A New Opportunity for City Parks As Private Donors Eye Public Space

Philanthropic donations to fund urban parks have never been greater, but many cities have yet to find ways to leverage private investment for public spaces.

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Last week, Central Park Conservancy announced that it received the largest gift to any public park ever, and one of the largest ever made to any New York City cultural institution. The donation came from hedge fund manager John A. Paulson, and his Paulson Family Foundation. It amounts to $100 million in support of Central Park.

Historically, urban parks have been low on the philanthropy chain, below such institutions as museums, performing arts centers, and opera and ballet companies. Now, Paulson leads a growing pack of major donors to parks. Joshua Rechnitz’s $40 million gift to Brooklyn Bridge Park in April had been the largest donation of its kind to date. In February, Kelcy Warren paid an estimated $10 million for naming rights of the former Woodall Rodgers Park in Dallas. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenburg gave $20 million in October of last year to New York’s High Line. In short, the flow of major, private philanthropic funds to city parks has never been greater.

Last summer, the Greater & Greener International Urban Parks Conference drew more than 900 people eager to learn creative ways to manage and fund parks. At the event, Mayor Michael Bloomberg boasted that New York has invested more than $3 billion in parks over the past five years, adding more than 700 acres of new parkland, fostering new public-private partnerships and nearing the goal of every New Yorker living within a 10-minute walk of a park.

But many cities have yet to find ways to leverage private investment for public spaces. The need remains great for some of this goodwill to find its way to parks in communities that have suffered the most from cuts in municipal, state and federal budgets.

For instance, another Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park — Boston’s Franklin Park, part of the 1,100-acre Emerald Necklace — has a thriving citizen support group, but still needs greater funding. Carroll Park, in a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, largely owes its revitalization to the tenacity of one local resident, but needs a more sustainable support base. Even Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, with their generous supporters, will need additional funding to cope with new threats such as climate change and rising sea levels, as Hurricane Sandy made devastatingly clear this week.

For some time now, research has shown that healthy, active and well-maintained urban parks help reduce stress, promote mental health, provide much-needed recreational opportunities, increase property values and raise tax revenues. Even modest contributions to a city park can have a huge ripple effect in the surrounding community.

Investment in these important community assets pays off. The more we can leverage both public and private support for urban parks, and spur new partnerships with community engagement, the healthier our cities will be.

Catherine Nagel is executive director of the City Parks Alliance.

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Catherine Nagel is the executive director of City Parks Alliance.

Tags: new york cityparkspublic spacearchitecturemichael bloombergpublic-private partnershipshigh line

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