “It’s like everything else — you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Or maybe it’s more alarming, as put by Tampa Parks Director Greg Bayor: “If you start removing benches then you’re on the way to removing everything else too.”

One More Time: Entrepreneurial Governance

In the past few weeks, I’ve heard too many stories about incremental change and bureaucratic hurdles when it comes to rethinking city park management, and am reminded again how the business labs in many of our cities have lessons for not just our business culture but our civic culture.  Entrepreneurship is about change.  Big business and bureaucracies tend to resist change, forcing entrepreneurs to start new organizations in order to pursue innovative activity – pursuing opportunity without regard to power. We can see evidence of this when we look across the parks world at the number of new park conservancies.

But getting there takes more than a capital campaign.  Public policies and a civic culture that promotes entrepreneurship play a central role not just in driving small business but in driving new models for the parks business, and the engagement of private partners.  Entrepreneurial thinking is key to revitalizing park management and park investment in a world where government can no longer pick up the whole bill.  Good public policy around innovation and entrepreneurialism can help to build a new and more thoughtful generation of civic leaders, and a new way of working that links public policy and private management to visionary giving.

In last week’s blog I talked about Boston and its focus on innovation and invention.  I also talked about Philadelphia winning the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge for its efforts to link private entrepreneurs with public policy challenges.  And this week comes the news that Baltimore is in the game too, with a more direct focus on making the link between innovation and parks.  The Greater Baltimore Tech Council – gb.tc – is using its innovation platform and angel investors to promote “hacking” its parks:

The power to make Baltimore’s parks (and the city, as a whole) sustainable, livable and vibrant lies with us. So we are calling on the citizens of Baltimore to “hack” the city’s parks. By hacking we mean citizens develop their own applications (whether they be technology-based or not) which create simple, tangible benefits for the community.

gb.tc has partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology and Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks to give Baltimoreans a real opportunity to change our urban green spaces. The goal isn’t just to better life in Baltimore, but to give citizens the chance to build real, sustainable businesses which help achieve this end.

Hack the Parks is making grants available to support the most innovative park improvement proposals. We encourage you to think small, at least to start. The funded projects are all pilots. In addition to seed money, the selected pilot projects will also be given park space or other Rec and Parks resources to test their plans, pivot, and evolve into truly viable products.

GBTCThe gb.tc effort is about understanding the link between private sector innovation and public sector innovation policy, facilitating interaction among not only the tech community but potential investors and community stakeholders who care about the public realm.  In government, control is vested at the top much more so than in almost any business. If you want an organization to become more entrepreneurial and alert (in this case, to park users), you must give a lot more control to the people who understand the parks ‘market’ and deal with park users.  Connections create innovation.

Once again our friends in Canada are thinking two steps ahead of us in looking at how to blend our public and private leadership for a more potent result.  David Wolfe, in his work looking at economic development and civic governance, talks about building collaborative leadership:

The essential criterion for success in building these new collaborative relationships is finding the right mechanisms to engage members of the community in a sustained effort to advance its economic opportunities. The recruitment of a committed, creative and collaborative leadership is the most essential element for the success of these efforts. These kinds of collaborative leaders invariably share certain characteristics:

  • They can see the opportunities;
  • They exhibit an entrepreneurial personality, in both a business and a ‘civic’ sense;
  • They are willing to cross functional, political and geographic boundaries in pursuit of their strategic goals;
  • They demand a sharing of both responsibility and results, and consequently are trusted as credible intermediaries; and
  • They are committed to and comfortable working in teams (Montana, Reamer, et al. 2001).

Right from the start, the founders of the Central Park Conservancy understood that a successful park partnership was as much about management as it was about money.

In 1976, Gilder and Soros funded a study of how Central Park could be revived, calling for a private board and modern management. The idea went nowhere; at the time, many thought the park was beyond rescue. Then they met a young landscape planner named Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, whose Central Park Task Force was likewise struggling. In 1978, newly elected Mayor Ed Koch took an interest in this handful of citizen-activists. To capitalize on their opportunity, Gilder and Rogers merged their organizations, creating the Central Park Conservancy in 1980.

“You don’t throw money at the problem,” Rogers realized. “You throw management.”

Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

The conservancy gradually took the driver’s seat in New York and has become a model for countless other efforts.  A new private partner that raises funds for parks or provides other resources won’t be nearly as successful as one who can take the reins and change business as usual.  For a private partner to provide benefits, they must have the flexibility to bring entrepreneurial ideas to the table and the authority to implement them and make change.

As cities, park departments and friends groups struggle to find a new way of working together, it is important to remember that much depends on the ability of cities to develop the organizational capacity and the civic culture for formulating and implementing new management strategies.  Some cities are trying – because they have parks that are failing or new parks that need private support to get off the ground – but others haven’t figured out that parks are part of a city’s business strategy and to be successful, must be operated in a way that ‘hacks’ the old methods and experiments relentlessly until it finds a new normal.  There is no single blueprint for how this should be done; ultimately, it involves a process of social learning for the civic leadership in each city.

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 solution