Originally published in Cities Today.
Across the US, urban parks are enjoying a renaissance. Dozens of new parks are being built or restored and cities are being creative about how and where they are located. Space under highways, on old rail infrastructure, reclaimed industrial waterfronts or even landfills are all in play as development pressure on urban land grows along with outdoor recreation needs.
These innovative parks are helping cities face common challenges, from demographic shifts to global competitiveness to changing climate conditions. Mayors and other city officials are taking a fresh look at parks to improve overall community health and sense of place, strengthen local economies by attracting new investments and creating jobs, help manage stormwater run-off, improve air quality, and much more. When we think of city parks holistically, accounting for their full role in communities, they become some of the smartest investments we can make.
However, in many communities public funding for building and maintaining city parks is inadequate, leaving municipalities to look for innovative ways to ‘close the gap’ between current budgets and tomorrow’s potential.
No longer just ball fields and picnic tables, today’s parks are being designed to serve multiple purposes, which has spurred interesting collaborations between parks departments and other public agencies–a creative type of public-public funding model. In some locations, park agencies, water utilities and transportation departments that would typically compete for public dollars, are instead pooling their resources to leverage funding for greater impact. This partnership model is often effective in green infrastructure projects where millions in taxpayer dollars can be saved while addressing aging water systems. In Atlanta, for instance, The Historic Fourth Ward Park and Reservoir helped the Department of Watershed Management save US$16 million by opting for a stormwater-retention pond over grey infrastructure to mitigate flooding. In other communities, parks and schools or libraries are aligning goals and resources to solve challenges.
A wave of new downtown signature parks, from The High Line in New York City to Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, has been supported with civic investment from individuals and private foundations through public-private partnerships. These ‘spectacle’ parks are expensive to build, design, program and maintain. The philanthropic support for these projects has reached levels normally associated with other cultural institutions, such as museums. A riverfront park project in Tulsa received US$300 million from a private family foundation and Houston’s newest park developments have benefitted from the generosity of local donors. This private funding model may not be replicable everywhere, but there are lessons around community engagement and programming that cities of all sizes can leverage.
Park managers are also looking to concessions, marketing sponsorships, and other entrepreneurial activities to fund programs as well as maintenance. Post Office Square in Boston was built over an existing parking garage and nets most of its operating revenue from the parking fees below.
Other cities are figuring out how to capture the economic value that parks create. Business improvement districts, or BIDs, have traditionally relied on voluntary taxes from local commercial development to fund improvements in the nearby public realm. Some are now taking on the responsibility of managing parks as well. The best known is Bryant Park in New York, but Yards Park in southwest Washington, DC, four downtown parks in Philadelphia and Campus Martius in the center of Detroit, are all run by BIDs.
And finally, green financing is beginning to take hold in our cities in the form of green bonds and impact investing. While a relatively new approach to supporting the addition of green space in cities, performance-based financing models are gaining interest and should be watched closely, especially for green infrastructure projects.
Los Angeles and Minneapolis have recently pursued a more traditional model of park funding, where citizens have voted to tax themselves to improve parks and ensure that all urban residents have access to parks and recreation. Even with one of the best-funded city parks systems in the country, the people of Minneapolis passed a 20-year US$800 million property tax increase to maintain 160 neighborhood parks. Seattle created a separate taxing district for parks to avoid competition with other basic city services such as fire and police departments. It is clear that people recognize the value and are willing to pay for parks. Strong advocacy and engagement from the local communities made these moves possible and sustainable. We need more communities to do the same.
This is an exciting time for city parks and the innovative collaborations that are being tested. But there is no silver bullet. These new funding models must be used carefully and respond to local needs and context. The sustainability of funding must be considered for the basic maintenance and operations of the parks, from downtown to neighborhood parks. While a ribbon-cutting event may draw a crowd, it is the grass cutting and myriad other upkeep expenses, often not visible to the public, which is the long-term challenge.
To help address the funding needs of our members and others in the urban parks space, City Parks Alliance and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board published Closing the Gap: Public and Private Funding Strategies for Neighborhood Parks. This summer, our Greater & Greener 2017 conference in the Twin Cities will go even deeper with updated strategies in multiple sessions on sustainable funding models and examples of green finance.
We are in an era of collaborative governance and our urban landscapes are important testing grounds for parks and the broader conversations about funding for civic needs. These new collaborative models have been a blessing for city parks, but they are by no means simple. They face continuing challenges around a shared vision, leadership, control, transparency, communication, equity, and sustainability. But what these models do have going for them is that they are bringing new ideas and attention to how we can complement public funding with additional revenue sources to meet the needs of 21st-century cities and their residents.