Should Cities Create Affordable Park Programs?

Lush, privately funded parks attract plenty of tourists. But who pays for the upkeep of basic neighborhood green spaces?

Pier55, the floating park planned for New York’s Hudson River and bankrolled by billionaires Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, has already attracted some controversy since the plans were announced two weeks ago. David Callahan of the news site Inside Philanthropy took to the pages of the New York Times opinion section to dig into what the generosity of private donations for public spaces really means in New York City, and for that matter, the larger implications of privately funded public space in any city.


Diller and von Furstenberg, the largest donors to the High Line, are part of a new class of wealthy philanthropists pouring money into park developments and privately funded conservancies that shape city-owned space like Central Park or the Hudson River Park. This has, on the one hand, resulted in world-class park spaces that have become a model for other cities.

The trouble, Callahan argues, is that these luxurious parks, funded by extensive private donations and built by some of the most visionary designers around, don’t really serve the needs of the whole city. Envisioned and implemented by the interests of the very wealthy, these public spaces tend to reflect the needs and desires of that population, rather than the general population of the city, most of whom can’t afford to live in a High Line-adjacent condo anyway.

One result of this influx of funds into putatively public parks is that the city’s more affluent sections have nicer open spaces and playgrounds. Central Park is now a gleaming jewel thanks to $700 million in private investments, and two years ago a hedge fund manager–who lives in a mansion steps from the park–gave $100 million to shine it further. Private money now covers 75 percent of the park’s annual operating budget.

Meanwhile, many parks, starved of funds, have fallen into disrepair. This fall Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to spend $130 million to upgrade 35 parks in poor neighborhoods–the same amount Mr. Diller and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, pledged for the new 2.7-acre park.

This isn’t just a New York City issue–private-public partnerships and extensive private donations for parks happen everywhere, from Philadelphia to Chicago. Callahan goes on to argue that just as private real estate developers are required to participate in affordable housing schemes in New York, private park moguls should have to chip in for park infrastructure in the city’s less swank neighborhoods:


As for ensuring that all New Yorkers have equal access to good public parks, we should require private parks conservancies to chip in to rehabilitate parks in low-income parts of the city, just as developers are expected to help finance affordable housing. If we want even the semblance of equity in civic spaces, new ways must be found to pay for it.

A similar idea has been put forth before, last year, by Democratic state senator Daniel Squadron, who suggested that parks with wealthy conservancies partner with less well-heeled public parks in the city to share assets. A rehabilitated park in the Bronx or central Brooklyn will never attract the kind of tourism and attention that the High Line does, but sans fancy performance spaces and crowded footpaths, they provide services badly needed by the parts of the city population with no house in the Hamptons or Hudson Valley getaway. A place to host a gathering of more than the few people who can fit in most urban apartments. A place to go for a run. A little bit of healthy green space in the concrete jungle. As long as we’re throwing around billions of dollars for private island parks, it’d be nice if the rest of the city could get a new patch of grass, too.

[h/t: the New York Times]


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut