INTERVIEW: Catherine Nagel on Viewing the City from the Grass Up

Since 2004, Catherine Nagel has served as executive director of City Parks Alliance and launched a number of programs to help fund and maintain urban parks across the country. Here, she talks about the major issues, trends and developments in the urban park movement today.

New York’s Bryant Park. Credit: Dan DeLuca on Flickr

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This interview is one in a series leading up to the Greater & Greener International Urban Parks Conference in July. Content is sponsored by City Parks Alliance.

When we picture a city, the skyline usually comes to mind. For Catherine Nagel, the view begins from the grass up.

Since 2004, Nagel has served as executive director of City Parks Alliance, the only independent, nationwide membership organization in the U.S. solely dedicated to promoting an urban parks agenda. During her tenure, she has launched a national advocacy campaign to increase public and private funding for urban parks, developed community capacity building programming for city park agencies and their non-profit partners, and facilitated the Red Fields to Green Fields project, a national effort with more than 100 partners devoted to converting distressed commercial real estate into productive urban green space.

Here, Nagel talks about the major issues, trends and developments in the urban park movement today, and how that will be on display at the Greater & Greener conference in New York this summer.

Next American City: Well, let’s get right into it — funding and sustaining parks. That’s the most vexing issue today, is it not, and a key conference focus?

Catherine Nagel

Catherine Nagel: Funding is clearly one of the greatest challenges facing city parks today. Public monies at all levels are drying up, and we’ve yet to fully understand how parks are going to be funded and maintained in the future. The conference is going to be an opportunity to look at some of the newest models of funding and understand how they’re working at the local level, helping cities find sources of revenue for urban parks of all types and sizes. You have to build coalitions of unlikely partners to get parks built, restored and maintained.

NAC: One of the most discussed new funding models is the public-private partnership model.

Nagel: Public-private partnerships have emerged in the last few decades to support parks as public dollars have decreased. They are becoming increasingly sophisticated, some taking on comprehensive management and operations in addition to fundraising. And they bring not only much-needed financial resources, but can also enhance public programs, strengthen relationships with community institutions and inspire community engagement. But there is no single public-private partnership model that works in every community. And so city leaders are looking at examples from places like New York City that have tested these partnerships and learned from them to understand how to adopt models suitable for their local needs and communities. They are also looking at how the model can be refined with equity in mind. At the end of the day, though, parks are part of the public realm and will always need public funding.

NAC: So how do we ensure public investment in parks?

Nagel: Well, we first need effective advocacy to ensure that public dollars remain dedicated to parks. We do that by making a stronger case for parks to be recognized as part of our urban infrastructure, linking them to water, transportation, health, housing and economic development through design and policy. An interesting example is how Philadelphia, to comply with federal law, is using a storm water fee credit program for commercial properties that install water-absorbing features, like parks, rain gardens and wetlands. Washington, D.C., is looking at similar credits. Some cities and states have “exaction” programs that require housing developers to set aside land or money for public parks near the developments. In some cases the results have been impressive. In others, not so.

But we also need to do a better job of measuring and documenting the economic value that parks create. Because we know that parks, if well maintained, will increase the value of local real estate by 5 percent to 20 percent — and yet that value does not go back into the adjacent park.

NAC: So how would you capture that?

Nagel: Perhaps a transactional fee. Every time a property is sold, a little fee is tacked on that goes into the park. And there are some parks that are funded through special taxing districts. For example, Bryant Park in New York City is funded through a not-for-profit management company and cooperating business improvement district of neighboring property owners.

As more and more people live in cities, the demand for public amenities grows, yet public budgets are shrinking. So we need to find alternative sources of funding. As a result, cities are thinking as innovatively as possible. We see the creation of new “park friends” groups, and conservancies, and non-profit partnerships that are tasked with finding funding from more philanthropic sources. We see parks organizations taking advantage of public funding outside of the parks field — more agencies are looking at non-traditional federal funding, thinking more entrepreneurially, for example raising money through on-site restaurants. Corporate sponsorships are becoming more common. In some communities there’s been an increase in the fees charged for special park programs and certain recreational activities. These are all approaches being discussed in many cities, some of which have a higher tolerance for these new funding strategies than others.

The challenge — and the opportunity — is there is no single answer, no single magic bullet to funding a park system. A system is made up of so many different park components in varying shapes and sizes running through many different kinds of neighborhoods. Some are simple squares. But others may be linear greenways or green necklaces that touch multiple districts. They all benefit from collaborative support from local stakeholder groups and institutions.

NAC: Let’s talk about the real estate model. The new Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City is spectacular — this summer’s conference will host several events there — but it has not been without some debate for using some of the redeveloped space for housing. Is that a good thing?

Rendering of one portion of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Credit: Design Trust for Public Space

Nagel: The mandate from the state [regarding the use of the reclaimed old shipping pier space on the East River] was that the park had to be financially self-sufficient. So the city determined the income from adjacent real estate would be used to cover park maintenance. There was concern from some members of the larger community about the perceived privatization of public property. But in fact, it’s important for a park to have people close by who are actually using the park, all the time, to keep the park safe. And that park site didn’t have any closer residential development, so this was a way of ensuring constant activity around the park, and keeping it safe. And it is open to the general public and has become wildly successful.

NAC: Playing devil’s advocate, considering all the cost attached to building and maintaining parks, given all our other public and urban needs, why is this so important?

Nagel: With the urbanization of our planet, people living in these dense environments — this is kind of obvious — need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink. Their children need places to play. We have the research now. All the new health studies about open space have been significantly helpful. There is growing recognition that proximity to parks has a direct impact on how healthy a community and its residents are. Numerous studies show that children who are close to a safe park are more likely to exercise, that if you have green space it creates a safer environment that reduces stress for an urban community. Grass and trees help clean the air. Cleaner air benefits people who suffer from asthma. A study done by the University of Pennsylvania recently looked at [once] vacant lots that were cleaned and greened — and it showed there was a decrease in levels of crime after those [clean-up] activities had taken place in those neighborhoods. And of course we know that cities are in a global competition for workers and investment. Parks should be part of economic development strategies. Mayors today are looking at a “triple bottom line” and investment in parks gives a city multiple returns.

NAC: You mentioned the growing trend of various government agencies with different agendas working more closely together. How does that happen? Any tricks of the trade in fostering that cooperation?

Nagel: One thing is for people to simply understand that every agency has its own specific mission, which may be somewhat narrowly defined. So it might be that someone working for, say, a transportation department, sees his or her job as managing traffic flow rather than looking at the intersection of traffic and green space, or how that relates to storm water management. But the most innovative cities have agencies working collaboratively to tackle issues in a more holistic way. Policy incentives can be provided for departments to work together. But sometimes the incentive simply comes from the mayor’s office — in the form of “Work together!”

NAC: What do you most worry about regarding the future of our cities?

Nagel: I don’t think we are fully comprehending the severity of water issues in our cities. I don’t think we’re understanding the impact of growing urbanization, and fossil fuel energy constraints. And I don’t think we’re comprehending what it means to have a whole generation with high levels of obesity — in part due to lack of access to places to walk and play — and the effect that will have on the future of our country. The upside is that urban parks can be part of the solution to all these urgent problems.

NAC: What makes you most optimistic?

Nagel: When I see how parks and open space can become new tools for community engagement, bringing together the public and private sector to address a variety of urban issues. Pittsburgh was once one of the dirtiest cities in the country, for example, and it has totally reinvented itself as one of the greenest cities and is now considered to have one of the highest qualities of life in the U.S. because they have invested in green space. As a result they have been able to attract new investment and thrive.

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Tags: new york cityparksbuilt environmentpublic-private partnerships

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