How a Smart Mayor Can Harness the Strength of a Nonprofit

The turnaround of Central Park is more than an urban success story. It's about shared responsibility and trading power for results.
December 12, 2018 AT 6:15 AM
Kids sailing miniature boats in Central Park in New York City.
Kids sailing miniature boats in Central Park in New York City. (Shutterstock)
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

Of all the urban turnaround stories of the past 50 years, none is more impressive to me than the restoration of New York's Central Park. When I got to know Central Park in 1973, it was sliding into urban wasteland. Vandals had wrecked its buildings and defaced its statues. Every surface was covered in graffiti, even its rocks. Trails were overgrown with invasive shrubs, and the park's magnificent meadows had been trampled into dust bowls.

And, then, of course, there was crime. In 1981, police recorded 781 robberies in Central Park, but that was surely only a fraction of what took place there. Many victims did not bother to report crimes. Even the cops who patrolled the park did so only in the safety of two-officer cars.

If this is still your image of Central Park, then you owe it a visit. The 840-acre park, whose first section opened to the public in 1858, has been returned to its original beauty. People are using it in record numbers (there were 43 million visitors last year), but no longer abusing it. The trails are inviting and the grass is lush and green again. And as one who has walked across it recently, I can report it is as safe as any place in the city.

So how did this great turnaround happen? There were many factors, but the most important was that New York found a way of managing public spaces through shared responsibility. Founded in 1980, the Central Park Conservancy was the first nonprofit to take the lead in restoring and managing a major city-owned park. Since then, scores of similar organizations have sprung up around the country, from the Balboa Park Conservancy in San Diego to the Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta.

If you're thinking of starting a nonprofit like this in your city, I have good news. The founder of the Central Park Conservancy, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, recently published a memoir, "Saving Central Park," that will take you inside the Conservancy's amazing success. You'll learn Rogers' "three Ps": patience, passion, persistence. You'll discover the value of a vision. In her case, it was a desire to return the park to its 19th-century design. And you'll learn why a detailed plan of restoration is important for guiding staff and raising money. (It gave the Conservancy, Rogers explains, "the equivalent of a donor shopping list.")

These are valuable things to know if you're starting such a group. But I'd like to turn things around and ask what local-government officials could learn from the Central Park experience. If a group of citizens wanted to form a group to restore a park in your city, what should a smart mayor do?

The first thing is to recognize what nonprofits are good at and where they are weak. Their strengths are their focus, inventiveness and ability to raise money and muster volunteers.

And weaknesses? They're not good at managing public perceptions. At one point or another, it seems, the Central Park Conservancy angered nearly every group claiming an interest in the park, from birdwatchers to tennis players. And when it did, it was vulnerable to the "who appointed you?" charge. Lesson: A smart mayor will coach nonprofits on politics and occasionally bail them out of controversies.

Not surprisingly, in the case of Central Park's renaissance one group with a high level of suspicion was city parks employees. Had the Central Park Conservancy not started when it did, as the city was still on the edge of bankruptcy, it is hard to imagine that the parks department would have ever welcomed the nonprofit's help. Lesson: A smart mayor will spend time counseling city employees on the value of strong outside partners, because all they will see at first are threats.

Finally, a smart mayor will be patient because strong nonprofits aren't born that way. They become strong over time, as they accomplish things, learn from their mistakes, recruit a strong board and staff, and find their vision and voice.

So a smart mayor will give a fledgling conservancy some space to grow. The Central Park Conservancy worked for 17 years with nothing more than a handshake agreement with three mayors. Only in 1997 did the city feel confident enough to turn the keys of the park over to its staff. Today, every worker in Central Park, including city employees and Conservancy staff, reports to the Central Park administrator, who happens to be the president of the Conservancy. (Important to note: The Conservancy also supplies three-quarters of the park's budget.)

That level of competence, public trust and institutional strength isn't built overnight. And a smart mayor doesn't just give power away. But when she finds the right partners, she'll trade power for results.