Should Private Donors Have To Pay For Poor Parks?

Benjamin Soskis explores an escalating debate:

[New York state senator Daniel Squadron’s bill proposed this summer] targeted the city’s best-endowed park conservancies, the private nonprofit organizations formed to manage and raise funds for public parks. Those with operating budgets greater than five million dollars—the Central Park Conservancy (fifty-eight million dollars) and the Prospect Park Alliance (nine million dollars) were in his sights—would be required to donate twenty per cent of their budgets to a Neighborhood Parks Alliance, which would redistribute the money to the city’s underfunded parks. … [S]ome within the philanthropic community worried that de Blasio’s support for Squadron’s bill would have a “chilling” effect on major benefactions. It represented a dire threat to the voluntarist premises of American philanthropy: the idea that donors can do whatever they wish with their money, and that this freedom is precisely what makes philanthropy so vital to American democracy. …

Others grew concerned that the private funding of certain flagship parks would sanction the erosion of public stewardship, leading to a two-tiered system in which certain green spaces flourish while the majority of the city’s nearly two thousand parks languish. These concerns were roused again last year, when the hedge-fund manager John Paulson pledged a hundred million dollars to the Central Park Conservancy—the largest-ever gift to a public park. Paulson often ran or biked in the Park (which his Fifth Avenue apartment overlooks) and said that he wanted to make sure it would be preserved as an “urban oasis.” His gift won its share of plaudits, but it also provided an exceptionally large target for those who sought to highlight the associations between philanthropy and inequality.

Last spring, Alex Ulam reported at length on the role of philanthropy and its discontents:

In extreme cases, some city parks can become privatized to the point where the public is shut out for most the year.

Damrosch Park, for example, a New York City park run by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, is closed off for seven to ten months every year for private events, such as Big Apple Circus and New York City’s Fashion Week. In addition to being regularly closed to the public, Damrosch Park has had 57 trees cut down and its distinctive granite benches removed to accommodate such events, which help raise money for Lincoln Center. Park closings have also had a significant impact on the public experience in other cities. In Chicago, the Lollapalooza Festival takes over Grant Park during summer every year, and although the festival only lasts a few days, it often results in damage and extended delays to reopening sections of the park. One factor driving the increasing privatization of new state-of-the-art parks is their stratospheric maintenance costs. The pressure to pay for the upkeep of the High Line, which is considered to have the highest per-square foot maintenance costs in the city, has forced the Friends of the High Line into taking positions supporting commercial developments that create the very types of conditions that public space is supposed to mitigate. …

According to [director of New Yorkers for Parks Holly] Leicht, high-profile gifts such as Paulson’s have prompted discussion in New York City between park advocacy groups and city officials about putting donors on notice that in the future, a certain percentage of their gifts will be have to be allocated to a fund that would provide aid to less affluent areas. “It raises the question: Are parks somehow inherently different than other cultural institutions?” Leicht says. “I would argue that as public space they are, and that this probably is a model that should be piloted and tested. And let’s see if donors are truly frozen in their actions.”