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The Importance of volunteers in parks, continued.

By Charlie McCabe

Last week, as part of our press release for the 2017 edition of City Park Facts, we touted a number of examples covering the growing role and importance of volunteers in parks in the 100 largest US city park systems. Given that we’re nearing the end of National Volunteer Week (Apr 23-29), we wanted to add another post in what will be an ongoing series on volunteers working in parks.


Volunteers planning bulbs on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, Boston

Today, we’ll take a quick look at how park conservancies are working with volunteers. As part of a master’s thesis in 2016, I looked at what were the best practices of organizing and managing a volunteer program. I studied nine different parks conservancies in Austin, Boston, Brooklyn and Houston. I found a number of common practices and methods used, which we’ll cover in a future set of posts.  But, like our findings on the impact of volunteer in our 100 largest US cities, I found substantial impact for these nine park conservancies.

First, it’s very important to stress that all of these organizations work in partnership with their local park agencies to achieve mutual goals. As Doreen Stoller, Executive Director of the Hermann Park Conservancy noted in our 2015 publication, Public Parks/Private Money: “the City of Houston has allowed Hermann Park Conservancy to perform many duties on its behalf. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that our work is ‘on its behalf.’”

So, what’s the impact?  I looked at five years worth of data from each of the park conservancies.  The results are impressive.

  • In 2012, 12,250 volunteers donated 44,668 hours worth $1.04M or 21.47 FTEs
  • in 2013, 16,836 volunteers donated 49,767 hours worth $1.21M or 23.9 FTEs
  • In 2014, 15,426 volunteers donated 53,688 hours worth $1.34M or 25.81 FTEs
  • In 2015, 16,098 volunteers donated 59,461 hours worth $1.55M or 28.58 FTEs
  • In 2016, 18,727 volunteers donated 67,541 hours worth $1.75M or 32.47 FTEs

Overall, during the five year period, 79,337 volunteers donated 275,125 hours worth $6.9M.

(The value of hours is calculated using data collected by Independent Sector, a non-profit that calculates the annual hourly value of donated labor by state. FTE stands for full-time equivalent or one person working fulltime, calculated as 2,080 hours a year or 40 hours per week times 52 weeks in a year.)


Tree mulching demonstration at the start of volunteer workday, Pease Park, Austin.

In future posts, we’ll get into the details of what tasks volunteers tackle, how these non-profits organize and manage their volunteer programs, how they work with park agency and park conservancy staff and a host of other topics, including the origin of volunteers in our parks.

Further, one of our efforts in the coming year at the Center for City Park Excellence will be looking at park conservancies and their continued impacts alongside parks agencies in the 100 largest cities, we working to get a more complete picture of what all non-profits working in parks contribute in terms of funds, volunteer hours and “on the ground” work.

Note: The nine park conservancies studied in my thesis were: the Austin Parks Foundation, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, the Hermann Park Conservancy, the Hill Country Conservancy (for the Violet Crown Trail, specifically) the Pease Park Conservancy, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, and the Trail Foundation.

The Center for City Park Excellence is part of The Trust for Public Land, which creates parks and protects land for people. You can contact us at ccpe@tpl.org.


City Park Conservancies: A Treasure Trove of New Knowledge

Peter Harnik at The Trust for Public Land has once again added to the foundation of knowledge about city parks with a new report issued by the Center for City Park Excellence. Public Spaces/Private Money: The Triumphs and Pitfalls of Urban Park Conservancies is a report by Harnik and Abby Martin that looks at 41 organizations from around the nation that are partnering with public agencies to plan, design, operate and manage city parks.

Starting with the ‘roots’ of the conservancy movement in New York and San Francisco, the report provides a good overview and much data about the growing number of park conservancies. Most conversations about the history of park conservancies start with the formation of the Central Park Conservancy in 1980 but Harnik and Martin’s report enlightens the discussion with what was happening on the west coast with the creation of the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy at roughly the same time in 1981.  Continue reading

Park Conservancy Models Part III: The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and Discovery Green Conservancies

This is the third installment of a three-part series looking at the histories of six different city park conservancies.  Read part one here and part two here.

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Boston

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Boston. Credit: Bill Ilott (Flickr Feed)

When Boston’s “Big Dig” Central Artery/Tunnel Project was completed in 2007, the city found itself with 15 new acres of designated park space in the heart of the metropolis – land that had formerly lain under the elevated Fitzgerald Expressway. But figuring out how to develop, manage and program these new parks became almost as great a challenge as tearing down the old expressway in the first place.

From the start, citing budget issues, both the Boston Department of Parks and Recreation and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation declined to take operating responsibility for the property. Several initial efforts to create a new conservancy for park maintenance and programming failed. Finally, in 2004, with prodding from the Kennedy family, a memorandum of understanding was executed between Governor Mitt Romney, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello to create the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy.

The Conservancy, modeled after New York’s Central Park Conservancy, was charged with the responsibility to raise $20 million for an endowment and operating funds by the end of 2007. An initial goal of $5 million prompted a matching gift of $5 million from the Turnpike Authority (now the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT)), and with the active support of an original ten-member board that included two appointments by the city, two appointments by the state, five by MTA and one appointment by the Kennedy family, the Conservancy met the goal.

Because the 1.3-mile long Greenway lies over the interstate, MassDOT retains ownership of the land, which it leases to the Conservancy. Neither the city nor the state parks departments have any role with the facility.

Construction of the Greenway, which contains five separate parks, began in 2005; it opened in phases in 2007 and 2008, at which time the state legislature passed enabling legislation, signed by Governor Deval Patrick, that designated the Conservancy its official steward with responsibility for management, maintenance, programming and improvement.  This includes fountains, lawns, planting beds, and paved surfaces.

In 2010 the Conservancy provided new tables, umbrellas, free WiFi, and food vendors; added signage; mentored youth through the Green & Grow youth workforce development program; and hosted 150 free events. In 2011, National Park Service and the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, opened the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion, a visitor center featuring canopies over a granite map of the islands and descriptive panels.  Other accomplishments by the Conservancy included installation of the temporary Urban Green sculpture exhibit at Fort Point Channel Parks in collaboration with the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum; and the provision of 12 food vendors offering diverse lunch options in six locations. This year saw a 70 percent increase in attendance at park events, including approximately 100,000 riders enjoying the rented carousel. (A permanent custom-designed carousel, inspired by the imagination of Boston’s schoolchildren, is planned for 2013.)

The Greenway has begun spurring redevelopment on its edges. In October 2011, ground was broken for a 12-story, 286-unit apartment building with 17,000 square feet of retail space.  Completion is set for early 2013. Also announced that month was funding to advance a 345-unit housing project in Chinatown whose first phase is expected to be complete in 2014.

Discovery Green Conservancy, Discovery Green, Houston

Discovery Green, Houston.

Discovery Green is a new 12-acre park located in downtown Houston.  Created through a public-private partnership between the City of Houston and the non-profit Discovery Green Conservancy, the park is home to two interactive water features; an outdoor stage/amphitheater; two promenades; theme gardens; a jogging trail; a library; two reading rooms; two restaurants; two lawns; a playground; two dog runs; and numerous works of art. It also contains Kinder Lake, with an adjacent water garden, pier and model boat basin, which turns into a winter ice-skating rink.

Discovery Green was conceived not only as a public park, but also as a landmark to attract convention revenue to the City, and as an anchor for downtown development. Discovery Green Conservancy’s mission is “to operate an urban park that serves as a village green, a source of health and happiness for our citizens, and a window into the diverse talents and traditions that enrich life in Houston.”

In the late 19th century the park’s site was a high-end residential neighborhood, but construction of Union Station in 1911 permanently altered the area and it remained industrial for most of the 20th century.  In the 1970s, Texas Eastern Corporation purchased 32 blocks to build Houston Center, a “city-within-a-city” complex featuring offices, luxury lodging, restaurants, shopping, banking, health and fitness, and residential high-rise living – all linked to Houston Center Gardens, a small strip of private green space within the development.  However, even with the 1987 construction of the nearby Houston Convention Center, Houston Center was never a financial success, and in 2004 the entire complex was put up for sale.

It was the Houston Center Gardens that became the catalyst for creating Discovery Green. When the community realized the Gardens would likely be destroyed for a parking garage or some other use, they leapt into action. A group of philanthropists from The Brown Foundation (established by one of the co-owners of Texas Eastern), the Kinder Foundation, the Wortham Foundation, and the Houston Endowment, Inc. suggested to Mayor Bill White that the city purchase Houston Center Gardens to create a permanent downtown public park.  The Mayor liked the idea and became a strong supporter. At his request the property owner agreed to delay the sale to give the city and the foundations an opportunity to raise the funds and make an offer.

In short order, $57 million was raised to acquire the four-acre Gardens and several adjoining parcels. The city augmented the site by donating two adjacent parking lots (totaling 5.5 acres) and also closing part of a street (adding another acre). At this same time Discovery Green Conservancy was established to create the park and operate it. Project for Public Spaces was involved in the intensive public process.

Unique among park conservancies, Discovery Green Conservancy has a 50-year management contract with the Houston Downtown Park Corporation, a Local Government Corporation that remains the legal owner of the park. The Conservancy is responsible for all aspects of management and programming. Neither the city of Houston nor Harris County has any operational role with Discovery Green.

Building Discovery Green cost $182 million, with $125 million used to build and outfit the park. Remediation of industrial pollution on the site cost $1.2 million, funded in part by $500,000 from the seller and $395,000 from the City. The City paid for all of the parking garage costs. But Discovery Green has already repaid that investment: since opening in 2008, it has stimulated over $500 million in downtown development, including a 37-story, 346 unit luxury high-rise building; an office development that has already leased all of its space; a 262 suite urban hotel; and a new 28,000 square foot gourmet market, with a dedicated restaurant, coffee shop and bar. In its first two years of operation, Discovery Green hosted more than 800 free public and private events and had been visited by 1.7 million users, many of them out-of-towners attending convention events.

Park Conservancy Models Part II: Madison Square Park Conservancy and The Civic Center Conservancy

This is part two of a three-part series looking at the histories of six different city park conservancies.  Read part one here.

Madison Square Park Conservancy, Madison Square Park, New York

Jaume Plensa’s Echo sculpture in Madison Square Park, New York. Credit: Tom Giebel (Flickr Feed)

Madison Square Park was officially dedicated in 1847. In 1870, soon after the creation of New York City’s first Department of Public Parks, the 6.2-acre park was re-landscaped with well-defined walkways and open lawns to capture both formal and pastoral elements. In the late 19th century, the neighborhood surrounding Madison Square Park was one of Manhattan’s most elite, flourishing as a bustling commercial district with fashionable residences and hotels.  But by the 1990’s, despite its prominent location and cultural significance, the park had fallen into disrepair with cracked and broken asphalt, eroded lawns, decaying monuments, visual clutter, insufficient lighting, and confusing signage.

In response, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation asked the City Parks Foundation to take the lead in organizing a revitalization campaign in 1999.  The “Campaign for the New Madison Square Park” led to restoration in 2000-2001 and the creation of a “Friends” group in 2002.

The renovation restored elements of the original 19th century design, and the park now features lush green lawns, colorful flowering shrubs and plants, World’s Fair-style benches, a restored fountain, a contemporary reflecting pool, new gateways, new paving, and ornamental lighting.  Another major accomplishment included the reinstallation of the 1920s-era Eternal Light Star (commemorating the end of World War I) with financial support from ConEdison, New York City Parks and Recreation, and Sentry Lighting.  Additional amenities in the park include six statues/monuments, a playground (with a Playground Associate during the summer), Star of Hope, a temporary outdoor art installation, and the Shake Shack food stand.

The “Friends” group was renamed the Madison Square Park Conservancy in 2004 to move from general advocacy for the park to more long-term care and maintenance. In addition to its annual budget, the Conservancy has raised over $10 million for capital improvements and for a permanent fund to support park maintenance.  (Any surplus revenues from operations go into the capital budget.)  Donor companies have included Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, New York Life Insurance Company, Credit Suisse First Boston, Rudin Management, and Union Square Hospitality Group.

The Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, financed and built by the Conservancy for $750,000 in 2004 (and operated by a third-party) was an instant success and is one of the highlights of current restaurant concessions in New York City parks.  It usually features long lines of customers waiting for frozen custard, shakes, concretes, Shack burgers, Chicago hotdogs, and “shroom burgers.”

A dense mix of office buildings, retail establishments and restaurants border Madison Square Park.  Restoration has also spurred new residential development, including approximately twenty luxury condominium buildings in the surrounding area over the past five years, with two more coming in 2012-13.  New hotels have also opened in the neighborhood.

A Business Improvement District surrounds Madison Square Park Conservancy, but there is no formal connection to the Conservancy.  There is more business retail than residential development surrounding the park, so visitation counts fluctuate throughout the year.  After two surveys of users last summer, the Conservancy estimates 1.25 million visitors during peak months (May through September).

The Civic Center Conservancy, Civic Center, Denver

Colorado tribute to Veterans Monument and the City and County Building in Civic Center Park, Denver. Credit: Cliff (Flickr Feed)

Civic Center Park fills the grand space between Denver’s two most important civic buildings – Denver’s City and County Building and the Colorado State Capitol. Accented with tree groves, its structures include the Greek Theater and its Colonnade of Civic Benefactors, the Voorhies Memorial and adjacent “Seal Pond,” a historic balustrade wall and historic Carnegie Library turned municipal building. With the Pioneer Monument nearby, the park itself contains three bronze sculptures: “Broncho Buster,” “On the War Trail,” and the Columbus Monument. It has an illustrious history, including designs by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., but in recent decades the 12-acre park was largely empty, lacking amenities, programming, and connectivity. With the City’s operational and capital budgets shrinking, there was a backlog of deferred maintenance.

In response, a group of private citizens passionate about revitalizing Civic Center Park – including Elaine Asarch (founding Conservancy board chair and current board member), Dennis Humphries (architect and recent chair of Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission), Chris Frampton (current board chair and local real estate developer) and others – founded the Civic Center Conservancy in 2004. “We wanted to reintroduce people to this historic urban oasis and engage the community in its future,” said Conservancy Executive Director Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, who came to the job from the Denver Mayor’s office in 2009.

The Conservancy partners with the City and County of Denver to restore, enhance, and activate Civic Center Park, with efforts focusing on four key areas:  advocacy around design/infrastructure/policy; events and programming to activate the space; marketing and public engagement; and fundraising for capital improvements/activities/initiatives to support Civic Center’s ongoing revitalization.

Some major accomplishments of the Conservancy include advocating for Civic Center’s inclusion in the 2007 Better Denver bond initiative (which voters approved, resulting in almost $9.5 million for restoration), and providing input into the 2009 design guidelines for the park.

In its quest to elevate and sustain Civic Center as the vibrant cultural and community hub its founders envisioned more than a century ago, the Conservancy hosts a variety of arts and cultural programs, including the twice-weekly summer Civic Center EATS Outdoor Café (with 20+ food trucks, bistro-style seating and live music), an annual Independence Eve Celebration (featuring a free Colorado Symphony concert and a fireworks/light display that attracted more than 100,000 people in its second year and was broadcast live throughout Colorado), and a new Bike-In Movie Series on summer evenings. With these new programs, combined with longstanding annual festivals and general traffic resulting from the surrounding cultural and civic attractions, the park attracts over a million visitors a year.

Park Conservancy Models Part I: Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Detroit 300 Conservancy

Conservancies are private, non-profit, park-benefit organizations that raise money independent of the city and spend it under a plan of action that is mutually agreed upon with the city.  Conservancies do not own any parkland nor do they hold easements on it; the land continues to remain in the ownership of the city, and the city retains ultimate authority over everything that happens there.

Park conservancies are an outgrowth of private citizens wanting to do more for public spaces than government can do on its own.  Gaining steam across the U.S. over the past three decades, conservancies of varying sizes and models have been established out of concern for parks that government entities had neither the capacity nor the resources to maintain, program or enhance adequately.

This is part one of a three-part series looking at the histories of six different city park conservancies.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Buffalo Bayou, Houston

The Common in Sesquicentennial Park, Buffalo Bayou, Houston. Credit: Jim (Flickr Feed).

In 1976, after a lawsuit forced Houston to begin a massive upgrade of its sewer system, the water quality slowly began to improve in the city’s streams (known locally as bayous). By 1984 Buffalo Bayou, the city’s main waterway, was clean enough for visionaries to begin thinking of it as a valuable natural resource complete with parks and other waterfront opportunities – and as a node for downtown economic development.  Under the leadership of Mayor Kathy Whitmire, a blue-ribbon panel spent two years producing the Buffalo Bayou Task Force Report which outlined a concept for redevelopment as well as a proposal to create a non-profit entity to implement the plan.

Mayor Whitmire then exerted further leadership by stimulating an implementing entity, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a group of civic, environmental, business and governmental representatives, to transform and revitalize 10 miles of Buffalo Bayou into a park system “that joins land and water to become the green heart of Houston.”

The Partnership’s jurisdiction follows Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to the Ship Channel Turning Basin.  It includes approximately 250 acres of parkland on either side of the waterway.

The Partnership was created in 1986 to work on a major park project for Houston’s 150th birthday, but for its first nine years it operated as only a volunteer group.  In 1995, staff was hired and more projects were initiated, including acquiring easements for a hike and bike trail. The Partnership didn’t intend to purchase large tracts of property but that approach was thwarted when the majority of landowners rejected selling or donating easements in favor of full fee simple sales.  BBP had to rethink its strategy and undertake major fundraising.  Since its inception, the Partnership has raised and leveraged nearly $150 million for bayou enhancements, including $23 million for Sesquicentennial Park, $4 million for Allen’s Landing, $12 million for Sabine Promenade, and $20 million for land acquisition.  Being a property owner has allowed the Partnership to be a significant player in development decisions along the bayou.

Currently, BBP is leading a $55-million park improvement project to transform a 158-acre, 2.3-mile-long city park just west of downtown.  The vision is to develop a beautiful, natural green space with vistas of the downtown skyline, user-friendly access points and recreational areas.  A strong public-private partnership, including Houston’s Kinder Foundation, Buffalo Bayou Partnership, City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District has been formed to carry out the ambitious project.  A Kinder Foundation catalyst gift of $30 million will fund basic park improvements. The Harris County Flood Control District is sponsoring a $5 million flood reduction/eco-system restoration project.  The remaining $20 million are being sought by the BBP.  Once completed in 2015, the park will be maintained and operated by BBP.

Detroit 300 Conservancy, Campus Martius Park, Detroit

Campus Martius Park, Detroit. Credit: Detroit 300 Conservancy.

A bright spot in the challenging economic situation in Detroit is Campus Martius, the new center-city park that attracts two million visitors a year and has helped stimulate almost $1 billion in nearby redevelopment. The entity operating Campus Martius is the Detroit 300 Conservancy.

Campus Martius (which means “Field of Mars” or “military ground”) had existed since 1788 but had not had a glorious history, eventually being asphalted over for streetcars and automobiles. In the late 1990s, when Mayor Dennis Archer was casting about for a suitably major project to serve as the centerpiece of the city’s tricentennial celebration in 2001, he selected it for re-creation. Detroit 300, Inc., the non-profit organization leading the celebration, adopted the Campus Martius reconstruction as part of its Legacy Project, and the park opened in 2004.

Only 2.5 acres in size, Campus Martius is a hub of activity with two retractable stages; the Woodward Fountain; waterwalls; monuments; lawns and gardens; a seasonal ice skating rink; a bistro café; seating for more than 3,000 people on walls, benches, steps, and movable chairs; and the “point of origin,” a medallion embedded in the stone walkway that sits over an early 1800s survey marker of Detroit’s coordinate system. Campus Martius plays host to over 200 concerts, events, and festivals each year, including the Motown Winter Blast and the Detroit Jazz Festival, each of which draws more than 100,000 people.  The innovative programming, pedestrian accessibility, strong connection to the surrounding neighborhoods, and availability of public transit make Campus Martius a distinct destination and a landmark downtown public space for residents, workers and visitors alike.

Designing and constructing the park cost $20 million. (There was no cost for land acquisition, and all roadway infrastructure expenses were covered by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.)  Funding came largely from corporations and the philanthropic community led by The Kresge Foundation.

The major reinvestment around Campus Martius includes street level cafés, retail shops and the new one-million-square-foot world headquarters of the Compuware Corp. (which told the city it would not have relocated if the park had not been built). Other companies are following suit: in 2010, Quicken Loans moved 3,000 employees into the area and has purchased over 2 million square feet of adjacent historic high-rise buildings. Additionally, GalaxE.Solutions announced it would spend $4.2 million to restore part of a nearby building and create 500 jobs over the next four years.  Other investments in the area include the restoration of the historic Westin Book Cadillac Hotel and Residences, new restaurants, a CVS Pharmacy, and residential lofts and condos on Woodward Avenue.

“Campus Martius is a huge economic driver of development,” said Detroit 300 Conservancy President Robert Gregory. “The park has transformed a desolate area into a vibrant, active and year-round space with residential, retail, and restaurants along its borders.  It’s a great place to be socially, right in the core of the business community.”

In 2010, Campus Martius received the inaugural Urban Land Institute Amanda Burden Urban Open Space Award and was also named one of the “Top Ten Great Public Spaces” by the American Planning Association.