Private funds spark a ‘Golden Age’ for public parks

In roughly half of major US cities nonprofits raise money to fund public parks, led by New York's Central Park Conservancy, which has provided more than $700 million since 1980.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File
A man and boy ride a sled down Cedar Hill in New York's Central Park in January 2015. The private nonprofit Central Park Conservancy contributes nearly $40 million per year to help with the upkeep of the park. Private funding has become a vital source of revenue for the maintenance of public parks nationwide.

A boom in privately funded conservancies is contributing to a "golden age" in city parks but also raising questions about philanthropy’s influence in the public arena, according to a report released today [Feb. 10].

Roughly half of major cities have one or more nonprofits that raise money for public parks and often help manage operations, according to the report by the Trust for the Public Land, a national group that works for the creation of urban parks. New York has nearly two dozen conservancies, and Atlanta, Boston, and Houston each have at least three.

Of the 41 conservancies studied by the trust, more than half have come online since 2000. These have helped spark increased big gifts to parks, says the group’s Adrian Benepe, a former parks commissioner for New York City. A well-run conservancy, he says, can give philanthropists confidence that their money will be spent wisely.

The granddaddy of conservancies is the 35-year-old nonprofit that supports New York City’s Central Park. It has raised more than $700-million since 1980—success that has spawned more than a few imitators aimed at fixing up run-down historic parks.

"Former flagship parks that were the pride and joy of 19th-century cities had been allowed to deteriorate in the mid- and late 20th century," Mr. Benepe says, "and it took private citizens saying, ‘We’re drawing a line in the sand, and we will not let this happen.’ "

Five conservancies in the report had an average of at least $10 million in annual revenues from 2009 to 2012: Central Park Conservancy (New York; $39 million); Friends of the High Line (New York; $24 million); Detroit Riverfront Conservancy ($14 million); Forest Park Forever (St. Louis; $13 million); and Prospect Park Alliance (New York; $10 million). Twenty groups had annual revenues of less than $2 million.

The report notes that thorny issues often accompany the creation of conservancies, with critics questioning whether they give elites a vehicle to assume control of a public resource.

The report also raises the question of whether governments will cut park funding as private sources of cash become available.

Jack Linn, a former official in New York’s Parks & Recreation Department, says in the report: "Conservancies are Plan B. They should not be perceived as the default approach to funding park upkeep and restoration. There’s a real danger in removing the public obligation to fund park and recreation systems."

This article originally appeared on the website of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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