The Effective Management Our Urban Parks Need

They're a crucial piece of our infrastructure, but they can't take care of themselves.
May 9, 2017
By Douglas Blonsky  |  Contributor
President and CEO of the Central Park Conservancy

Increasingly, Americans are coming to understand that their local parks serve as hard-working urban infrastructure. But it's less well understood that parks need capital investment and effective management to deliver benefits to our communities.

Those benefits are considerable. Urban parks provide green and open space for children to play, for families to gather and celebrate, for people to exercise and socialize, and for students to learn. These oases of nature make our cities healthier and safer: Their trees offer cooling respite from the urban heat island effect, and by absorbing stormwater they mitigate flooding and improve water quality. Parks also generate economic benefits by increasing sales- and property-tax revenues, boosting tourism and creating jobs. Like transportation, energy, communications, water and waste management, parks enable other sectors to grow and thrive.

But like other forms of infrastructure, our parks require long-term maintenance. These assets don't take care of themselves; they require consistent upkeep, a host of management systems and technical know-how.

We know all about this at the Central Park Conservancy. For the last 36 years we've been focused on breaking the cycle of decline that plagued Manhattan's magnificent landmark for its first 125 years. At its lowest point, during New York City's fiscal crisis in the 1970s, Central Park was a world-famous failure. Crime was at an all-time high, graffiti covered every surface, buildings were barricaded, and the park's benches and lights were broken.

When the Central Park Conservancy was formed in 1980, we focused on safety first -- making sure lights worked so people would come into the park and that benches were repaired so people would stay -- before moving on to larger-scale landscape and restoration projects like Sheep Meadow and Cherry Hill Fountain. We built a strong partnership with the city, leveraged contributions from the private sector and trained a small army of volunteers to support horticultural care and visitor services. As a result, Central Park is now more beautiful and beloved than ever, supporting more than 42 million visits annually and generating around $1.4 billion in annual economic activity for the city.

This comeback story isn't unique to Central Park, though. Many other urban parks are realizing similar results. Some have replicated our management model, which we have shared widely with parks across the nation and around the world. In 2002, for example, we advised the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, recommending a public-private partnership that would leverage complementary assets and expertise from the conservancy, the city and Erie County. Forest Park in St. Louis, another park we've advised, won the USA Today Reader's Choice 2016 award, a testament to its public engagement prowess, among other park management skills.

There is much variation among public-private-park partnerships, or P4s as we like to call them. Each builds governance, funding and operations plans in response to its particular context, while land ownership and regulation remain with the public agency. Everybody benefits, which explains why P4s are on the rise. They are better able to deliver management expertise, additional funding to supplement lacking public dollars, and consistent oversight that does not shift with each election cycle.

Urban park success stories have one important thing in common: They've prioritized sound management. Park design and restorations are critically important, but without management, even well-designed or well-constructed parks can become derelict havens that deplete a city's limited resources. Negative park use leads to crime, families move away, tax revenues suffer, communities become divided and landscapes decline. Well-managed parks have the opposite effect.

Infrastructure is an issue that unites lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. We can all agree on the urgent need to invest in transportation, sanitation, communications and other systems essential to modern life. As more people move to urban centers, parks are no longer seen as "nice-to-have" amenities but as "need-to-have" infrastructure that supports our social, economic and ecological health.