NY Daily News Op-Ed: Return all New York City Parks to the People

The answer is to abolish private park corporations

(and, yes, that’s what they are – private corporations)

HSBC Bank-sponsored Reading Room at Bryant Park

The New York Daily News this past week ran an Op-Ed by professor/author Kevin Loughran on private conservancies and Business Improvement Districts which have over the years been charged with overseeing too many of our public parks. Loughran makes a compelling argument for abolishing these private entities. Loughran recently released a timely and thought-provoking book, Parks for Profit: Selling Nature in the City.

An excerpt of Loughran’s Daily News opinion piece:

Return all New York City parks to the people

As we shake off the remnants of winter and the latest COVID variant, New Yorkers will be spending a lot of time in parks in the coming days and weeks. As people come back to the city’s basketball courts, playgrounds and walking trails, it’s worth asking: Who controls the parks?

Increasingly, the answer is not the public, but private park corporations like the Friends of the High Line and the Central Park Conservancy. These groups have successfully convinced many people that they are necessary ­ that they are here to conserve the parks, and to provide the kind of upkeep that the city government cannot or will not provide.

But do we really need these private groups funded with private dollars to manage our public parks?

The idea that public parks should be of and run by the people seems self-evident. Since the creation of picturesque spaces like Central Park in the 19th century, urban parks have been tightly linked to ideas about democracy, nature and the common good. Like many American ideals, the ideal of inclusive, egalitarian parks has long fallen short of a racially segregated, unequal reality. The grand parks of the 19th century were, like the High Line, built with wealthy and predominantly white visitors in mind, and similar hopes for real estate gains and cultural prestige.

While park reforms associated with the progressive movement and the New Deal offered a more populist vision, the 1980s and 90s witnessed the creeping privatization of urban parks: first, with groups like the Central Park Conservancy assuming stewardship of prestigious parks in response to public-sector retrenchment, and later, with Business Improvement Districts using parks to stimulate tourism and commerce. Today, private control of public spaces is normalized, expected, and often celebrated. …

But interesting new parks do not need to be controlled by private groups, even if it has been the efforts of groups like the Friends of the High Line that spurred public interest and public action. In past eras of park development, private groups were also central. The history of urban parks supported “from below” is a story of community and social-movement groups organizing for change, from Progressive-era reformers advocating for “small parks” in the early 1900s to civil rights groups desegregating urban parks in the 1950s and 60s.

A key difference between then and now is that the leaders of Hull House and the Urban League were not trying to become the new authorities of the parks they were advocating for. These groups fought for equitable access, but they never demanded management power. Wanting to improve local park conditions, or having a creative idea for a new green space are goals that do not need to conclude with the private management of public spaces.

The answer is to abolish private park corporations

The channeling of millions of dollars in private resources to chosen public spaces creates a two-tiered system in which private endowments stabilize and therefore normalize the retrenchment of public monies for park development and maintenance. Private groups also have the power to enact park rules, rent out spaces for private events, and send signals about “who” is welcome in privatized public spaces, raising further concerns about how they foster and further racial and class inequality. Because these groups are the clearest beneficiaries of urban parks’ soft-focus aura of nature, they often escape sustained criticism. With names like the Quaker-tinged “Friends” aiding their presentations of corporate self, private park groups can claim, credibly, that they are working for the greater good.

Some politicians and advocates are starting to call on private park groups to redistribute their wealth to parks across the city. Mayor Adams ran on a promise to fund parks at 1% of the city’s budget in hopes of combating these disparities. But redistribution isn’t enough. Despite what deep-pocketed philanthropists might think, public institutions must remain in charge of public spaces.

No matter how racist or corrupt their histories may be, organizations like the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation ultimately must answer to the public that they serve. The Friends of the High Line and the Central Park Conservancy answer to their own masters.

Loughran is an assistant professor of sociology at Temple University and the author of ”Parks for Profit: Selling Nature in the City.”

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