Private funding is pouring into parks lately, and not everyone is happy about it. Regardless, cities are putting together creative projects with massive backing from wealthy donors, and it’s not all happening where you might expect.
Every city, it seems, wants to launch the next High Line. The abandoned-railway-turned-park in Manhattan is the poster child for private funding developing urban green space, and giving a shot of vitality to surrounding neighborhoods. Projects like that one are sprouting up all over the country, whether by nonprofit conservancy or public-private partnership.
Parks philanthropy seems to be surging at the intersection of a few trends. For one thing, you’ve got the overall concentration of wealth and concomitant rise in philanthropy nationally. Then there’s the fact that many city and state budgets have suffered following the economic crash, and parks aren't a top priority. But there’s also what one urbanist has termed the Great Inversion, in which the middle- and upper-classes are flocking to city centers, who miss those nice parks left behind in the ‘burbs. As for urban areas still struggling to lure people back, parks and bike paths are seen as the kinds of amenities that attract educated professionals to put down stakes. . .
. . . But many view the trend as a threat to the public good.
For example, Reuters columnist Felix Salmon blasted gifts like John Paulson’s $100 million to Central Park, pointing out that he’s essentially getting a huge tax benefit by putting funds into the wealthy neighborhood in which he lives.
There’s also the issue of equitable access. Most of these large grants go toward one park, often in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods, and not the entire park system, which would benefit rich and poor neighborhoods alike. Margaret Walls of Resources for the Future points out in her research a number of downsides to outsized philanthropy in parks, including the fact that when private funding steps in, public funding tends to shrink. And that private funding is very rarely enough to ensure sustainable, year-to-year operations and upkeep. . . .