Posted by Anthony Deen

In Mayor Bloomberg’s NYC 2030 Plan, a goal is set of having a park within ten minutes walking distance of every New Yorker. In tough economic times creating new parks, let alone maintaining existing parks, is a serious challenge.

In Manhattan a dedicated private conservancy manages almost every public park, and it’s not just the small ones like Madison Square, Union Square or Bryant Park. It’s a little known statistic that 85% of Central Park’s annual $46 million operating budget comes from private sources through the Central Park Conservancy. 90% of the employees who work in Central Park are CPC employees. Private funding covers 100% of the annual maintenance budgets for both the Hudson River and the High Line parks.

In the case of Central Park this is an extremely effective methodology. Over the thirty plus years that the CPC has existed, the park has blossomed and become an ever-improving resource for the City, its residents and visitors. In 1998 the Conservancy took over complete management of the park, using a model similar to that that had rescued Bryant Square Park two decades earlier. Today approximately ninety-five percent of the people working full-time to care for and maintain Central Park are private employees of the CPC. These employees are made up of dedicated horticulturalists, gardeners and other appropriately trained professionals. Additional responsibilities (such as waste management) are divided between the Conservancy, the Parks Department and the Department of Sanitation.

In our area we have several parks, large and small, including but not limited to Thomas Greene Playground, Carroll Park, Cobble Hill Park, Fort Greene Park, The Red Nook Ball Fields, Brooklyn Bridge Park and of course Prospect Park. Each has a dedicated conservancy supporting it in some manner, although all of these parks are still primarily maintained by the City’s Parks Department.

The expansion of the newest of these, Brooklyn Bridge Park, is financed by a form of private funding that integrates local real estate development. One of the challenges facing both Central Park and the High Line Park is that they must raise annual operating capital on their own. In both cases, and most especially in the case of the High Line Park, a very convincing argument can be made that the real estate developers in particular receive a great benefit by being adjacent to such urban amenities, but in each case the real estate owners and residents directly adjacent to these parks are not in any way responsible for any portion of the park budgets. Learning from these examples, BBP is tapping local developers directly in the form of an annual fee to fund expansion and maintenance costs. For better or worse, development of BBP is tied to the success or failure of the adjacent real estate developments and their specific business models (rental, condominium and hotel).

In the case of smaller parks such as Thomas Greene, while technically managed by Friends of Thomas Greene Park, they face a host of distinct challenges. Not the least of which include being between an industrial area and a financially distressed community; adjacent to an extremely polluted canal; and on top of a former manufactured gas plant that is still highly contaminated. Fundraising and building coherent support under such conditions is extremely difficult. These challenges all factored into Gowanus by Design choosing Thomas Greene as the site for our 2012 design competition.

The Gowanus Canal itself doesn’t yet have a park, with the exception of the small promenade south of the 9th Street Bridge that was built as a trade-off for the large Lowes Home Center parking lot, but it does have the Gowanus Canal Conservancy.

The Canal area is particularly challenged because it isn’t one continuous block of land, but rather is made up of a number of separate landowners. To address this challenge the Gowanus Canal Conservancy is endeavoring to develop green space adjacent to the canal using the City’s Green Streets program, bioswales, floating gardens, and it’s own concepts such as the dland studio-designed Sponge Park, and the newest iteration of the sponge park designed by KaN Landscape design, and partially funded by congressional rep, Nydia Velasquez, and the public design advocate DesignNYC.

GCC’s goals have received a boost in recent months with the highly successful launch of Hunts Point Landing, adjacent to the Bronx Terminal Market that uses a similar design approach and is part of the South Bronx Greenway Master Plan. This was an effort initiated by local community residents who strongly lobbied the City and State governments to develop a thorough feasibility study and ultimately to fund the design and construction of a series of adjacent green spaces.

Our community's effort to create new parks and maintain or improve current ones could benefit from a similar effort. Efforts such as Thomas Greene Park and a potential park adjacent to the Gowanus Canal can’t exist without our support, both in time and money. As a community we should explore more effective methods for funding and expanding these efforts, perhaps for example engaging some of the methods used by Central Park.

October 20th is "It's My Park" day across New York City and we can start by supporting a nearby park or playground; to do so contact one of the following organizations:

Friends of Thomas Greene Park
Friends of Carroll Park
Cobble Hill Association
Fort Greene Park Conservancy
Prospect Park Alliance
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Gowanus Canal Conservancy