Parks for the People, Not for the Privileged! What de Blasio Means for Parks Philanthropy

The massive public-private partnership of the High Line is one of Mike Bloomberg’s signature achievements. His successor has yet to even visit the park, turning instead to neglected neighborhood green spaces. Are the days of glittering, privately funded parks projects over in New York?

That question is worth asking at a moment when big-time parks philanthropy has been spreading outward from New York across the country, with major projects underway in places like Philly, Cleveland, and Tulsaall made possible with large infusions of private capital. 

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

Just a week after the New York Times reported that Bill de Blasio is not one of the millions of people who have visited Manhattan’s beloved High Line, the mayor made it clear that his concerns lie with lesser known parks. He earmarked $130 million in city funding to upgrade 35 small, neglected parks in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.

It seems the new mayor is just not a High Line kind of guy.

While the reclaimed rail line has been a much-heralded success both in popularity and design, it is also the poster child for what The New Yorker’s Alexandra Lange called “Bloombergian, Manhattan-centric mega-projects.” It was the product of significant city funding, but also huge injections of private wealth, including millions of Bloomberg’s own money. The former mayor was a champion of the project all the way. It’s become a model (along with its ancestor, the Central Park Conservancy) of the potential of huge private philanthropy in city parks.

But for many, it's also come to represent the gentrification and financial inequality in the city that has been de Blasio's signature issue. As a candidate, he endorsed a plan that would force wealthy conservancies to give a portion of their budgets to parks in poorer neighborhoods. 

His plan to rejuvenate neglected parks ended up not playing that card, however, instead just amping up the city parks budget by $50 million more than what Bloomberg proposed in his final budget. De Blasio backed off of his support for legislation that suggested sharing the wealth from the larger conservancies, but still called the bill “productive.” And the Times reported that City Hall was still talking with conservancies about a role they might play in finding funding for neglected parks in poorer parts of town.

While it’s unlikely that large donations to parks conservancies will up and disappear under a mayor who’s decidedly less interested in big, glamorous projects, it will likely have an impact. After all, funding for the High Line wouldn’t have done any good without Bloomberg championing it as a mayor (and as a rich guy). And privately funded parks projects can’t exist without officials looking to wheel and deal and commit public funds. 

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

What might be around the corner for New York's parks is dependent upon whether de Blasio can find a way to successfully channel the existing private enthusiasm for the city’s fanciest parks toward the small neighborhood projects. And doing so without pissing off the wealthy conservancies and the huge donors that fuel them.

We've written quite a bit about how private funding of public parks is here to stay, but that it needs to find a responsible role. Figuring that out would be a coup in parks philanthropy, even more influential than the High Line.

A lot of other cities will be watching. After all, the gentrification downsides of urban revitalization is not an issue that just New York is struggling with.