The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

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. 

All that adds up to some of the largest private gifts in history going to city parks, and huge fundraising campaigns that nonprofit conservancies are running to revitalize open spaces. 

We may call this a “Golden Age,” and many of these philanthropic endeavors are leading to some incredible parks (we’ll get into some later). 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. 

Still, even with these concerns (and some others), it’s hard to imagine philanthropic giving to city parks will cease, or that it can't play a responsible role. So cities are faced with figuring out the appropriate function of private money, such that it is equitable and sustainable. Each of these projects cropping up will serve as something of an experiment. 

To get a grip on the bigger picture, we’ve pulled together a few places across the country where some remarkable public parks philanthropy is happening. 

New York City 

Unsurprisingly, New York has led the way, setting a high bar for successful philanthropic parks projects. The success of the Central Park Conservancy has been one driver of this trend, forming a model for other "Friends of" groups nationwide. Thanks in part to the huge gift from hedge fund guy Paulson, the conservancy has assets of more than $300 million, far more than any other such nonprofit out there. And while it launched to address disrepair in 1980, it’s gradually come to take over more of the park’s regular functions, now funding 75 percent of its operations.

Then there’s the High Line, the elevated park that has become a darling of the city. It’s publicly owned, but never would have come into existence without major private support. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg gave more than $35 million to the cause, and funders like the corporate foundation of Tiffany & Co. have also given big. As well, hedge funder Bill Ackman gave Friends of the Highline $2 million in 2011 and 2012. 

Related: Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation: Fundraising for Parks and Gardens

The city says the park has spurred $2 billion in investment in the surrounding area. The park does, however, have sky-high maintenance costs, and Friends of the High Line have worked out some controversial arrangements with private developers in the area to keep the funding flowing. (The Hudson River Park on the West Side of Manhattan is also under fire for selling rights for development to raise revenue.)

According to one study, there were 51 park-related nonprofits in New York City, even back in 2007. Other funding powerhouses include the Prospect Park Alliance in Brooklyn, which raised about $5 million from donors and foundations in 2012, and notable donor the Leon Levy Foundation giving as much as $10 million in one year.

RelatedLeon Levy Foundation: Fundraising for Parks and Gardens

Tulsa, Oklahoma

The kind of success seen in New York can hardly be replicated in most other cities, if only because of the staggering concentration of wealth there. But the unlikely city of Tulsa has recently proven otherwise. A collective of donors just handed over a $350 million park project called A Gathering Place to the city's parks authority, believed to be the largest private gift to a public park system in history. 

Related: The Backers Behind a $300M, Privately Funded Park in Tulsa

Led by the foundation of energy billionaire George Kaiser, the gift includes 58 acres of land, design and construction plans, and operating funds for a riverfront park that will include trails, lawns, a pond and boathouse, and play areas. The George Kaiser Family Foundation put $200 million into the project, and so far, other donors have committed $116 million out of a goal of $150 million in additional fundraising. Many major corporations, foundations, and wealthy individuals in Oklahoma are on board with the project, with three corporations alone giving a combined $38 million.

The transaction hands park ownership over to the Tulsa River Parks Authority, while forming a 100-year, self-perpetuating agreement that tasks a GKFF Parks Conservancy with long-term programming, operation, and maintenance. It’s as though donors and corporations built a Central Park Conservancy-like arrangement, not gradually over time, but all at once from scratch. A lot of scratch.

Houston, Texas

A similarly game-changing park is in the works in Houston, but this one looks to create an urban trail system along the city’s 10 major natural bayous. The estimated $215 million Bayou Greenways 2020 will establish a continuous system of 150 miles of parks and trails. Funding for the project is split between public and private support. A $166 million bond issue for public parks passed with 68 percent of the vote in 2012, with $100 million earmarked for the Greenways. 

The Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit conservancy in the city that was formed in 1976, will be responsible for raising an additional $115 million in private funds. The biggest donation so far for the project has come from the Kinder Foundation, of Nancy and Rich Kinder, the cofounder and CEO of Kinder Morgan. The couple donated $50 million to the Bayou project as part of its support for urban green space. The Houston Endowment, the Fondren Foundation, and the Brown Foundation have also made large donations, as have many individual donors. 

Related: Who’s Paying for Houston’s Bayou Greenways?

The project is part of a larger initiative for green space in the city, a $480 million plan to create 300 miles of continuous hiking and biking trails throughout the city. 

Indeed, the highlight of this project is that it’s so pervasive throughout Houston. Planners estimate six out of 10 Houston residents will live within a mile and a half of a trail or greenway. Another positive sign is the overwhelming support the project has from the city. Such a landslide in a public vote shows that this is a commitment Houston wants to make, regardless of the whims of wealthy donors. 

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These are just a few case studies parks philanthropy activities we're seeing right now. We've written about dozens of other active conservancies and ambitious projects, including in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta. There’s the Annenbergs’ funding in Los Angeles. The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and several Bay Area tech funders are putting millions into Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. 

Related: Annenberg Foundation: Fundraising for Parks and Gardens

One important sub-theme here is the growing investment in bike paths, which traverse city streets but also often connect up park systems. This trend reflects the same back-to-the-cities zeitgeist as the parks movement, but is also driven by funder desires to expand transportation options, reduce carbon emissions, and increase public health. 

Related: Who's Making Grants for a Bike-Friendly LA?

There are also the sadder cases of funders having to swoop in and save entire park systems with empty coffers or broken budgets, as in the case of the California state parks and individual systems in Michigan

Though there’s an overwhelming sentiment that urban green space is not a luxury, but a necessity, the tax dollars have yet to follow in many cases. Rounding up all of the funding from those sitting on the most wealth may not be the best route, but it’s clear that finding a workable arrangement will be a necessity for cities to have the vibrant parks residents clearly crave.