Setting the Record Straight on Conservancies

Monday, September 16, 2013

Recent large gifts to the Central Park Conservancy and Friends of the High Line have fueled a misperception that such nonprofits breed inequity in the parks system as a whole. With a City Council oversight hearing on park conservancies scheduled for Sept. 17, it's time to set the record straight.

There's no doubt that conditions vary from park to park across the five boroughs. But New Yorkers for Parks' extensive citywide research on public-private partnerships and park maintenance makes clear that singling out conservancies as the source of the problem misses the mark.

One proposal that has garnered attention calls for appropriating money from the city's most successful conservancies to bankroll a citywide fund for underserved parks. Before rushing to eradicate park inequity on the backs of a handful of conservancies, it's important to better understand these organizations.

Most conservancies in New York City have modest revenues and struggle to keep their parks at a standard of care that New Yorkers rightly expect. Redirecting a percentage of their operating budgets toward a citywide fund would result in debilitating cuts to these parks' maintenance staffs and programming.

What's more, the sum total of funds from such a tithe would not actually generate enough money to make meaningful improvements in other parks.

This isn't to say successful conservancies have no part to play in helping underserved parks. A more appropriate role would be sharing their expertise and staff with other parks, as the Central Park Conservancy does now under its contract.

But parks inequity can't be solved by the private sector alone. If the next mayor is serious about serving the entire park system equitably, he must focus first on how public resources are allocated across the city's 1,700 parks. An adequately funded, full-time maintenance and enforcement staff for every park is essential, and capital spending should target those parks most in need.

City Hall should continue to support the efforts of conservancies across the city while requiring transparency and accountability to ensure that private funds augment public dollars rather than displace them.

It's great news that New York's philanthropic community views parks—and the public realm in general—as a worthy cultural cause. Exploring ways to bring private funds into the city's neediest parks is a noble endeavor. But the goal should be to broaden parks' overall donor base, not cannibalize contributions to existing conservancies and potentially chill future gifts to them.

Diverting donations would cripple the very conservancies that have transformed some of the world's most heavily used parks from dust bowls to gems, without actually solving the problem of disparate park conditions.

The above Op-Ed was published in the September 23, 2013 edition of Crain's New York Business and is available on the Crain's website.

See all news