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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Privatizing Central Park?

Air Date: Week of February 20, 1998

New York's Central Park, is at the center of a debate about the future of public spaces. A newly signed agreement places management of Central Park in the hands of a private group, The Central Park Conservancy. Over the past decade, this non-profit organization has filled huge funding gaps in the city's budget and restored Central Park. But some worry that the private funding model which has worked so well in the heart of Manhattan could spell failure in other places. From member station WNYC in New York, Amy Eddings reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Perhaps the best known landscape architect ever here in the United States was Frederick Law Olmstead. More than 100 years ago Olmstead designed public park systems as places for recreation and education. They were vital centerpieces to provide peaceful outlets for the pressures of city living. Now, New York's Central Park, Olmstead's most famous project, is at the center of a debate about the future of public spaces. A newly-signed agreement places management of Central Park in the hands of a private group: the Central Park Conservancy. Over the past decade, this nonprofit organization has filled huge funding gaps in the city's budget and restored Central Park. But some worry that the private funding model, which has worked so well in the heart in Manhattan, could spell failure in other places. From member station WNYC in New York, Amy Eddings reports.

(Bird song, running footfalls)

EDDINGS: Central Park's temperature is used as the city's standard, and today it's 28 degrees. The sky is lead gray, the trees bare. The only sounds are sparrows and the rustle and patter of joggers. At Bethesda Terrace, the architectural heart of Central Park, the huge fountain is empty. Even without the spray of water, the angel figure topping the fountain is a commanding presence, part of the beauty that attracts 20 million visitors to Central Park each year. Karen Putnam, president of the Central Park Conservancy, says the park wasn't always such a draw.

PUTNAM: It was a wasteland that totally deteriorated. And when you look at it now and you see the beautiful green lawns stretching out, you would see yards and yards of dust. It was grim and it was desolate, and where we're standing now, right here, Bethesda Terrace, was vandalized and graffitied.

EDDINGS: In 1980 the Central Park Conservancy stepped in to save the city's crown jewel. It turned to the affluent neighborhoods ringing the park and raised $180 million for capital projects like the restoration of Bethesda Terrace. Today, it currently raises two thirds of the park's $15 million budget. Under the new deal, the Conservancy will manage the day to day operations as well. The amount of city funding for Central Park will depend on how much private money the Conservancy raises. Generally, the deal has been well-received, but some worry about the privatization of a public park. Karen Putnam says that's not what's happened.

PUTNAM: That's a word that is used, and it's not used accurately in this case, because we have a contract to take care of the park. All authority, all policy authority rests with the Parks Department. It always has, and it always will, and it always should, because it is the greatest public space in the country.

(Bird song and jogging continues; fade to traffic noise)

EDDINGS: Across town, sandwiched between the East River and a highway, another once great public space is empty and decaying. Marcia Reiss, Deputy Director of the Parks Council, walks beside the chain-linked fence that circles the decrepit amphitheater in East River Park.

REISS: Duke Ellington played here. Eleanor Roosevelt stood on those steps with Mayor Wagner in the 1950s, opening a concert for the neighborhood. It was fabulous. It's pretty much been shut down and abandoned for decades.

EDDINGS: There's no roof on the amphitheater. The sandstone facade is crumbling, and what's left is covered with graffiti. Ms. Reese applauds what the Conservancy has done for Central Park, but says the same fundraising model won't work for parks in poorer communities like this one.

REISS: People see one park in great shape and parks like this in poor condition, and they wonder why is there this terrible disparity? And the problem is that the Parks Department is not being given enough money to take care of all parks. And I think the Parks Department needs to get some new strategies to help parks in poor neighborhoods. A strategy that goes beyond an affluent community making a contribution of dollars.

EDDINGS: To restore some equity, the city could match the value of volunteer hours donated to East River Park the same way it matches cash contributions to Central Park. But Ms. Reiss quickly adds that volunteers can't conduct the large, expensive restorations that so many parks require. Only city money can do that. So, she's asking the mayor to increase his 1999 parks budget by $17 million. But according to the Trust for Public Land, a national open space advocacy group, many Americans no longer expect such demands to succeed. The trust says he trend is toward more innovative financing. For example, Boston's Norman Leventhal Park is financed by a company that owns a parking garage underneath it. In Manhattan, a group financed by a business improvement district restored and manages Bryant Park. Karen Putnam of the Central Park Conservancy knows these plans are controversial, but says they're worth a try.

PUTNAM: Do you just sit back and watch everything slide down the tubes and say isn't that grim and awful? Or, do you disagree with it heartily and say it's not appropriate and then, that public funds should be used for public spaces, and then get out and do something about it?

EDDINGS: Critics warn that private contributions could displace public ones, leaving parks even more vulnerable during economic downturns. Trust for Public Land says it's too soon to tell if that's a real danger and expects park innovators will be watching the Central Park experiment for lessons they can use. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Eddings in New York.

 

 

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